Unusual-ology is a new post type which focuses on weird new articles/science areas that have cropped up and caught my eye.
A recent news story, which can be viewed here, has brought to the attention of the public the topic of ‘vampiric burials’, due to the discovery of a 16th/17th century ‘vampiric burial’ in Poland. These burials have been linked to vampire activity due to the unconventional layout of the skeletal remains – the occupants of the graves had been decapitated with their head placed between their legs. This activity of decapitating a suspected vampire had evolved from the European folk belief that decapitation is the only way to ‘keep the undead dead’. But this is not the first instance of the discovery of these superstitious burials.
Another ‘vampiric burial’ was found in Venice during a research project on mass graves located in Nuovo Lazzaretto, where the corpses were from numerous plague deaths. One skeletal remains that stood out was that of a woman. The peculiar thing about this corpse was that a brick of moderate size was placed within her oral cavity, keeping her mandible wide open (Nuzzolese & Borrini, 2010).
The positon of the brick was ruled out to be accidental, it wasn’t a piece of sediment that just happened to have fallen into place – it had been purposely placed there, but why? Nuzzolese & Borrini (2010) hypothesise that this is part of a symbolic burial ritual of which the gravediggers practice when there was a suspected vampire – who they thought could have been the cause for the plague ravishing their village.
Europe isn’t the only place to have encounters with ‘vampire graves’. A journal dating back ten years addressed America’s, more specifically New England, vampire folk beliefs using bioarchaeological and biocultural evidence. Sledzik & Bellantoni (1994) examined how folk beliefs associated with death and disease can impact archaeological records from their use of unusual post-mortem actions. In this study Sledzik and Bellantoni focused on a single 18/19th century male skeleton, known as J.B, aged between 50 to 55 years old. They chose J.B due to his skeletal remains being rearranged; the bones of his chest disrupted and his skull femoral placed in a “skull and crossbones” position. J.B had died from either tuberculosis or a pulmonary infection – which was interpreted as tuberculosis, also known as consumption at the time of death. It’s hypothesised that fellow family members, seven years later, contracted tuberculosis. The family assumed that the deceased male had returned from the dead and had ‘fed’ on them. From this notion, the family exhumed the corpse of J.B to kill the ‘undead’, keeping with the New England belief of killing a vampire by burning their heart. When they exhumed J.B. and found his body decomposed and missing his heart – which could then not be burnt – they decided the best course of action was to disrupt his corpse to stop reanimation.
So the discovery of the Polish vampire graves may have shot vampire burials into the limelight, but this isn’t the first archaeological case of superstitious vampire burial rituals, and it won’t be the last.
Daily Mail. 2013. Archaeologists unearth ‘vampire graves’ containing decapitated skeletons with skulls placed between their legs on Polish building site. Daily Mail News.
Nuzzolese, E., Borrini, M. 2010. Forensic Apporach to an Archaeological Casework of “Vampire” Skeletal Remains in Venice: Ondontological and Anthropological Prospectus. Journal of Forensic Sciences. 55, 6. p1634-1637.
Sledzik, P., Bellantoni, N. 1994. Brief Communication: Bioarchaeological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 94, 2. p269-274.
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