In recent years there has been a steady stream of publicity around the excavation of so‐called “Vampire” burials. The validity of such claims is considered in the light of both archaeological and historical evidence, and the criteria for identifying burials as those of “vampires” discussed. Vampires are a constant of popular culture: film, television and novels. The aim of this article is to look at this popular image to consider the archaeological evidence for vampire burials.
A Vampire is a mythical being who subsists by feeding on the blood of living creatures. In folklore vampires often visited loved ones and caused mischief or deaths in the community they inhabited when they were alive. By tradition vampires wore shrouds, and were often described as bloated and of ruddy or dark countenance; unlike the image of the gaunt, pale vampire, which dates from the early nineteenth-century.
The belief in vampires was widespread across Central, Eastern and Southern Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The word itself is derived from the original Slavic term “opyrb or opir,” which later appears as “vipir,” “vepir,” or “vapir.” Belief in vampirism was connected with pagan spiritualism and spread after the introduction of Christianity in the tenth and eleventh-centuries, which introduced inhumation in place of cremation for dead bodies.
Slavic folk beliefs held that those most likely to become a vampire were drunkards, thieves and murderers, as were those that died by drowning and through suicide, along with the unbaptized and witches. These vampires, vampir, were believed to be the manifestation of an unclean spirit possessing a decomposing body. Folk traditions varied regionally but generally held that vampires left their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, after which they returned to their cemeteries. A variant of this tradition holds that after their death, appearing completely normal, they would arrive at a town and live amongst the people often even marrying and fathering children. But at night they would become dangerous and wander the countryside in search of blood, perceived as the essence of life, and haunting the living. In both traditions vampires survived nocturnally by drinking the blood of human victims and were accused of pressing on people in their sleep, causing diseases, particular epidemics of plague, and even the death of people and livestock.
It was not until the early eighteenth-century that the term vampire was popularised after an influx of vampire superstition into Western Europe from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. This increased level of vampire superstition in Europe resulted in corpses being staked and people being accused of vampirism. Therefore although vampires themselves are entirely mythical, the belief in their existence and the ascription of the title vampire to actual people is real.
A feature of the vampire myth is their near indestructibility. Folk tradition says that during their first forty days they could be destroyed by either a “Vampiridzhija,” a professional vampire hunter capable of seeing them, or by a wolf. Those that survived this initial period were thought to increase in ferocity. Belief in vampires was such that in parts of Europe precautionary steps were taken to inhibit the transmutation of the newly dead into vampires. The most common way of doing this was to destroy the corpses of those thought most at risk of becoming vampires, notably by running a stake through the corpse’s heart. According to superstition other methods were also viable including: burning the corpse; decapitating the corpse and then burying the head between the feet, the legs, behind the buttocks or away from the body. Alternatively, the corpse could be buried upside‐down with the face turned to the bottom of the grave, or the corpse could be staked with a wooden peg, preferably of ash, or metal object such as a nail. Sometimes the body or grave would be covered with a pile of stones to weigh the corpse down, and the limbs of the body would be tied together. Another tradition placed apotropaic objects, such as scythes or sickles, on the body, particularly around the throat, or placed stones into the mouth of the deceased. Archaeologists who find one or more of these features during their excavations of burial sites are sometimes tempted to hail their discovery as that of a vampire.
The mythology of vampires is therefore well‐known with archaeologists and historians explaining the belief in vampirism as an attempt by people of pre‐industrial societies to explain the natural, but to them inexplicable, process of death and decomposition of the body. Modern science has usually dismissed these tales as folklore, however, some archaeologists in Eastern Europe and the Balkans have claimed that they have discovered vampire burials, showing that our ancestors did indeed take these stories seriously. These burials all display incredible brutality that the excavator’s claim matches the methods recorded in folklore to stop a vampire rising from its grave. This paper considers the validity of these claims and highlights some of the pitfalls of making them.
A number of excavated burials have been found where a stake appears to have been driven through the heart or chest of the corpse, which as we have seen is one of the ways that superstition sites can be used to stop a vampire rising from the grave. At Perperikon, an ancient Thracian city in southern Bulgaria close to the border with Greece, excavator Nikolai Ovcharov announced that he had discovered just such a “vampire grave” dated back to the thirteenth-century. The skeleton was of a man aged between forty and fifty and had a heavy piece of ploughshare — an iron rod, used in a plough — hammered through his chest. The ploughshare weighed almost two pounds and was thrust into the body with enough force to break the scapula bone.
In further articles, we will detail Vampire burials and their slaying, just as it happened with the burial at Perperikon, that was very similar to two other graves excavated in 2012 and 2013 by archaeologist Dimitar Nedev, in the Bulgarian Black Sea town of Sozopol, 200 miles to the east, nicknamed “the twin vampires of Sozopol.” One of the two fourteenth-century burials had a ploughshare-like object driven through the left side of his rib cage, while the other had an unidentifiable metal object in his solar plexus. All three “vampire” burials were male.