Archaeology of Vampires

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

Bulgarian Vampire? via National Post

A new article from Bulgaria argues that archaeologists have ‘stumbled’ upon new evidence of vampires. The evidence for this is that there was a burial of a man with an iron stake through his chest and trauma indicative of stab wounds to the heart. Since the burial dates to the 15th century, they argue that it was likely meant to prevent the individual from rising as a vampire. They argue, based on what evidence I do not know, that he was likely a medic or intellectual and would have been under suspicion. This brings the total number of potential vampires found in Bulgaria from this period to 100 cases. The current pattern shows that they are all men, likely wealthier individuals who would be suspected of evil in life, and were found with injuries indicative of being stabbed after death or were pinned down by metal stakes.

Italian Vampire? via Sulekha

This isn’t the first time that an archaeologist has cried ‘vampire’, although it does represent one of the larger cases. A female skeleton recovered from Venice dating to the 16th century was found with a brick in her mouth. She was part of a larger mass grave that contained the bodies of plague victims. Stories of the time period talk of these mass burials being reopened and finding individuals within who looked fresh and were vampires. It is possible that her lack of decomposition of the body and breakdown of the shroud was thought to be a sign of vampirism and the brick in the mouth was a method to prevent her feeding on the living or deceased.

Stories of vampires, or shroud eaters, are found in many cultures from a variety of time periods. Some of these are based loosely around historical events, such as the killings by 15th century prince Vlad the Impaler, who was thought to revel in the execution and torture of his enemies during his takeover of the Balkans, or the 16th century Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory, who was rumored to have tortured and killed hundreds of Hungarian girls. While the word vampire itself wasn’t popularized until the 18th century when Europe was plagued by a rise of vampiric rumors, blood sucking entities have been told of in folklore since prehistory. These prehistoric vampires were primarily demons and witches, and it wasn’t until Christianity began to spread that blood sucking was associated with the recently deceased. The vampires from this early Christian era drank the blood of sinners, which is mirrored by the faithful drinking the blood of Christ. This is why the cross figures as a way to ward off vampires.

Accounts from 12th and 13th century Europe note rumors of vampires, but it isn’t until the 17th century that the blood sucking fiends as we know them are popularized. Recently deceased are cited as rising to drink the blood of the living and take advantage of women. Throughout the Enlightenment, graves were opened in the daylight to find vampires and stop their killing sprees. Even Voltaire commented on the sudden concern with vampires in this era: “These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer.”

The question is not whether vampires did or did not exist. The reality is that people identified individuals in the past as vampires and that there was a real fear of the possibility. Since identification of vampires required destruction of them, we can in fact identify who people thought were vampires. The individuals found in Bulgaria with stakes through there chests are NOT vampires, but it does indicate a real manifestation of a fear of vampires. However, we must be careful even when identifying this as these injuries and artifacts could be present for other purposes. We need to note a strong cultural tradition that matches the behavior seen in the archaeological record. While a stake through the heart does match folklore, this behavior wasn’t solidified until the 17th century. Personally, I would love to hear some alternative explanations before we jump to vampires.

Archaeology of Vampires, part II

Works Cited

Archaeology 2012 Archaeologists Stumble Upon ‘Vampire’ Skeleton in Bulgaria. Novinite.

Choi 2011 Vampire plague victim. Huffington post

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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