Bulgarian Archaeologists Find Tall Medieval Man’s Skeleton in Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress near Vratsa

Bulgarian Archaeologists Find Tall Medieval Man’s Skeleton in Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress near Vratsa

The skeleton of an elderly Christian man of large size - 1.82 cm (app. 6 feet) tall - has been found in a medieval necropolis from the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1186-1396 AD) in the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress in Bulgaria's Vratsa. Photo: Blitz

The skeleton of an elderly Christian man of large size – 1.82 cm (app. 6 feet) tall – has been found in a medieval necropolis from the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1186-1396 AD) in the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress in Bulgaria’s Vratsa. Photo: Blitz

The skeleton of a tall medieval man has been found in a Christian grave in the necropolis of the Ancient Thracian, Roman, Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress known as Gradishte or Vratitsa near the northwestern Bulgarian city Vratsa.

The team of lead archaeologist Nartsis Torbov and Alexandra Petrova from the Vratsa Regional Museum of History has made the discovery shortly after they started the 2015 summer excavations of the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress.

The skeleton has been discovered in the fifth grave to have been unearthed in what was the medieval necropolis of the fortified city.

“He was an elderly Christian man buried according to the Christian rite, with his head pointing to the west, and his legs to the east, and with his hands crossed on his chest. The was 1.82 cm (app. 6 feet) tall, and lived between the 12th and the 14th century AD (i.e. during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD))," explains archaeologist Alexandra Petrova, as cited by the news site Blitz.

“Last year we discovered the funeral of another tall man at 1.80 cm," she reminds.

The lead archaeologist of the excavations at the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress Nartsis Torbov says that no artifacts allowing a more precise dating of the skeleton have been found in the tall man’s grave.

“We follow a mandatory procedure after every discovery of a skeleton. After we take pictures and measure it, we remove the bones, and study the entire grave. What I can say about this skeleton at the current stage is that he was buried in a grave pit surrounded with stones," Torbov says, as cited by the Focus news agency.

In his words, the newly found skeleton and the skeletons discovered by his team in the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress in 2014 were regular medieval people.

“In archaeology we are often lured into talking primarily about the rich funerals and graves. But the purpose of archaeology is not only to discover how the rich folk lived but also to study the funerals of the poor so that we can learn how these people lived in the Middle Ages," adds the archaeologist.

He points out that he often gets asked if the people who inhabited today’s Northwest Bulgaria in the Middle Ages were poor because the graves at the Vratitsa Fortress contain no inventories of gifts for the afterlife.

“The peculiarity of the medieval religious rites in the fortress which we are currently studying boils down to the fact that the people were buried without grave inventories. Last year we found a gold decoration, and this year so far we have found several coins but the requirements of the rites that the medieval people adhered to did not entail afterlife gifts," Torbov explains.

“This doesn’t mean that the people here were poor [in the Middle Ages]. They made pottery and were goldsmiths. Their Christian burial rite here did not entail the placing of expensive gifts in the grave," he elaborates.

The lead archaeologist has summed up the evidence from the archaeological excavations of the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress so far to conclude that the residents of today’s Vratsa at the time of the medieval Bulgarian Empire were “tall and rich craftsmen".

“We are discovering more and more about the life of the city of Vratsa in the Middle Ages, and about our ancestors," the archaeologist adds.

The newly found tall man’s skeleton will be transferred to the Vratsa Regional Museum of History, and will be stored together with the other four skeletons discovered in 2014.

For the time being, the skeletons will not be examined by an anthropologist because of the limited funds of the Vratsa Museum. However, the archaeologists say that as soon as the institution can afford it, all of the skeletons found at Vratitsa (Gradishte) will be studied further in order to find out details about their way of life in the High Middle Ages.

The newly found skeleton has been discovered near the inside of the Vratitsa (Gradishte) fortress wall meaning that the excavated grave marked the outer boundary of the medieval necropolis.

The 2015 summer excavations of Gradishte / Vratitsa will focus on digs at a spot located between an Early Byzantine church and a medieval Bulgarian church. This means that Torbov’s team has been looking for finds from Early Byzantium and the necropolis of the medieval Bulgarian city of Vratitsa where several graves have been found in the past few years of research.

The fourth medieval grave was discovered in the summer of 2014; it was the grave of a big man with a stone placed on his chest in order to “neutralize" him so that he would not rise from the grave. The discovery has led the Bulgarian media to term the buried man the “Vratsa Vampire".

Background Infonotes:

The ancient and medieval fortress known as Gradishte (a common Bulgarian word meaning “fortress") or Vratitsa (as it was called in the Middle Ages) is located near today’s northwestern Bulgarian city of Vratsa at the canyon of the Vartaeshnitsa River. It is located near the Vrattsata Pass (meaning “door"), which gave its name to the city of Vratsa, using the natural defenses of the mountainous terrain.

The Gradishte or Vratitsa Fortress is an Ancient Thracian, Roman, Early Byzantine, and medieval Bulgarian city. There are hypotheses that the Thracian settlement may have been the capital of one of the major Ancient Thracian tribes, the Tribali, who inhabited today’s Northwest Bulgaria. There have been doubts among scholars whether the unearthed Antiquity fortress walls of Gradishte / Vratitsa were first build by the Romans, who often built their cities on top of previously existing Thracian settlements, or by the Thracians themselves. The fortress of Gradishte / Vratitsa was also used by Byzantium in the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages, i.e. the Early Byzantine period. It protected the most direct mountain pass route between what are today Northwest and Southwest Bulgaria.

During the period of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, Vratitsa was a major fortified city; its name – as well as its importance – are made clear by a 13th century inscription on a stone slab which has been discovered in a cave connected to a medieval Bulgarian church. The inscription was found in 1942, and it states that the place harbored a monastery in the Middle Ages. The fortification system of the Vratitsa fortress uses the towering rocks to the north as part of its fortress wall; the fortress wall itself is about 2.4 meters wide. According to the archaeological discoveries, the settlement at the Gradishte / Vratitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Vratsa existed in several time periods.

The first is the Thracian period from the 4th until the 1st century BC. The finds hint at the existence of a Thracian fortress wall. In case of danger, the fortified area could provide asylum for up to 10-15,000 people, i.e. the entire population of the nearby valley. At the end of the 19th century Austro-Hungarian geographer Felix Kanitz described the ruins of the Gradishte / Vratitsa Fortress as having many different fortifications from different periods. Unfortunately, since then, much of the stone and rock material has been used by local villagers for the construction of homes and fences. However, the archaeological excavations conducted before 1965 indicate that the place was a settlement and fortress of the Ancient Thracian tribe Triballi during the Early Thracian period.

The second period in the existence of Gradishte / Vratitsa is the 3rd century AD when it was a Roman fortress. The third period is in the 4th century AD, the Late Antiquity period which has left traces of burned down buildings. The fourth period started in the 6th century AD the Early Byzantine Empire added new fortifications to the existing Thracian and Roman ones.

The fifth period is the 13th-14th century, the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), which also added new fortifications as evidenced by the discovery of bronze coins and ceramics. It was in this period that the city started to expand outside of the fortress walls turning into today’s city of Vratsa over the next centuries.

A total of five medieval graves have been found in a necropolis from the time of the Bulgarian Empire; one of them was the grave of a big man with a stone placed on his chest in order to “neutralize" him so that he would not rise from the grave. The discovery has led the Bulgarian media to term the buried man “the Vratsa Vampire".

Another necropolis containing numerous graves with rich inventories from the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire (13th-14th century) was discovered in downtown Vratsa in July-August 2016 during the construction of an apartment building.

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