Weird Medieval Funeral of Woman Buried Face Down, Hands Tied on Back, Discovered in Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

Weird Medieval Funeral of Woman Buried Face Down, Hands Tied on Back, Discovered in Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

The late medieval grave in the Nebet Tepe Fortress necropolis in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv in which the skeleton of the woman was discovered laid facing the ground, with hands tied on her back. Photo: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology

A weird medieval funeral in which a woman was buried face down, with hands tied on her back, has been discovered by archaeologists in a necropolis in the Ancient Thracian and Ancient Roman Nebet Tepe Fortress in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv.

The odd burial has been unearthed during the 2017 excavations whose results have now questioned the status of Plovdiv as the oldest city in Europe, and have also led to the discovery of a previously unknown Roman fortress tower, a storage facility containing a barrel with preserved wheat, and 50 bronze horse harness appliques.

The necropolis with the weird female funeral on the Nebet Tepe Hill was discovered during the 2016 excavations led by archaeologist Sofiya Hristeva from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology.

It dates back to the 13th – 14th century, the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422) (although the city of Plovdiv changed hands numerous times during that period, most often from Bulgaria to Byzantium and vice versa).

In 2017, Hristeva’s team, which also included Assist. Prof. Bozhidar Draganov from Plovdiv University “Paisiy Hilendarski” and Assoc. Prof. Kamen Stanev from the Cyril and Methodius Scientific Center at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia, continued researching the medieval necropolis.

The archaeologists have excavated a total of eight new graves from the Late Middle Ages which have been very well preserved.

“The most interesting has been a funeral in which the deceased had been laid facing the ground, and with hands tied behind the back,” Hristeva has told news and cultural site Plovdiv Time.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to restore that funeral’s history completely because there are also pits from the Ottoman period there. However, it has been very interesting for since this is the first time I have found a body laid in the ground in this manner,” the archaeologist has said.

Initial reports about the weird funeral assumed the buried person had been a man, and described him as a “bandit” because of the way the body had been laid in the grave which appeared as a “punitive burial”, in Hristeva’s words.

Subsequent analysis has shown, however, that the person buried face down and with hands tied behind the back was a woman.

Not unlike the unusual female funeral found in the Nebet Tepe necropolis, a number of odd burials from the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages have been discovered in Bulgaria resulting in cheap sensationalism and hype about “vampires” and “vampire funerals” in Bulgarian media.

The “vampire” craze in Bulgaria was strongest around 2012, and has now subsided but it has been especially irritating to archaeologists and other experts.

In her initial comments to the media about the weird funeral found in the Nebet Tepe necropolis in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, lead archaeologist Hristeva made it clear that the person in question might “have been a criminal but under no circumstances a vampire”.

The 2017 archaeological excavations in the Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photos: Plovdiv Time

Back in 2012, a late medieval funeral of a man was found in the Black Sea city of Sozopol (ancient Apollonia Pontica / Sozopolis) with an iron rod put through his chest, another precaution again posthumous vampirism, made not only Bulgarian but also international news headlines. (There were actually two such funerals.)

The discovery has become popularly known as “the Vampire from Sozopol” in spite of persistent explanations by archaeologists and historians that the man was not an actual “vampire” but had only been subjected to a rite designed to prevent him from turning into one after his death according to the respective ancient/medieval beliefs.

Subsequently, the skeleton of the “Sozopol Vampire” was later exhibited at the National Museum of History in Sofia. It has thus also been mockingly called “Bozhidar Dimitrov’s Vampire”, with Bulgarian liberal media naming him after Museum Director Bozhidar Dimitrov, himself a native of Sozopol, and an outspoken nationalist historian.

All in all, since the 2012 discovery of the “Sozopol Vampire”, which caught the attention of the media, reports about “vampires” (that is, people who were buried according to anti-vampirism rites) have become synonymous with cheap sensationalism, dubious media hype, and superficial coverage often plaguing the Bulgarian media with respect to archaeological exploration and discoveries (and not only).

That was not the case back in 2004 when near Bulgaria’s Debelt and the Deultum – Debelt Archaeological Preserve archaeologist Petar Balabanov found the 4th century AD graves (i.e. from the Early Christian / Late Roman period) of a total of 17 people who seem to have been subjected to rites with their limbs nailed so as to to prevent them from turning into vampires after dying.

