Vampires may be greeted with swoons today, but in medieval Eastern Europe they were dealt a metal spike through the chest.
Last week, Bulgarian archaeologists unearthed an unusual 13th-century grave in an ancient city named Thracian.
The bones are encrusted in dirt, revealing a bowed, partially crushed skull and a round stake emerging from the left side of the skeleton’s chest. The interred is believed to be a middle-aged man, who was incapacitated post-death—cause unknown—by a two-pound iron rod thrust through his heart and the removal of the lower half of his left leg. Both mutilations were meant to stop the man, who villagers believed was a vampire, from returning to haunt the town and prey upon its inhabitants, researchers say.
Thracian, which is more than 7,000 years old, was only discovered 20 years ago and is home to a number of vampire grave sites. This latest discovery is just one of more than 100 medieval graves that contain the remains of those once suspected of being vampires and that have been unearthed overs the past few decades across Bulgaria.
For nearly a millennium, people who died under unusual circumstances, from certain ailments like tuberculous, or who had just lived unusually long lives, were suspected of being able to turn into the blood-sucking creatures in the afterlife.
Since the 10th century, Bulgaria has practiced varying forms of prevention to keep vampires from coming back to life. As Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov, who is credited with many of the skeletal discoveries, told Time magazine two years ago, he’s found bodies with metal rings pinning them down, graves covered in heavy stones, skeletons with bound hands. All these measures were taken to halt the blood-sucking tendencies of the recently deceased.
“These people believe that between the first and fourth day after the death, the human soul is not in paradise or hell, it stays between sky and earth and it is in danger from evil powers,” Ovcharov said to Time.
To ensure they wouldn’t be able to rise from the dead, the bodies of those suspected would be exhumed shortly after burial and incapacitated. Their hearts were often stabbed, and sometimes removed and burned. The belief was that if the corpses were pinned to their coffins with a metal rod through the chest, there would be no threat of them terrorizing the communities.
According to Ovcharov, many in Bulgaria continued the practice as recently as 25 years ago—there was even a designated person in each town to do the unsavory, but necessary, task.
In 2003, small-town vampire slayers in Romania made international news when they removed the heart of a recently dead elderly man named Petre Toma who was thought to be sickening his family members from beyond the grave. “For centuries we have had to protect ourselves against these creatures by finding the graves of the undead and risking our lives by ripping out their hearts,” a villager told the Sunday Times.
Next door in Romania, a historical figure nicknamed Vlad the Impaler inspired the first mainstream depiction of a vampire. Four hundred years after Vlad’s brutal reign, in which he literally skewered his enemies in public, Bram Stoker used him as inspiration for his 1897 novel, Dracula. But early vampire myths were a far cry from the sleek, cloaked version Stoker described. The blood-seeking and sucking predators were simply decomposing bodies, or shadowy figures, seeking sustenance and strength from common townsfolk.
Though vampire legends exist the world over, Romania and Bulgaria have born the brunt of the attention. In fact, the neighbor countries have become so well known for their gruesome history that certain towns have begun to market themselves as part of a “vampire trail” for curious visitors.
The resurrected vampire graves in particular have created quite a spectacle. In 2012, a 700-year-old skeleton pierced with a metal stake drew crowds of tourists to the Bulgarian Natural History Museum in the capital of Sofia. A year later, a second vampiric grave was uncovered, leading to the pair to be dubbed “the twin vampires of Sozopol,” named for the coastal town where they were discovered.
But Bulgaria and Romania don’t hold the only vampire grave sites. Over the past few years, macabre signs of vampire burials have been unearthed across Europe and even in the United States. In 2013, archaeologists in Poland came across a number of skeletons in which severed skulls had been placed between the deceased’s legs, indicating similar beliefs.
And in Italy, the 16th-century body of an old woman was dug up in 2006 with a brick in her mouth. It was identified as an ancient exorcism technique that indicated she had been suspected of supernatural powers. Her body, found in a mass grave of plague victims, probably had unsavory characteristics when unearthed by grave diggers looking to make room for more of the deceased. Part of the decomposition process causes bodies to bloat and blood to sometimes seep from the mouth. By inserting a stone or brick into the suspected vampire’s mouth, the villagers could ensure she would starve to death instead of prey on them.
Thousands of miles away, in Connecticut, the bones of a man who died of tuberculosis were found arranged in a skull and crossbones position in a colonial-era graveyard. He is believed to have been considered a vampire in the mid-19th century and decapitated after his death.
Little could the New England community ever imagine that 200 years later, vampires would be taking over the entire country—but this time on the silver screen—and that their ancestors would be swarming to get a look at these sultry modern counterparts.