When I initially read about the uncovering and quick exhibition of the ’vampire skeleton’ in Bulgaria, I was reminded of some of the bog body finds here in Denmark. Public interest in seeing the so-called ‘Grauballe Man’ was so extensive, that the authorities decided to put him on display quickly, and the 19th century ‘Haraldskær Woman’ was romantically identified with Queen Gunhild who according to the Jomsvikinga Saga was drowned in a bog by order of King Harald Bluetooth.
Today we are instead used to archaeologists spending a very long time preserving and studying their finds before they are described in papers and exhibited. And we are, I think, generally suspicious of interpretations that smack too much of romanticism or ideology. Archaeological finds have all too frequently been exploited for political purposes, or ideology and politics have served as a motivational factor intrinsic to the discipline, pre-determining interpretational possibilities and distinguishing between the relevant and the irrelevant.
Douglass W. Bailey, an expert on the later prehistory of South Eastern Europe, author of Balkan Prehistory: Exclusion, Incorporation and Identity (2000) and Professor at San Francisco State University, cf. the video at the end of this post.
Based on his own work in Bulgaria as well as discussions with Bulgarian archaeologists, Bailey not only analyses Bulgarian archaeology and the Western attitude towards it, but suggests ways in which to develop it. Following Todorova’s well-known 1997 book Imagining the Balkans, Bailey notes that not only do Westerners consider Bulgaria and its archaeology exotic, ‘the history of modern Bulgaria is one of auto-exoticism’:
‘Bulgarian auto-exoticism has entailed efforts to create a modern nation-state by illuminating its distance (ethnic, historical, linguistic) from other states as well as to eliminate any internal alternative pockets of cultural or ethnic exoticism (thus the internal campaigns of forced resettlement and name-changing of 'non--Bulgarian' Bulgarians).’
'From the West, the discipline [of Bulgarian archaeology] appears to exist solely to glorify the ethos of a magnificent past through a fascination with the art and culture of extinct peoples. From this perspective it is confirmed as a discipline born in the spirit (and the period) of modernism: it seeks to study the primitive in its past and it relegates matters of causal explanation to the epiphenomena of descriptive ideas of cultural progress.
Thus, Bulgarian archaeology itself considers its object of study (i.e. the past) as exotic. In this sense, the more mundane elements of the material record hold little interest: common practice on excavations is to discard coarse-ware pottery without concern or quantification. The emphasis of research remains firmly centred on the most sensational and emotive sectors of the archaeological record (i.e. burials, figurines, metal-work, fortresses and fine-ware pottery). Most surprisingly, perhaps, the tradition of Bulgarian archaeology-as-romanticism has remained in place through the post-1989 period of the region-wide opening of intellectual borders, research resources and collaborative strategies.’
‘Following M. Todorova, I suggest that Bulgarian archaeology itself is an active socio-politics and ideology: it is not a passive tool of socio-political, nationalist, totalitarian, or other state--level political structures. Bulgarian archaeology's long-established position as a socio-political ideology is one of the conditions which makes it appear exotic to Western eyes.’
This active ideology, however, does not confine itself to (re)creating national histories and ethnic identities, it has a powerful role in a society in which the past arbitrates the present:
‘As an historical subject and thus as active socio-political ideology, Bulgarian archaeology occupies an unrivalled position as justifier and legitimator. In this sense, the past is an arbiter of the present and those who can read the past are arbiters of justice and, as such, possess considerable power. The ideology of the past as arbitration is not limited to the recreation of national histories and prehistories: it drives a social logic through the reality of all elements of daily life. A particularly strong recent manifestation of this logic was the enthusiastic (and in most cases successful) drive by Bulgarian families, in the early 1990s, to reclaim property confiscated by the communists during their forty-five years in power. Property reclamation rested on the simple principle that proof of ownership in the past justified the right to regain ownership in the present. The past arbitrates the present.’
But, if Bulgarian archaeology is in fact an ideology, then its professional practitioners must themselves be considered ideologues:
‘The case that Bulgarian archaeologists are ideologues rests on several important facts. The first is a long-standing link between politicians and members of the scientific and cultural intelligentsia. The second link connects two separate roles which Bulgarian archaeologists play: on the one hand they are scientific field-workers; on the other they are custodians and, as mentioned above, arbiters of the nation's past. These links raise (and suggest answers to) important questions about the power of archaeological data and its interpretation. In turn they raise a debate surrounding the personnel of Bulgarian archaeology, most particularly the question of who is allowed (as opposed to who is qualified) to study the past. Furthermore, it is through an examination of the practitioners of archaeology that one comes to understand the unchanging condition of archaeological interpretation in Bulgaria. Such an understanding is especially enlightening in the absence of either processual or post-modern developments in Bulgarian archaeologies.’
Bailey traces the linkage between science and politics back in time to the creation of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAN) a century ago in July 1912 as a centralised organisation based on a law formalising the connection between BAN and the government. This centralisation was further reinforced during the Communist era, and today it is still a member institution of BAN that grants permission to carry out field work in Bulgaria. The close link between the government and academia and intelligentsia is reflected in the number of academics and intellectuals who have and still do occupy important political offices, like e.g. the Director of the Bulgarian National Museum of History, Bozhidar Dimitrov.
Bailey however rejects any naïve and condescending depreciation of Bulgarian archaeology as ‘a retarded stage of development in the evolution of archaeological theory,’ as it does not only assume a Western righteousness of method, but also a lack of appreciation and understanding of the background of the contemporary Bulgarian discipline. Whereas the quest of a processual approach to archaeology (aka new archaeology) is for an objectivity separate from politics, the Bulgarian approach to archaeology can by definition not be separated from politics. So explanations do not ideally follow strictly from the given data, but are pre-determined by a centralised ideology: ‘often archaeological research entails little more than recovering more and more data which can be assigned to pre-determined chronological and social stages.’
Bailey discusses ways to ‘de-exoticise’ Bulgarian archaeology, and suggests that Western archaeologists ‘treat colleagues as peers and offer them the respect of critical comment on their work, their methods and the social consequences of their doctrines. To do otherwise is to abrogate any responsibility for the impact which archaeology has on the reality of modern existence in Bulgaria or in any place that archaeology is practised. The time to accept that responsibility is now when, as a discipline, Bulgarian archaeology drifts without proper financial ballast, having been orphaned from a long-exploitative family.’
Now this is, of course, Bailey's analysis, but from what I can gather from reviews and the information I have seen concerning his work, I have found it relevant to write about it here. It supports the notion that Bulgarian archaeology has a tendency to favour more sensational finds, possibly from an intrinsic reasons, but at the same time aiming at attracting not only attention from a wider audience, but also more funding, either directly from the government or indirectly from tourists who are perhaps not interested in the Bulgarian history in general, but who are willing to spend money to see a 'vampire skeleton' or to go on pilgrimage to the site of the (supposed) human remains of John the Baptist.
As for the skeletons themselves, the news stories about the 'vampire skeletons' have not only been imprecise, but have presented us with very little concrete information. For that reason I have so far mainly quoted the news stories instead of trying to discuss something that I feel I have only a vague idea about. But it is obvious that a) Bulgaria has now firmly placed itself as an area of 'vampire interest', and b) the archaeological finds are now to the public part of 'vampire lore'. Whatever that precisely is, but I suppose that films, novels and roleplaying games will be inspired by the Sozopol skeletons. At least, it probably has a little more to do with revenants and vampires than the most recent vampire blockbuster, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.