A TRUE STORY?
Commentator 14/3, March 1970
Good ghost stories turn up in unlikely places. A few months ago, I found one of the best vampire stories I have yet read in the back files of the quarterly Antiquity, a journal which specializes in sober articles dealing with archaeological problems. In a way, of course, this story presents an archaeological problem, too. The author was the late A. J. B. Wace, one of the foremost archaeologists whose work on prehistoric Greece pieced together the picture of the civilization to which Helen of Troy and the great Achilles belonged. I believe it is a true story, but cannot vouch for it 1. Wace has a number of ghost stories to tell, and since he is now dead, he is no longer around to swear to their accuracy.
This tale took place in the spring of 1911, when Wace and another British archaeologist, Evesham, who died in World War I, were excavating cemetery of Bronze Age tombs close to the little village of Thymari in southern Greece. About a month after work started, they found the entrance passage of what promised to be a large rock-cut tomb, much like the others they had been finding, except that the passage was particularly wide. The tomb did not seem to have been disturbed since it was originally sealed up. Usually these rock-cut tombs were family vaults of sorts, which were reopened periodically for fresh tenants. Not this one. The entrance passage in front of the door was solidly blocked with a great mass of stone, and the doorway itself was walled up with gigantic blocks of limestone, Their joints carefully packed with yellow clay.
The workmen began to speculate about what they would find in the undisturbed tomb. Everyone dreamed of gold, although the most experienced of them prophesied that all they would discover would be the bones of a donkey, put there by the wily Odysseus as a practical joke on tomb robbers and archaeologists. He was a close as anyone to the truth. (He had also noticed that no vegetation grew above the tomb.) What the workmen found when the tomb was opened was one skeleton lying against the centre back wall, on its back, with its head to the west.
That day – Thursday – it was too late to continue work. So the two Englishmen picked a trusted man to sleep in the doorway of the tomb, to keep out curious night prowlers.
Early Friday morning, Evesham and Wace were aroused by violent knocking on their bedroom door. In burst a wild-eyed workman. He declared, with many appeals to the Virgin, that he had slept in the doorway of the tomb, and all had gone well until about half and hour before. Then he heard a rustle, and what sounded like the dry rattle of bones from inside the tomb. He called out a challenge. There was no reply. Then something touched his foot, and he lost his nerve and ran.
Evesham and Wace went out with their flashlights to investigate. It was already dawn. There was no disturbance in the tomb except that the skeleton seemed to have moved slightly, and there were footprints about it which might have belonged to a bird or some reptile.
Next day, work went on. The skeleton was completed bared, and in its rib cage there was found a bronze spearhead which was clearly prehistoric. Evesham removed the skull, which was well-preserved, and the spearhead, and locked them in a wooden box in the bedroom where the two archaeologists slept.
The guard set to watch the tomb Friday night was a former member of the Royal Evzone guard, and his courage was above suspicion. Yet, towards morning, he, too, came running. This time, when Wace and Evesham investigated, they found that the skeleton had disappeared, and on the tomb floor were more of the curious tracks. Evesham was inclined to believe that some of the villagers were playing tricks on them, for whatever reason.
Saturday, the foreman of the excavation crew went off to Argos, some distance away, to purchase supplies. The moon was up when he returned, and he had a strange story to tell. As he came up the bridle path to the village, which passed close by the cemetery which was being excavated, his horse began to fidget, and when the foreman checked it, it lowered its head and tried to kick. The foreman could see nothing. But as he drew closer, he thought he heard a rustle, or a rattle in the dry grass behind the low wall that edged the pathway. He called out. No reply. Finally, the path came abreast of a small chapel of the Virgin, on the edge of the village. The horse began to act normally again, and the rustling sound ceased.
The two British archaeologists were still not greatly perturbed. Yet, that night, Wace told how he slept fitfully. He seemed to feel an unseen danger menacing both of them. Finally, he awoke with a cry. Evesham was sleeping peacefully in his camp bed, one hand just touching the icon of St. George which he kept on the wooden box wherein lay the skull. Wace turned over, and slept the rest of the night.
Next day, Sunday, the village priest came to see Evesham. What passed between them, no one will know. Evesham told no one before his death, and when Wace wrote the story, the village priest had fallen victim to senility and too much wine. But Monday morning, Evesham summoned the workmen to the tomb, and the priest and he returned the skull to the place where it had been found, and set the bronze spearhead where the ribs lay before the skeleton disappeared. That done, the priest vested himself, and along with two or three neighbouring priests and a small company of boys as acolytes, performed the service for exorcising evil spirits. The braver ones went inside the tomb.
At the climax of the service, there was a violent gust of wind. The candles went out, and the tomb was plunged into darkness. All began to call loudly to the Virgin, and all the saints of heaven, and ran madly for the exit.
Afterwards, some of the acolytes claimed that they saw a saint in white armour entering the tomb, spear in hand. Neither Evesham nor Wace saw anything of the sort. But, over the protests of the villagers, they went back into the tomb to see what had happened. The floor was covered with fallen candles, icons, crosses, censers and other ritual objects dropped in panic. But along the centre back wall of the tomb lay the skeleton, complete, just as Wace and Evesham had first seen it, with the bronze spearhead where it was before, piercing the heart, if only skeletons had hearts. Standing upright before it was an icon of St. George.
That afternoon, the tomb was walled up again. A few years later, after Evesham was dead, Wace returned to Thymari and found that the pious villagers had set up a little chapel at the entrance to the tomb, and were calling it St. George the Vampire.
I pass on this story for two reasons. First, it is a good vampire tale, for vampires were known to the ancient Greeks long before they made their literary home in Transylvania. Second, in the period stretching from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough to the Second Vatican Council, St. George’s stock has dropped out of sight, and no one believes in his dragon anymore at all. But apparently he is still the bane of vampires, for Wace was one of the great classical archaeologists of the past generation, and Antiquity does not publish fiction.
1 I did not know Wace, but I did know his widow well. However I never asked her what she thought of this story.