London: Scientists claim to have found new evidence that supports the theory that a knucklebone and other human remains found under a fifth-century Bulgarian monastery may belong to St John the Baptist.
When archaeologists found the human bones two years ago from the monastery on Sveti Ivan Island in Bulgaria, experts were sceptical to the idea that the remains may be of John the Baptist -- described as a relative of Jesus who led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River.
But carbon dating tests carried out at Oxford University have provided scientific evidence to support the extraordinary claim. The researchers dated the right-handed knuckle bone to the first century AD -- a time when the revered Jewish prophet is believed to have lived until h e was beheaded on the order of king Herod, the Daily Mail reported.
Researchers were "surprised" when they discovered the very early age of the remains, but admitted "dating evidence alone cannot prove the bones to be of John the Baptist."
The findings are to be presented in a documentary to be aired on The National Geographic channel in UK on Sunday.
Oxford professors Thomas Higham and Christopher Ramsey attempted to radiocarbon date four of the human bones, but only one of them could be dated successfully.
"We were surprised when the radiocarbon dating produced this very early age. We had suspected that the bones may have been more recent than this, perhaps from the third or fourth centuries," Professor Higham said.
"However, the result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD. Whether that person is John the Baptist is a question that we cannot yet definitely answer and probably never will."
The remains -- small fragments of a skull, bones from a jaw and an arm, and a tooth -- were kept inside a reliquary, a container for holy relics, in the Bulgaria monastery.
The "key" clue to its origins was a tiny sandstone box found alongside the reliquary with a Greek inscription: "God, save your servant Thomas. To St John. June 24." The date is believed to be John the Baptist`s birthday.
DNA tests at the University of Copenhagen on three bones
confirmed they were from the same person, probably from a man of Middle East origin, where John the Baptist came from.
Dr Hannes Schroeder, who carried out the research, said: "Of course, this does not prove that these were the remains of John the Baptist but nor does it refute that theory."
One theory is that the person referred to as Thomas in the inscription was given the task of bringing the relics to the island monastery.
Bulgarian researchers believe that the bones probably came to Bulgaria via Antioch, an ancient Turkish city, where the right hand of St John was kept until the tenth century.
Many countries around the Mediterranean claim to have remains of St John, including Turkey, Montenegro, Greece, Italy and Egypt.