Deviant Burials: Archaeological Vampires
So, let’s get to the good stuff, by which I mean vampire skeletons. Of course, the skeletons in question are not actually vampires, but they were buried in a way that indicates that the people doing the burying were afraid that the deceased might be at risk of becoming a vampire. You can decide if this means that vampires aren’t real, or if anti-vampire burial strategies just work really well.
One of the more famous examples of vampire burials comes from a site in Drawsko, Poland. Drawkso I is a large cemetery dating to the 17th-18th century, notable for the fact that, despite its size, it doesn’t seem to be associated with a church or settlement. Just a big giant burial ground for no reason, no big deal. In recent years, around 330 burials have been excavated, mostly under the supervision of a very cool field school which I will always be sad I didn’t get to participate in.
So far, 6 of these burials have been classified as vampires, based on the fact that the deceased were found with sickles or stones placed over their necks, presumably preventing them from getting up (via decapitation) should they have awoken in their graves after the funeral. One hypothesis about the vampires at this site is that they may have all been victims of an outbreak of a disease, like cholera, which was common at the time. Since these deaths occurred in the days before germ theory, and given the human propensity to seek explanations for things we don’t understand, it’s possible that, if they did indeed die from disease, the community then attributed their sudden illness and death to attack by vampires or other evil spirits. Obviously, death-by-evil-spirit is pretty bad news for everyone, not just the dead person, so as well as protecting the dead from becoming vampires as well once they had died, these special burial rituals were also intended to protect the community.
Elsewhere in Europe, a 13th century burial in Bulgaria revealed the skeleton of a middle-aged man with the sharp edge of a ploughshare driven into his chest and his left leg removed (just in case the chest-stabbing wasn’t enough, I guess?); while a 19th century grave on the Greek island of Lesbos was found to contain the skeleton of man with eight-inch iron spikes driven through his neck, pelvis, and ankles, presumably anchoring him firmly to the ground in the event that he woke up again. One particularly famous European vampire, the Vampire of Venice, has actually been written about in scientific journals, including the Journal of Forensic Sciences, which is a pretty big deal if you’re into that sort of thing.
An Actual Brick in her Trap: The Vampire of Venice
As well as being the subject of publications in fancy academic journals, the Vampire of Venice is notable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, she (anthropologists have identified the skeletal remains as probably being female) was found with a brick shoved into her mouth.Secondly, unlike the Drawkso and other burials where we assume that the anti-vampire measures were added during the burial of the body (i.e. shortly after death); the scientists who studied the Vampire of Venice concluded that the brick was probably added some time after her original burial took place, possibly decades, or as much as 100 years later.
According to Emilio Nuzzolese and Matteo Borrini, who performed a forensic anthropological analysis of the skeleton, the woman who became the Vampire of Venice was likely a victim of the Venetian plague of 1576, and was subsequently buried in a mass grave. Later on, during the 17th century, the grave was re-opened in order to inter a victim or victims of another epidemic. It was at this point, so Nuzzolese and Borrini hypothesize, that the brick was inserted into her mouth, probably by the gravediggers. Given the association between outbreaks of disease and fear of vampires, it’s thought that the gravediggers, upon re-opening the grave, identified this particular woman’s remains as vampiric — and therefore potentially a cause of the epidemic which had produced the bodies they were burying — and so they inserted the brick into her mouth in order to prevent her from causing any more trouble.
As to why stuffing a brick in her mouth seemed like the best course of action rather than any of the other anti-vampire measures, there was evidence that the woman was originally buried in a shroud (there’s a whole sub-field of osteo-archaeology about this which I will cover in another post some time because it’s very cool). Naturally, as her flesh decayed, the shroud would have settled into the various crevices of her skeleton, including her open mouth, and this would have looked to the gravediggers like she was trying to chew her way out. Additionally, the shroud would likely have been stained with various dark, liquidy products of decomposition, making it look like this woman had most definitely been getting up to no good, despite being dead and buried. In this context, the brick in the mouth makes perfect sense as a sort of DIY vampire exorcism; she couldn’t chew on anything with a mouth full of masonry, after all, thus the vampire was vanquished.
So, if I had to come up with a tl;dr summary, I’d say that the main takeaway here is that vampires are far from a modern phenomenon. As we’ve seen, vampire folklore transcends both time and space — from 13th Century Eastern Europe, to modern day novels and movies. And while we now think of vampires as fictional beings that exist mainly as allegories and metaphors for other things, this doesn’t necessarily mean that our forebears were less smart than we are for believing that vampires were a legitimate threat. In the absence of the vast amount of medical and scientific knowledge that we have available to us today, they worked within the confines of what they knew or understood to be true about the world. In that sense, their ideas about the relationships between death, disease, and undead troublemakers were quite logical and reasonable to them, and as an added bonus, they left us some really cool skeletons to dig up and speculate about!