Archaeology of Vampires, part II

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

Last year, I posted about a number of ‘vampire’ burials that had been uncovered throughout Europe. These included a burial of a man with an iron stake through his chest and trauma indicative of stab wounds to the heart from 15th century Bulgaria, and a female skeleton recovered from Venice dating to the 16th century who was found with a brick in her mouth. The presence of ‘blood drinking’ entities is found in folklore from prehistory, though it isn’t until the 18th century that the word ‘vampire’ becomes directly associated with this type of deviant practice. Recently, vampires have regained popularity through TV and movies that associate blood drinking with dark romance.

One of the 'vampires' from Poland, via Nat Geo and Andrzej Grygiel, European Pressphoto Agency

One of the ‘vampires’ from Poland, via Nat Geo and Andrzej Grygiel, European Pressphoto Agency

Due to this popularity, it isn’t surprising to find that vampires make sensational news in the archaeology world. The newest archaeological vampire find is a cemetery in Poland. During construction on roadways in Gliwice, a number of human remains were uncovered. Archaeologists were called in to investigate. In total, the cemetery has 17 individuals, all of which had been decapitated and had their skull placed between the hands or knees. No artifacts were found with the bodies. The bones date from the 15-16th centuries, and the lack of artifacts in odd given that at least a shroud pin should have been found with the remains. The cemetery lies close to a known site for execution, and further archival research is being done to determine whether the gallows have any relationship to the cemetery. At the moment, it isn’t known if the removal of the skulls was the cause of death or a post-mortem change to the body.

The archaeologists from the site argue that the manner of burial strongly indicates that they were placed this way to prevent them from rising as vampires or to kill an individual thought to already be a vampire. During this period in Eastern Europe, fear of blood drinking spirits was fairly widespread. By the mid-14th century, law was enacted by Serbian Emperor Stefan Dusan prohibiting exhumation and cremation of any deceased who were suspected of being vampires. This must mean that already by that time the belief was well established. These blood drinkers who rose from the dead were known by many names, including moroi, strigoi, mullo or others depending on the region and the specific acts they were thought to commit. Usually, the deceased who rose was an individual who did something malicious in life, died under tragic circumstances, or were not buried with proper rites. One of the earliest recordings of this type of behavior comes from Croatia in the 17th century- local authorities reported that a man named Guire Grando rose from his grave to drink blood of villagers and sexually harass his widow. In order to destroy him, he was staked through the heart- a method that failed. Finally, the village leader decapitated Grando, finally killing him permanently.  

The removal of the head appears to be a popular method of destroying vampires. If you recently saw Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter you know that this method works very well for him. However, decapitation doesn’t necessarily mean that they were thought to be vampires. Decapitation in Roman period burials appears to have been part of the ritual rather than a way of punishing or preventing them rising from the dead. If would be interesting to see these archaeologists explore some secondary options for this site. There seems to be a tendency for deviant burials in Eastern Europe to be immediately connected to vampires. While the folklore of vampires is strong in this region, and the time period does suggest a fear of the undead- it doesn’t mean that every deviant burial was of a person suspected of being a vampire. I would be more inclined to believe that this was part of the execution process rather than a large vampire cemetery. It will be interesting to hear more about this cemetery, and potentially read the final report (if it becomes available).

Archaeology of Vampires, part I

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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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