'Vampire' Skeletons Found in Bulgaria

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An eighth-century skeleton found in Ireland with a large stone shoved in its mouth.
Chris Read

Two medieval "vampire" skeletons emerged near a monastery in the Bulgarian Black Sea town of Sozopol, local archaeologists announced.

Dating back 800 years to the Middle Ages, the skeletons were unearthed with iron rods pierced through their chests — evidence of an exorcism against a vampire. The ritual was aimed at preventing potentially dangerous people, such as enemies, murderers or individuals who died suddenly from a strange illness, from turning into vampires after death.

"The practice was common in some Bulgarian villages up until the first decade of the 20th century," Bozhidar Dimitrov, chief of the National History Museum in Sofia, told reporters.

The newly discovered skeletons are the latest in a series of finds across Europe. According to Dimitrov, over 100 skeletons, buried in the same manner, had been unearthed in Bulgaria only.

Vampires of the time were quite different from the aristocratic blood-sucking character depicted in Bram Stoker's 1897 Gothic horror novel "Dracula" and in innumerable Hollywood movies.

Indeed, the vampire legend originated from the disturbing appearance of decomposing bodies that had succumbed to the plagues that ravaged Europe between 1300 and 1700.

During those epidemics, mass graves were often reopened to bury fresh corpses and gravediggers would stumble into bodies that were bloated by gas.

Featuring a hole in the shroud used to cover their faces, these bodies showed individuals with their hair still growing, their teeth appearing through the shroud, and blood seeping out of their mouths.

In a time before germ theory, when the decomposition of corpses was not well understood, these individuals appeared like they were still alive, drinking blood and eating their shrouds.

Modern forensic science would explain that the shrouds were consumed by bacteria found in the mouth area, but at that time it was believed that these "shroud-eaters" were vampires who spread pestilence.

A stake in the heart and a stone wedged into the mouth would kill the undead creatures, while iron rods pierced through their chest would pin them into their burials to prevent them from rising from the graves and terrorizing the living.

According to archaeologist Petar Balabanov, who in 2004 discovered six nailed-down skeletons at a site near the Bulgarian town of Debelt, the vampire-slaying ritual had also been practiced in neighboring Serbia and across the Balkans.

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