Weird 15th Century Miners’ Burials, Venetian Theriac Cap Found in Bulgaria’s Kremikovtsi Monastery near Sofia
Dozens of weird Christian burials in which 15th and 16th century local miners were buried with bricks on their heads have been discovered in a late medieval necropolis at the Kremikovtsi Monastery right outside of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia.
Possibly the most intriguing artifact from the newly unearthed graves is a cap from an ampule containing theriac, a medical concoction from the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages falsely considered a heal-all, a panacea.
The Kremikovtsi Monastery is located in the Kremikotvsi Quarter in the north of Sofia Municipality, on the southern slopes of the Balkan Mountains (Stara Planina).
It is believed to date back to the last decades of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422) in the 14th century, and to have been destroyed by the Ottoman Turks after they conquered Sofia in 1382.
Its surviving oldest church, however, was rebuilt by a local Bulgarian donor, Radivoy, in 1493, during the period when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, which is known in Bulgarian history as the Ottoman Yoke (1396/1422 – 1878/1912).
Radivoy is believed to have restored the temple in order to honor and bury there his son Todor and his daughter Dragana who are hypothesized to have died in a large plague epidemic in 1492.
Learn more about the Kremikovtsi Monastery in the Background Infonotes below!
The late medieval necropolis in the Kremikovtsi Monastery has been excavated since 2014 by archaeologist Vladislav Todorov and other experts from the National Institute and Museum of Anthropology in Sofia (the Institute of Experimental Morphology, Pathology, and Anthropology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences).
Over 30 graves from the end of the 15th century and the first quarter of the 16th century have been discovered in the necropolis in the Kremikovtsi Monastery in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia.
The burials are particularly peculiar because the skeletons in them have bricks placed on their heads, the Trud daily reports citing the research team.
A number of weird burials from the Late Antiquity or the Middle Ages in which the deceased had been subjected to certain post-death rituals have been found in Bulgaria.
Some of those have sometimes been described as “vampire” burials as the rituals in question such as driving a spike through the dead body were supposedly performed to prevent vampirism.
However, the late medieval Christian burials from the Kremikovtsi Monastery are the first burials to have ever been found in Bulgaria in which the deceased had had bricks placed on their heads.
Lead archaeologist Vladislav Todorov believes that the site of the necropolis actually had a cemetery church. Both it and the cemetery were used by the inhabitants of a nearby ore miners’ settlement.
According to research in the Ottoman archives, the ore miners’ settlement in question was called Kremikovche. The digs indicate that in the 16th century, the necropolis was abandoned, and the church perished.
According to Todorov, that might have been caused by the insufficient capacity of the cemetery, or by the ore miners moving their settlement because of a plague epidemic.
Monastery buildings emerged on the spot once again in the 18th century, and the Kremikovtsi Monastery flourished during Bulgaria’s National Revival period (18th – 19th century).
The buildings erected on the necropolis spot back then were in use after Bulgaria’s Liberation from the Ottoman Empire, until the mid-20th century when they were destroyed in a fire and were never rebuilt.
Carbon dating analysis of the bones from the more than 30 skeletons found with bricks on their heads confirms carried out in the University of Glasgow in Scotland confirms that the burials date back to ca. 1500, the same period as 1493 when Radivoy restored the St. George Church of the Kremikovtsi Monastery.
“The surfaces of the bones from the necropolis indicate intensive physical activity of the people who were buried here,” anthropologist Nadezhda Atanasova is quoted as saying.
“They are mostly men with massive skeletons and a large number of fractures. This seems connected with the ore mining activity of the people buried there,” she elaborates.
Atanasova points out that the ore miners were buried without coffins, and it was most probably because of this that their relatives covered their heads with bricks: as a means of protecting them from the soil.
All of the people from the excavated late medieval graves had cavities on their teeth, and two of them had malignant bone tumors.
Artifacts discovered in the ore miners’ necropolis in Bulgaria’s Kremikovtsi Monastery include religious vessels, locks, padlocks, and tokens that were exchanged for food, not unlike food stamps.
Perhaps the most intriguing find, however, is a cap from a theriac ampule. Theriac, a supposed heal-all medical concoction was developed by Ancient Greeks in the 1st century AD, and was used all around the world as a false panacea for nearly 2,000 years.
It was produced in several large cities in Europe all the way from the 2nd century AD until the 19th century.
An inscription on the ampule cap found in the newly excavated necropolis in Sofia’s Kremikovtsi Monastery shows that the theriac it contained was made in Venice.
The researchers point out that the false heal-all theriac was forged a lot so to guarantee its authenticity, the medieval pharmacists from Venice would produce the substance publicly on the San Marco Square, only on certain days of the year, so that anybody could witness its ingredients and preparation.
The research team of archaeologists and anthropologists from the National Institute and Museum of Anthropology in Sofia are set to continue to research the site of Bulgaria’s Kremikovtsi Monastery with further excavations. In 2017 and 2018, their digs there were funded by Sofia Municipality.
The Kremikovtsi Monastery is a Christian, Bulgarian Orthodox monastery located near the Kremikovtsi Quarter of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, on the southern slope of the Balkan Mountains (Stara Planina).
