Big Week In Bulgarian Skeleton News

Credulity strains
As the expert explains
That the human remains they have found
Are the bones of a saint,
Which I think is just quaint–
You can’t prove that they ain’t, they expound.

In a similar search
Through the yard of a church
Come some bones that may smirch someone’s name
Searchers saw, with a start
There’s a stake through his heart!
That’s a posthumous part of his shame

So anyway… Big News in Bulgarian bones this week, both stories featuring the lovely town of Sozopol, an ancient and beautiful place surrounded by the tackiest tourist traps imaginable.

The one that has hit the headlines is the recent non-refutation of John the Baptist’s bones–that is, carbon dating (which suddenly biblical archaeologists find useful) and DNA analysis fail to show that the bones are not those of JtB.

The relics found in a small marble sarcophagus two years ago on a Bulgarian island called Sveti Ivan, which translates as Saint John, also included a human tooth, part of a skull and three animal bones.
A research team from Oxford University dated the right-handed knuckle bone to the first century AD, when John is believed to have lived until his beheading ordered by king Herod, the university said in a statement.
And scientists from the University of Copenhagen analysed the DNA of the bones, finding they came from a single individual, probably a man, from a family in the modern-day Middle East, where John would have lived.

So it’s consistent with the story. As are many other JtB claims, I would imagine. That’s the thing about relics: they are miraculous.

Many sites around the world claim to hold relics of the saint, including the Grand Mosque in Damascus which says it has his head.
The right hand with which the prophet allegedly baptised Jesus in the River Jordan is also claimed to be held by several entities, including a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Montenegro.

And now, these relics are being shown in Sozopol, at a museum I have visited and have fond memories of. I hope it helps their budget.

But for my money, the big draw is going to be the skeleton, unearthed in Sozopol but being exhibited in Sofia, of a vampire! Well, ok, not a vampire, but someone who would very probably turned into one, had they not, as a precaution, pulled out his teeth and driven an iron stake through his heart. After death.

The ancient skeleton of a man, pinned down in his grave in order not to turn into a vampire, piqued interest in Bulgaria this 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.

A separate story claims the skeleton was identified as that of a pirate, the mayor of the town. The details are worth reading.

Apparently, this sort of treatment was actually not that uncommon, a sort of precautionary treatment just in case the dearly departed are going to come after you. From the first story, again:

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 mum 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.


  1. David Hart says

    ‘Novo Selo’ translates as ‘New Village’. I guess they were too busy slaying vampires to think up a decent name for the place.

  2. David says

    Herod beheaded John (in Machaerus, Jordan), and sent his remains to Bulgaria to ensure that he didn’t come back as a vampire?

  3. F says

    Yes, these rituals were common. So common, in fact, that they were more or less remembered for centuries and transmogrified by other cultures for popular entertainment.

    Prior to some of these anti-vampire features being ritually included in general funerary procedure, they used to dig up only the problematic dead to decapitate, bind, and or put a stake in their heart. See how creeping authoritarianism deprives everyone of full enjoyment rather than just dealing with those actually causing problems? It’s like DRM.

  4. Crudely Wrott says

    The relics found in a small marble sarcophagus two years ago on a Bulgarian island called Sveti Ivan, which translates as Saint John, also included a human tooth, part of a skull and three animal bones.

    This is the largest, and as far as I am informed, most overlooked clue. It is quite plain that the head containing the cranial fragment and the tooth were recovered from the remains of a carnivore. Well, given that the specie of the “animal” are not given. Even if I’m stretching the evidence there is nothing to say that a clumsy hunter had the tables turned on him. Perhaps the animal bones are a wolf? Or a rooting wild hog?

    I’ll bet three of Jesus’ foreskins against these bones belonging to the baptist. Any takers?

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