Only two adult and two child funerals were discovered at first by Balabanov back in 2004; only the adult funerals had traces of anti-vampirism rites, with 11 iron nails driven into each of the two bodies – one nail in the skull, and 5 times of 2 nails driven in the temples, shoulders, pelvis, knees, and feet, respectively.

In two out of the total of eight medieval graves that have been discovered in the Nebet Tepe necropolis in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, the archaeological team has found burial gifts – a massive male gold ring in one burial, and a pair of bronze earrings in another.

In addition to the necropolis and the finds from the other archaeological periods, from the Middle Ages the archaeologists have also found a partly preserved dugout from the 9th – 10th century, part of a building and a pit from the 12th century, and several pits from the Ottoman period.

While they may have cast doubt on Plovdiv’s status as the oldest city in Europe, the renewed archaeological excavations in the Nebet Tepe Fortress have confirmed that the earliest traces of civilized human life there date back to the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) in the 5th – 4th millennium BC, and continued into the Bronze Age (3rd – 2nd millennium BC), and the Iron Age (11th – 10th century BC.

The very top of the Nebet Tepe hill was fortified in the 4th century BC, and life there continued into the Hellenistic Age and then the Roman period when the massive fortress walls were built, and the Middle Ages.

Lead archaeologist Sofiya Hristeva has also expressed her indignation over the unhindered access of tourists and locals to the Nebet Tepe site because of the damage they cause and the trash they leave behind.


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Bulgaria History, Early Settlement and Empire: Pre-Bulgarian Civilizations, Communism, Society and Environment, Economy, Government and Politics


Background Infonotes:

According to the pre-1980 excavations, the history of the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv – often dubbed the oldest city in Europe – began with the human settlement on the ancient hill of Nebet Tepe (“tepe” is the Turkishword for “hill”), one of the seven historic hills where Plovdiv was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times.

Thanks to the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement and fortress of Nebet Tepe, Plovdiv hold the title of “Europe’s oldest city” (and that of the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).

The hills, or “tepeta”, are still known today by their Turkish names from the Ottoman period. Out of all of them, Nebet Tepe has the earliest traces of civilized life dating back to the 6th millennium BC, which makes Plovdiv 8,000 years old, and allegedly the oldest city in Europe. Around 1200 BC, the prehistoric settlement on Nebet Tepe was transformed into the Ancient Thracian city of Eumolpia, also known as Pulpudeva, inhabited by the powerful Ancient Thracian tribe Bessi.

During the Early Antiquity period Eumolpia / Pulpudeva grew to encompass the two nearby hills (Dzhambaz Tepe and Taxim Tepe known together with Nebet Tepe as “The Three Hills”) as well, with the oldest settlement on Nebet Tepe becoming the citadel of the city acropolis.

In 342 BC, the Thracian city of Eumolpia / Pulpudeva was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon renaming the city to Philippopolis. Philippopolis developed further as a major urban center during the Hellenistic period after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s Empire.

In the 1st century AD, more precisely in 46 AD, Ancient Thrace was annexed by the Roman Empire making Philippopolis the major city in the Ancient Roman province of Thrace. This is the period when the city expanded further into the plain around The Three Hills which is why it was also known as Trimontium (“the three hills”).

Because of the large scale public construction works during the period of Ancient Rome’s Flavian Dynasty (69-96 AD, including Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), Emperor Titus (r. 79-81 AD), Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD)), Plovdiv was also known as Flavia Philippopolis.

Later emerging as a major Early Byzantine city, Plovdiv was conquered for the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) by Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 812 AD but was permanently incorporated into Bulgaria under Khan (or Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836 AD) in 834 AD.

In Old Bulgarian (also known today as Church Slavonic), the city’s name was recorded as Papaldin, Paldin, and Pladin, and later Plavdiv from which today’s name Plovdiv originated. The Nebet Tepe fortress continued to be an important part of the city’s fortifications until the 14th century when the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. During the period the Ottoman yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, Plovdiv was called Filibe in Turkish.

Today the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement on Nebet Tepe has been recognized as the Nebet Tepe Archaeological Preserve. Some of the unique archaeological finds from Nebet Tepe include an ancient secret tunnel which, according to legends, was used by Apostle Paul (even though it has been dated to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD)) and large scale water storage reservoirs used during sieges, one of them with an impressive volume of 300,000 liters. Still preserved today are parts of the western fortress wall with a rectangular tower from the Antiquity period.


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