The Archaeology of Vampires 101

As Halloween draws near, I thought I'd do a quick round-up post about 'vampires' excavated by archaeologists. Many were in central Europe, not far from the traditional haunting ground of Vlad the Impaler, better known as Count Dracula, but others have been found throughout Europe. As always, a quick disclaimer that there is no proof that these were actual vampires - but those burying them did so in an unusual way, and these sorts of 'deviant burials' suggest that they did not want the 'undead' to rise up again from their tombs.

Werewolves appear occasionally in Roman sources,  and whilst there are no ancient 'vampires' that I know of, the idea of those not given a proper burial being unable to go on to the 'next' world appears in many stories, such as Antigone.

The idea of the undead or the walking dead took off under the Christians, perhaps as a myth designed to coerce people into staying with the Church to ensure they received a 'proper' burial and did not themselves become 'undead' through transgression. In the Medieval period it was a popular myth, with, for example an army of the Undead used in Normandy in 1091: see The Medieval Walking Dead.

I realise that these days we differentiate between vampires, zombies and the undead but in the pre-modern period they tended not to, and so archaeologists are unable to when we excavate their graves. Some deviant burials seem to suggest a lesser sin such as adultery, but when a corpse is pinned down with nails or stones, the item of those burying it is clear: they did not want it to rise up from the grave and wander the earth.

A British Vampire

The first British 'vampyre' was 'discovered' earlier this year - well, technically it was found in 1959, but it wasn't published until recently. What makes this one particularly interesting is that he was nailed to the ground with iron nails - a similar, much later example from Bulgaria is still unpublished. Other 'deviant' burials are known in the UK from this period (AD 550 to 700), but no vampire with a stake through the heart. There is a very well illustrated post about this discovery at i09 here, and the full academic paper on it here.

A Venetian Vampire

This 'vampire' died of plague in 1576 and was buried in a mass grave on an island off Venice. In 1576, when she was buried, the Venetians thought that the plague was spread by Vampires ... Interestingly she's female - previous 'vampire' graves have been mostly male, Medieval (so far older), and clustered in the area that is now the Czech Republic.  This Italian example shows how superstition continued well into the late Renaissance in a supposedly enlightened Republic such as Venice.

'Vampire' discovered in mass grave - New Scientist

Bohemian Vampires

Most other such 'vampire' burials were Medieval, and from Bohemia, the area of the former Czechoslovakia.

In 1966, 10 km NE of Prague at Celakovice, 14 tenth century graves were found with some unusual characteristics: the corpses had been beheaded, and their mouths filled with earth and stones (photo to left). 
In August 1999 an early Medieval woman was excavated at Olomouc in Moravia. The other bodies in the cemetery were aligned East-West, as is the Christian custom, but hers was aligned North-South - in addition her wrists and ankles were tied together, and she was buried face down. Her position showed she was considered to have been damned by her contemporaries. Other bodies were found which had been dismembered, suggesting some similar anger against them. 
It is difficult to be certain what those who buried these Damned in this way thought at the time, but the stones in the mouths and other deviant burials seem to have been to prevent the deceased from rising from the dead and bringing death back with them - there was no clear delineation between vampires rising from the dead and spreading death, and zombies doing so ... and both were described in sources as "living corpses" - but because these bodies were found in Central Europe, the home of the vampire myths, they were labelled as such by archaeologists.

 The first recorded use of the term vampire was in 1047 to refer to a Russian prince and scientists now believe he may have been suffering from rabies. At some point the Bohemians  switched to driving a stake through the hearts of vampires, but in the early period burials with a stone in the mouth were the accepted 'cure' to prevent them coming back to life. If you want to know more about these mostly 11th and 12th century "unusual" Bohemian and Moravian burials there is an article in German available here - some burials were head down (eg 3), others prone and on their sides. The problem is that this period is when the area was becoming Christian so some burials which seem unusual might be old pagan practices, and others a sort of desecration of pagan corpses by Christians. 

The Irish Vampires

In 2011 some 8th century skeletons were discovered in Ireland, each with a stone in its mouth and hailed as a 'zombie' burial ...

The excavators believe that the stones were placed in the mouths of those being buried to stop the deceased from rising again and coming back to life. This makes them Zombies in the modern parlance, but would also qualify them to be classified as Vampires had they been found in Bohemia - because there is little differentiation between the two in the Medieval period (the differentiation and additional characteristics are modern.
The new Zombie bodies were found at Kilteasheen near Loch Key in County Roscommon, Ireland, in a cemetary used from the 7th to 14th centuries which contained some 3,000 skeletons in all, of which 137 have been excavated. Only two of the bodies had stones in their mouths. One was a man aged 40 to 60, the other a man in his early to mid 20s; they were buried next to each other, one on his back with a black stone, the other on his side. 

