Archaeology Controversy in Bulgaria

For several months I have been interested in the archaeology of “Old Europe”, a Neolithic culture that flourished in what is now Bulgaria.  While following some links, I ran across an archeological controversy surrounding a positively recent period:

Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’

Bone fragments belonging to St. John the Baptist may have been discovered on St. John Island in the Black Sea. The tooth, jaw and arm bone fragments were contained within a sarcophagus inset in the altar of a monastery ruin. Further tests will be conducted to verify the origin of the fragments.

This is rather big news in the world of biblical archaeology. This world is still buzzing with the controversy over the “St. James Ossuary” from a few years back. In this incident, an ossuary (small stone box used for the internment of bones) turned up in Israel with the inscription “James, brother of Jesus” on it. The box itself was agreed to be a genuine Jewish ossuary from the 1st century c.e., but the inscription was challenged as a modern forgery. Two different sets of experts examined the inscription, one coming to the conclusion that it was absolutely genuine, the other that it was clearly a forgery. The owner of the ossuary was a prominent Israeli antiquities dealer, who had run into trouble before for suspected forgeries. His supporters claimed the Israeli Antiquities Authority was out to get him, and picked a -case to do it. Skeptics had plenty of evidence with which to question the provenance of the artifact.

Ah, the politics of archaeology in Israel! The Temple Mount construction, the “City of David” excavation, you can’t dig in your garden without it turning into a political or religious argument.

Meanwhile, historians on the sidelines quietly pointed out that “James” and “Jesus” (i.e. Joshua if you anglicize the Hebrew Yeshua without going through Greek first) were two of the most common men’s names of the period. So, even if genuine, it’s a bit like finding a tombstone from 19th Century Massachusetts with the inscription “John, son of John” and concluding it must be the grave of John Quincy Adams.

Anyway, this long digression is meant to give a little context for the current story. If an empty stone box that may or may not have once held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth’s brother (many Christian sects reject the idea that Jesus even had a brother) can cause a firestorm, finding the supposed relics of St. John the Baptist is a pretty big deal.

The relics were found sealed under the floor of a 4th century church. This is an early date for a reliquary. Since they were hidden and not put on display for pilgrims, it is argued that there was no motive to falsify them. They were also accompanied by a rare inscription:

The inscriptions make it clear that a man named Thomas, “God’s servant brought a particle of St. John on the 24th.” Even though some of the end letters are missing, the inscription in Greek makes it clear that the date refers to the birthday of St. John the Baptist, June 24. The use of genetive case in the inscription leaves no doubt that the relics belonged to one of the founders of Christianity.

(I had to include the quote about the genitive case)

Continuing,

“I think that this is the discovery of the year, not just in the Bulgarian archaeology but also in the European archaeology…  St. Ivan Island were one of the earliest places where Christians settled as they were persecuted by the Roman authorities. Their heritage is connected with the entire Christian history”

So, what is the controversy?

Bulgarian Archaeologists Agitated over Relics of St John the Baptist

Disgruntled archaeologists quoted by a number of Bulgarian media have not really questioned the authenticity of the relics but the sensational way it was presented to the public without carrying out first the respective tests. Some have pointed out that the bones can only be dated but that there is no way of actually proving that they belonged to one of the founders of Christianity.

Notably, prominent government minister Bozhidar Dimitrov has jumped into the fray on the side of the relic finders, declaring in a public statement,

“Why, damn it, why, where is all this envy coming from?! This is what I cannot find an explanation with this fucking people, with these fucking colleagues,” the Diaspora Minister and a former Director of the Bulgarian National History Museum, said when expressing his indignation that some of the Bulgarian archaeologists had declared the triumph over the relics of St. John the Baptist premature.

Later, he followed up his statement:

He further identified Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov as the main critic from among those “anonymous archaeologists”. This has resulted from a comment by Ovcharov published Friday in the 24 Chasa Daily…

“I am starting a discussion. Today Ovcharov came out with his name, and started quarreling with me. The “fuckers” are no longer anonymous. We are now going to be fighting personally, with our names,” Dimitrov said.

Academic controversies are generally not expressed with such colorful language, never mind that it’s a government minister speaking on the record. To add a further note of the bizarre,

In his second comment Dimitrov talks disparagingly about the civilization of Ancient Thrace, in which he compares the Thracians to modern-day Bulgarian “mutri” (i.e. former wrestlers turned gangsters) for their boisterousness and their affinity for gold;

What do the ancient Thracians have to do with it??

In his Friday’s comment in the 24 Chasa Daily, Ovcharov, who is known for exploring the Ancient Thracian sanctuary and fortress Perperikon, is visibly agitated by Dimitrov’s comments.

So now, even the Thracians are being dragged in to the argument!