Its old church and supposedly the first monastery residences date back to the mid- or late 14th century, the last decades of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422), whereas more recent monastery residences for monks were built there in the 18th century. (Bulgaria was part of the Empire of Ottoman Turkey until 1878/1912, a period in Bulgarian history known as the Ottoman Yoke.)
The St. George Church of the Kremikovtsi Monastery is believed to have been first built during the reign of Tsar Ivan Alexander of the Second Bulgarian Empire (r. 1331 – 1371). However, the earliest unconditional historical source confirming its existence dates to the end of the 15th century: a gospel book in Old Bulgarian from 1493 written at the order of then Sofia Metropolitan (bishop) Kalevit.
The Kremikovtsi Monastery is believed to have been completely destroyed in 1382 when the Ottoman Turks conquered Sofia, back then one of the major strongholds of the Second Bulgarian Empire, following a tough siege.
The 1493 source says that back then, during the term of Sofia Metropolitan (bishop) Kalevit, Radivoy, a prominent Bulgarian man often described as a local aristocrat, rebuilt the demolished church St. George, and had it decorated with murals / frescoes to honor the memory of his son Todor and daughter Dragana, who are hypothesized to have died in a large plague epidemic in 1492.
(While the Ottoman conquest of the Second Bulgarian Empire destroyed the medieval Bulgarian aristocracy, including through its physical slaughter, there has been evidence of the presence of Bulgarian “aristocrats”, or at least wealthy, well-positioned Bulgarian locals in the Ottoman Empire in some parts of the Bulgarian territories well into the very Late Middle Ages. Sofia’s region may have been one of those parts. One such artifact testifying to that is the Urvich Treasure, which is dated to the dated to the 14th-17th century AD, and was discovered in the Urvich Fortress, 15 kilometers (10 miles) southeast of Sofia.)
In 1503, an earthquake destroyed the roof of the St. George Church of the Kremikovski Monastery, and it was repaired. Another donor’s inscription inside the church informs that the temple was renovated once again in 1611.
Archaeological excavations led by archaeologist Vladislav Todorov from the National Institute and Museum of Anthropology (Institute of Experimental Morphology, Pathology, and Anthropology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences) in Sofia in 2014 – 2018 revealed the existence of a necropolis from a miners’ settlement at the Kremikovtsi Monastery in the 15th – 16th century. The burials in it were peculiar since the bodies were laid in the graves without coffins but with bricks on their heads.
The necropolis and the church were abandoned in the 16th century, while new monastery residences emerged on the spot in the 18th century, with the Kremikovtsi Monastery flourishing during the period of Bulgaria’s National Revival (18th – 19th century).
The monastery buildings erected during that period were in use by the monks up until the mid-20th century when they were destroyed in a fire and were never rebuilt.
Part of the relics of Bulgarian Christian martyr St. Georgi Sofiyski (St. George of Sofia) (1497 – 1515), who was burned on a stake by the Ottomans in Sofia for refusing to convert to Islam, and is one of the Nine Sofia Saints, were kept at the Kremikovski Monastery for a time.
During the Ottoman period, the Kremikovski Monastery was a major spiritual, educational, and literary center for the Bulgarians from Sofia’s region, and was used as a hiding place by Bulgarian rebels and freedom fighters.
After Bulgaria’s Liberation from Ottoman Turkey, about 20 nuns who were refugees from the region of the Malashevo Mountain (today in Southwest Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia) settled in the Kremikovski Monastery.
Bulgaria’s most famous poet and writer Ivan Vazov visited the monastery in 1897, and wrote a travel report about it.
The modern church of the Kremikovtsi Monastery named “Intercession (or Protection) of the Holy Mother of God” (Virgin Mary) was built in 1901 – 1907.
Other Modern Era residential buildings were constructed in the 1930s. The Kremikovtsi Monastery was a female monastery until the 1950s, into Bulgaria’s communist period (1944/46 – 1989).
However, in the 1950s and 1960s, for a total of 18 years, the monastery was used by the communist regime to quarter military troops which caused damages to its venues, and the nuns were sent to other monasteries.
Nuns were allowed to return in the 1960s. The 15th century frescoes / murals of the St. George Church were gradually restored between 1980 and 2003.
The 15th century building of the St. George Church at the Kremikovtsi Monastery is a one-nave, one-apse church with the architecture typical for Bulgarian churches in the 13th – 14th century.
The 15th century murals inside the temple and in its antechamber appear to have been painted by two different icon painters. Especially notable is a fresco of St. George, the temple patron, riding a white horse and sticking a long spear in a dragon.
The murals also feature images of the church donor, Radivoy, and his family as they present the church as a gift to then Sofia bishop Kalevit and its patron, St. George.
The most valuable artifacts owned by the Kremikovtsi Monastery are Bishop Kalevit’s Gospel Book from 1493 which has 307 pages, a 16th century icon triptych, and a wooden 17th century iconostasis. They are all kept in the monastery’s new church.
The Kremikovtsi Monastery also owns several impressive icons from the 15th, 17th, 18th, and 19th century.
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