The excavators describe Kilteasheen as:

The Kilteasheen Archaeological Project, run jointly by Christopher Read of IT Sligo and Dr. Thomas Finan of the University of St. Louis, has just entered its 6th year, its 5th funded by the Royal Irish Academy. After five seasons of excavation, the post‐excavation phase of the project has commenced. The excavation has revealed a complex, multi period site with Neolithic, Bronze Age, Early and Later Medieval components. This ecclesiastical site is mentioned frequently in the annals during the 13th century and is directly associated with the O’Conor kings of Connacht, clearly making it a high status site. The ruins of a small fortified building, a possible early Hall House, have been extensively explored and have been interpreted as the likely remains of the Bishop’s Palace built at the site in 1253 AD. This later use of the site appears to have been based on the site’s already established role as an Early Medieval enclosed settlement/cemetery. Over 120 skeletons have been excavated from a large, well managed cemetery, ranging in date from the 7th to 14th centuries AD. Hundreds of prehistoric lithics have been recovered from all medieval contexts and extensive field walking indicating the intensive use of the site during prehistory.

Did zombies roam medieval Ireland? Sleep on it - Discovery News
Revealed, Ireland's real-life zombie scare: Eighth century skeletons buried with stones in mouths - Daily Mail

The documentary about the Irish skeletons was Revealed - Mysteries of the Vampire Skeletons. It's on YouTube not available in my country here or on the Channel 5 web site in the UK here.

Bulgarian Vampires ...

One or two Bulgarian archaeologists seem to be constantly finding 'vampires' suggesting that they almost over-ran Medieval Bulgaria. A reader, Bryaxis, very kindly sent me photos, including this one, of the Sozopol vampire (more in comments here). 

Archaeologists Stumble Upon 'Vampire' Skeleton in Bulgaria - Novinite:

Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered a buried man with an iron stick in his chest in the Black Sea town of Sozopol.
The man, who was buried over 700 years ago, was stabbed multiple times in the chest and the stomach, as his contemporaries feared that he would raise from the dead as a vampire, National History Museum director Bozhidar Dimitrov has told local media.
  and the Daily Mail has picked up the story, with other photos - here
 An Italian Witch or a Vampire?

 I'm not sure if it's archaeologists getting lucky, or just the media being more interested, but we've been getting press coverage of another strange burial from a Medieval cemetery at Piombino in Tuscany, Italy.

Two bodies in particular interested the excavators, both of women. One was found buried with 17 dice, and since women were not allowed to play dice games at the time, they interpreted her as a having been a prostitute - which seems like a bit of a stretch in my opinion.

The second body was far more interesting ... Seven nails were placed in her mouth - reminiscent of the placing of stones in the Medieval 'zombies' in Ireland and the Medieval 'vampires' in Bohemia. Presumably this was an attempt to stop the women rising and returning from the dead. Yet in addition, in this Italian burial, the woman's clothes were nailed to the ground by 13 nails, to further 'hold' her down (see the yellow arrows indicating their positions) ... (more photos here).

Because of these highly unusual nails, the woman was identified initially as a witch. She died around AD 1300, aged 25 to 30, and was buried in the church yard amongst other citizens of Piombino who had been buried normally. Most of the other burials had a shroud and / or a simple coffin, but the 'prostitute' and the 'witch' had neither. The excavator, Prof Alfonso Forgione, of L'Aquila University, said he had never seen anything similar, and felt that the pinning down by nails was an attempt to stop her from 'rising' from the dead by those who buried her and who believed she had some sort of magical powers, making her a witch.

The fact that the two women were buried in the church graveyard, in consecrated ground, has been an issue, and led some to question whether a witch would be buried in this way. The Irish 'zombies' were certainly buried in a consecrated graveyard, as were many of the Bohemian and Moravian 'vampires' so I'm not sure why this should be an issue. It has however led at least one archaeologist to revise his opinion of the 'witch' burial and re-label her an 'adulteress'  ... seven nails through the jaw and another 13 pinning her clothes down seem to be to be over-kill for an adulteress, but then again it was a pretty serious sin in the Medieval period.

The English language coverage has largely been in the Daily Mail (here), but if you want slightly more intelligent coverage, then I recommend UNC anthropologist Krista Killgrove's blog post on the burials (here), since she links to all the Italian coverage, and knows what she's talking about.

For more Vampires ...

See  Katy M Meyers blog posts: Archaeology of Vampires and Archaeology of Vampires, part II

For the science behind possible infections interpreted as werewolves etc see: The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires

 For sources for possible Roman vampires see David Meadows' post: Roman Vampires!!

(An episode of Tomb Detectives covered vampire burials both in the early US and in Europe, but YouTube only allows US viewers to see it, so I have no idea if it's any good: YouTube preview here; US iTunes here)

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, Dorothy. You might want to check out Geoffrey Dennis' apropos post The Walking Dead: Jews, Judaism and Halloween here: http://ejmmm2007.blogspot.com/2006/10/jews-judaism-and-halloween.html


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