Apparently Ovcharov and Dimitrov have been going at it for some time,

The conflict between Bozhidar Dimitrov and Nikolay Ovcharov goes back two years ago when Dimitrov claimed he had established the identity of the mysterious muralist of the 13-th century Renaissance like-images in the Boyana Church near Sofia, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ovcharov disputed Dimitrov’s claims, which has unleashed into a war of words in which both researchers criticized each other’s work and discoveries going as far as outright insults.

So we have the verbally reckless Minister Dimitrov:

At one point Bulgarian PM Borisov joked that he was afraid that some day, upon coming home from a visit abroad, he might find out that Dimitrov had declared war on some of Bulgaria’s neighbors.

…pitted against the “Bulgarian Indiana Jones”.

Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov is perhaps the most famous Bulgarian archaeologist at present… Sometimes called “The Bulgarian Indiana Jones”, Ovcharov has been often criticized by his colleagues for seeking to achieve media sensationalism with his public appearances and demonstrations of his finds.

Interestingly enough Dimitrov, an unapologetic Nationalist, also has an axe to grind when it comes to Bulgarian archaeology:

Bulgaria’s Minister without a portfolio in charge of Bulgarians abroad and of state policy on religions, Bozhidar Dimitrov, is a famous historian known for his nationalist views, focusing much of his research on medieval Bulgaria, the ancient Bulgarians, Macedonia’s role in Bulgarian history, and relations with contemporary Macedonia.

He is a former member of the Council of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, and a former Director of the Bulgarian National History Museum. He is also known to have been a collaborator of the former State Security service of the communist regime spying most notably on the Vatican.

The plot thickens. Here is where the comparison with archaeology in Israel starts to crystallize –  this is what happens when finds from the distant past are trotted out as evidence for or against the legitimacy of a modern religion or nation state. Passions run high and the science falls by the wayside.

Nevertheless, barely two weeks after the announcement of the find, public passions are starting to cool,

In a letter to the media on Wednesday, Bozhidar Dimitrov apologized to Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov “for the apparently unfounded suspicion that he is part of the anonymous group of archaeologists who disputed the authenticity of the discovery of the St. John the Baptist relics in Sozopol without having any scientific arguments.”

Meanwhile, Ovcharov also backed down, a little:

“I wish Bozhidar to be able to keep his nerves a little bit more next time. I accept the apology, and I am glad that the matter has been settled…  But these finds should nonetheless be examined,” Ovcharov commented upon receiving Dimitrov’s apology.

So, the two leading figures of Bulgarian archaeology are calling a truce.

Aside from the Isrraeli-like politicization, the other lesson I take away from the story is this: I think it’s pretty cool that the Bulgarian public cares enough about history that ministers and academics can have flame wars in the mainstream press. Outrage over disparaging remarks about the Thracians? Pretty awesome.


5 thoughts on “Archaeology Controversy in Bulgaria

  1. “Oh what a tangled web we weave when we are learning to believe deceive…”

    Not sure about the deceiving part, but here’s what a Byzantine expert told CNN re the find:

    Antony Eastmond, a Byzantine expert at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, told CNN there was evidence of a Christian “cult of relics” in the region from as early as the second century.
    By the middle of the 4th century relics were being collected by the imperial court in Constantinople, now Istanbul, and by the 8th century there was an “endless exchange of relics” across Europe, he said.
    “They’re spiritually important, but also politically important because if you have access to them and control of them it gives you power and authority,” Eastmond told CNN.
    The sheer volume of relics made it impossible to make claims with any certainty about their origins; historians have collected references to some 3,600 relics relating to 476 saints in Constantinople alone, he said.
    But Eastmond said it was likely the Sveti Ivan bones had been acquired by the island’s early monastic settlers in the genuine belief they were holy relics and that they may even have originated from an early grave in the Holy Land.
    Everything suggests they believed they had the relic of John the Baptist. Ultimately, in theological terms, that’s what matters,” he said. “It’s where spirituality always rubs up against archaeology.”

    1. Yes; and yet – I am apprehensive about the market hoopla which, in my view, is behind The Minister’s outburst. This from WSJ:

      “I’m not religious but these relics are in the premier league,” says Simeon Djankov, Bulgaria’s finance minister and an avowed atheist. “The revenue potential for Bulgaria is clear.”
      […] To help pull Bulgaria out of its worst recession since the collapse of communism here 20 years ago, the government is looking to promote tourism. Touting the relics is part of that plan. Mr. Djankov, the finance minister, says he wants to double government spending on the development of religious tourism so “we can make this history profitable.”

      Investments are already pouring in:

      Tens of millions of dollars have already been earmarked to prepare for an anticipated surge in visitors. Construction crews are enlarging the port and building a big new parking lot. Tour guides are being rewritten and new signs are going up to direct people to the relics.

      Business über alles – Sturm und Drang!

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