The Archaeology Of Vampires

Fear of the undead has been around for a very long time. Whilst the term ‘vampire’ wasn’t first used until around the sixteenth century, the ideas of people rising from the dead, drinking blood or infecting the living were rife much earlier.

The Persians had their fair share of blood-drinking demons, as did the Ancient Greeks, though their blood-drinkers weren’t described as undead. In ancient India, folklore featured vetalas, ghoul-like beings that inhabit corpses.

As far as I’m aware, no archaeologist has ever found a skeleton with pointy teeth that tried to bite back. On the other hand, there’s plenty of weird burials out there that suggest that someone was concerned about what the dead might get up to…

In Drawsko, Poland, archaeologists unearthed around 285 human skeletons between 2008 and 2012, most of which were fairly ordinary burials, some in coffins and some not. However, some of these burials were more unusual.

Five had a sickle placed either across the throat or abdomen, and it’s been suggested that this would act to remove the head or disembowel the individual should they decide the afterlife was not for them, and try to get up for a stroll. Grisly, but presumably less so than having to behead your loved one after they’d clawed their way from their grave.

Others had a stone placed on the throat, perhaps to prevent them from being able to feed on living persons, suggesting that fears were directly related to being nibbled on by someone who’d been buried the week before.

Photo: © Gregoricka et al via Plos One
Skeleton with sickle across neck, left, skeleton with stone on throat, right

Someone clearly had the same idea in Venice, where a skeleton from a mass grave of 16th century plague victims on the island of Nuovo Lazzaretto had a brick forced into her mouth. The intention, the excavator said, may have been to prevent vampirism. Why this woman in particular?

The gases and fluids produced by a corpse as it decomposes can make it appear as though a corpse has chewed through its shroud, perhaps appearing to grave-diggers to be hungry even after death; a brick in the mouth might have seemed a quick and easy way to put minds at rest.

Then again, it might have been something about the woman in life that caused her to be treated differently in death. Perhaps she was an outsider, with a different appearance, different customs, or a different way of life. Perhaps she’d been suspected of witchcraft.

In Bulgaria, which is home to around 100 ‘known vampire’ burials, skeletons have even been found staked through the heart or stabbed with rods in order to prevent them rising from the grave, a method of vampire disposal which has become fairly common in folklore.

Of course, Bulgaria borders Romania, the birthplace of the most famous vampire of them all – Count Dracula. So it’s not surprise they’ve found so many ‘vampire’ burials. Vampire hysteria in eastern Europe in the 18th Century even saw the magistrates and the military involved in alleged cases of vampirism.

800px-vampire_skeleton_of_sozopol_in_sofia_pd_2012_05Photo: ©User:Bin Im Garten/Wikimedia Commons/CC-SA-3.0
Skeleton pinned down with a piece of iron, Sofia, Bulgaria.

So should we be thanking the gravediggers of the past from saving us from a vampire epidemic? It’s worth noting that some studies have suggested that these burials are not as unusual – or as negative – as they’ve been made out. These people might not have been considered ‘the most likely to rise again’, but have had particular social or cultural affiliation that affected how they were buried.

Either way, be sure to remember your stakes this Halloween. You never can tell when they’ll come in handy.