Of Bulgarian Vampires

This post by Nils at Magia Posthuma raised my eyebrow. It seems the so-called Bulgarian vampire story was even more wildly popular than I’d realised. As I haven’t yet covered it, aside from a couple of comments on Nils’ blog, I thought it worth a post. He has subtly hinted that all may not be as it seems, but as the internet is not known for its subtlety, I think there needs to be an overtly critical voice out there. As you might imagine, I am that voice.

I’m afraid the evidence for these interments being ‘vampires’, imagined revenants of another sort, or even necessarily deviant burials at all, is pretty thin on the ground. Or, for that matter, IN it.

As usual, we have little to go on, and it’s perfectly possible that a forthcoming academic article might reveal all. But as we’ve seen in the past (check out the onward links there too), sometimes the eventual publication doesn’t live up to the media hype that we’ve all been suckered in by previously.

Here’s one of two ‘vampires’ from the Bulgarian dig in question (higher res available at the source, Fox News);

As you can see, there is disruption to the ribs area, but nothing that couldn’t be the result of burial under several feet of earth. It certainly appears to be unrelated to the iron lump that is claimed to be the ‘rod’ (by implication, stake) used to dispatch the undead creature/innocently decomposing corpse. The lump itself is just that – an unidentified angular ferrous object. If it’s the head of an iron shaft, that shaft must be huge. Far too huge, in fact. Why manhandle a valuable piece of metal into position when by far the most common folkloric weapon against vampires and revenants was a wooden stake? Perhaps that’s why they missed the heart or even chest/abdomen (it was not always necessary to penetrate the heart in folklore) completely. It looks for all the world as though the ‘vampire’ play-acted along, taking the ‘stale’ between body and arm like one of the henchmen in countless Hollywood swashbucklers. It’s not that iron wasn’t used as a weapon and a preventative measure against vampires; it certainly was in various Slavic countries.

After the story had circulated a while longer, it acquired a further embellishment, thanks to National Geographic, who claimed that the corpse’s teeth had been ‘pulled’. This seems to be based on the fact that the skull is missing many of its teeth, indeed much of its alveolar process – but only, I noticed, in the post-excavation images of the skeleton as it was being pimped to the media.

(Higher res available at the source, Fox News);

I’m as sure as I can be [edit – I was wrong on this – see the comments below] that this is indeed the same skeleton, that associated with the larger of the two iron lumps. If it isn’t, it’s a third skeleton, and only two have been claimed as ‘staked’. Photos show that the other skeleton and ‘rod’ are clearly different. Note that, like the other one, this too retains its teeth as discovered (image from Heritage Daily);

This being the case, why is it in substantially worse condition? Far from the loss of teeth being a counter-vampire measure, it appears that it is wear and tear, presumably sustained in the rush to get the thing on TV. Deliberate damage doesn’t bear contemplation. It usually takes weeks of post-ex work to clean, draw, document and analyse human remains. Yet here the poor bugger was hoiked out of the ground like a fossil in a plaster jacket, and wheeled in front of the cameras. This can’t be a good thing.

I would note here that the pointy teeth are a creation of fiction, starting with ‘Varney the Vampire’ in the 1850s. Iron teeth are sometimes referred to in folklore, but not their removal as a preventative measure. The usual threat cited is the use of the corpse’s teeth to chew on their burial shroud or on their own limbs, in the manner of the German Nachzehrer (though this belief was more widespread than just the Germanic world).

In the footage linked, note also the claim by the museum director that;

‘Iron rods were used for the richer vampires’.

This is the first time I have ever heard such a claim, and I’m pretty familiar with the literature by this point. It appears to me to be a way of heading off another obvious criticism of the ID for these finds – that historical vampires were not high status individuals. They were working class people, relatives and friends of those who were compelled to ‘slay’ their troublesome dead bodies. The vampire lord is another creation of fiction, as this media piece correctly points out.

This is all a bit of a shame. These are clearly deviant burials of potentially historically significant individuals, worthy of further study for both reasons. As much as I love vampirey news, and I’m sure all this is a wonderful boon to the Bulgarian tourist industry, I think forcing this evidence to fit Western preconceptions about vampires – derived from fiction –  is wrong. I can tell you that I’m not the only historian or archaeologist who is of this opinion, either.

I recommend reading Nil’s discussion of the background and characters surrounding this discovery, which also details the reburial of another skeleton. I’m not wild about this either, as it further prevents serious scholarly study of the remains and condemns them forever as ‘vampires’. I just hope all possible analysis was completed before the skeleton went back into the ground.


8 thoughts on “Of Bulgarian Vampires

  1. I’m not at all convinced that the first two pictures show the same body. Rather, I would say that they were almost certainly not the same. While it’s difficult to be certain because of the differences in lighting, camera angle and stage of the excavation, I find it hard to believe that that amount of damage could be inflicted just by the removal from the ground (however incompetent the archaeologist was). Also the morphology of the skulls appears significantly different which cannot be accounted for by optical effects.

    1. I admit that I wasn’t at all sure myself, and you’re right – I jumped the gun rather there. Proper comparison shows significant differences.

      Thanks for keeping me honest! My alternate worry remains however – this being a different skeleton, and not the other photographed, they have apparently under-reported the number of deviant burials found.

      A further alternative is that they have spuriously associated a piece of iron with another body from the same site, which would be worse-case scenario and I can’t see any professional doing that. Perhaps they have displayed a prior find?

      Every chance the media have mangled the story and there were more than two ‘staked’ bodies found. But I still don’t the evidence for these being ‘rods’, nor for the remains being ‘vampires’. *Something* weird is going on, certainly.

  2. Not wishing to appear rude – and I feel I can comfortably do that, as I have followed your rantings for quite a while – ( Which we all know is all the reason we ever need to form an opinion ) but I feel you may be ..how can I put this delicately?…

    …..A CYNIC!!!!!!

    The King is Dead…Long Live Christopher Hitchens

    1. Sceptic, not cynic. There’s a difference. I actually *want* things like this to be true, the difference being that I actually give a monkey’s whether or not they are.

  3. ok, this is too interesting NOT to respond in a word or two. First of all, I apologize if my English is a bit off, that’s because it’s not my mother tongue. What my mother tongue might be, you ask? Well, non other than Bulgarian 🙂
    The story you cover here was wildly publicized last summer in our media and I’m telling you right now — it is completely made up. It’s just the ramblings of Professor Bozhidar (his name mind you, in literal translation means ‘God’s Gift’) Dimitrov (here’s the guy — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bozhidar_Dimitrov)- director of the National Historical Museum.
    Trust me, you can’t be more right when saying – “…and I’m sure all this is a wonderful boon to the Bulgarian tourist industry, I think forcing this evidence to fit Western preconceptions about vampires – derived from fiction…”. It is. It is a stupid tourist wanna be attraction.
    On the other hand, the very word ‘vampire’ derives from Old Bulgarian/Slavic word ‘upyir’ (pretty unpronounceable in English). And burials like these are rather very well documented in numerous medieval sources from writers visiting these land.

  4. I think it’s great when science debunks media hype. The scientific method is one which should be universally applauded and used to scrutinise claims such as this “vampire find”. The problem is that people can invent stories or distort facts to fit their agendas in a matter of seconds and then it takes years or centuries to debunk – if ever!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s