Sofia. The ancient skeleton of a man, pinned down in his grave in order not to turn into a vampire, was put on show in Bulgaria last week, where vampire tales and rites still keep their bite even nowadays.
The 700-year-old skeleton — unearthed in the necropolis of a church in the Black Sea town of Sozopol earlier in June — was stabbed in the chest with an iron rod and had his teeth pulled before being put to rest.
Anti-vampirism rituals were behind the find, archaeologists said, making this potential vampire and another one found at his side an instant media hit.
“These were most probably intellectuals who outgrew the moral ideas of their 14th century (…) They were feared and buried outside town walls,” their discoverer, archaeologist Dimitar Nedev, told AFP.
The national history museum in Sofia displayed one of the skeletons this week as “a strange proof of the beliefs and superstitions of our ancestors,” its chief Bozhidar Dimitrov said in a statement.
“A museum employee kept making the sign of the cross while washing the bones,” he said, noting that vampire fears were still alive.
Not only fears but also anti-vampirism funeral rites are still strong in Bulgaria even today, ethnologist Rachko Popov confirmed.
The researcher — known among his university colleagues as “the vampirologist” — described the vampire in the Bulgarian folklore tradition as a villain or somebody very old, who usually fed on domestic animals’ blood but could also attack humans.
People also imagined vampires as very ugly and asymmetrical — hunchbacked, lame or one-eyed, Popov added.
Vampires were believed to fear water, and entire villages in the southeastern Strandzha mountain zone were known to have moved town to the opposite banks of rivers in order to escape, he said.
Signs of various practices to prevent the dead from rising again as vampires have been discovered at different archaeological sites across Bulgaria over the years.
Vampire steak, vampire cocktail
The Sozopol “vampire” was pierced through the chest with a ploughshare, while another centuries-old skeleton found in the central city of Veliko Tarnovo was tied to the ground with four iron clamps and burning embers were placed on top of his grave.
Six more potential “vampires” from the 4th-5th century unearthed near the village of Debelt, near Sozopol in eastern Bulgaria, in 2004 were buried exceptionally deep and nailed down by the skulls, arms and legs, their finder, archaeologist Petar Balabanov, said.
Remnants of these pagan anti-vampirism rituals can be found even nowadays in some village funeral rites in Bulgaria.
“After the death of my husband four years ago, my sister did this anti-vampirism thing at the grave — prodding the soil with a spindle and chanting something so that the spirit does not turn into a vampire,” said retired teacher Zara Dimitrova from the northwestern village of Novo Selo.
“I remember we also had to keep quiet on the way home to prevent him from following us,” she added.
“My aunt tied the legs of her dead husband by the shoe-laces when they put him in the coffin so that he cannot rise as a vampire,” Valia Ivanova, a Sofia interpreter, also recalled.
Similar rites were recorded in recent ground studies by ethnology researcher Sashka Bizeranova, who found similarities between the anti-vampirism funeral customs in the villages of northwestern Bulgaria, northeastern Serbia and southern Romania.
These included poking at the grave with a spindle or a hawthorn branch to symbolically pierce the potential vampire, driving nails in houses’ doorsteps, burning fires or even planting garlic, which is also believed to scare vampires.
And even if researchers say the latest “vampire” find in Sozopol is nothing new, it was welcome at the start of the holiday season. “We hope the archaeological finds will have a positive effect on tourism,” mayor Panaiot Reizi told AFP.
“Vampire steak” and “vampire cocktail” have already made their way onto the menus of restaurants and bars in the small Black Sea resort.
Sozopol also plans to become twinned with the Romanian town of Sighisoara, the birthplace of the Balkans most famous vampire, Count Dracula.
Some, however, were more cautious, like archaeologist Nedev who with some locals feared the find might attract “unhealthy interest from occult groups”.
To be safe, the second Sozopol skeleton is to be reburied, just as the other six found eight years ago in Debelt were.