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The Bones of Monsters: Vampires (Part1)

A few days ago, an article began to circulate about a medieval burial that revealed evidence that the people of the time and area had laid a vampire to rest. This is exciting for all parties involved!
Even if the archaeological aspect of the story doesn’t get you worked up, vampires have been a significant part of our pop culture for ages! We’ve watched these stories recreate themselves in literature, film, radio, theater, fine art, song, dance, religion, etc. In fact, two of my favorite vampire inspired tales are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel!
But pop culture aside, I’d like to dive into the archaeology and anthropology of the great monsters that excite or repel us. Burial traditions can reveal so much about the culture, people, traditions, concerns, politics, structure, religion, etc. of the people and society that practice them. Over the next two weeks, I’ll deconstruct some of these creepy ghouls as a way of exploring what anthropology and archaeology has to say about the ‘Bones of Monsters!’


I’m starting with vampires because of the articles that were sent my way about the burial found in Bulgaria.
So where did vampires come from? Matthew Beresford, author of “From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth” notes that “There are clear foundations for the vampire in the ancient world, and it is impossible to prove when the myth first arose. There are suggestions that the vampire was born out of sorcery in ancient Egypt, a demon summoned into this world from some other.”
It seems that the vampire myths appeared, in some way, all over the world. Before the advent of science and biology, there was very little known about why the body behaved the way it did after death. Even now, in all our science and technology, many people struggle and contemplate with what happens to the body, or soul, after it dies. It would be safe to infer that the myth of the vampire, like many other myths I’ll explore, arose as an attempt to understand life, but even more specifically, death.
Whatever the reasons were/ are, the burials of these alleged vampires can reveal even more about the myths associated with them.
The 13th century “vampire” found recently by archaeologist, Nikolai Ovcharovat, had a stake through its heart. We’re familiar with this vampire killing method, right? But, why a stake through its heart?! The idea was we could physically bind a vampire into the earth and keep it from rising by sticking a stake through its heart. The heart was a life force, even after death.
Let’s take a moment and consider the heart in mythology, philosophy, and culture. Metaphorically and symbolically, the heart has been associated with acts of both life and death. All around the world, we see the heart surface itself in ritual, emotion, and belief. For example, in ancient Egyptian religions, the heart was the path to the afterlife, it was the soul of a person, and it was weighed by Anubis, god of the afterlife. Your heart determined your fate. It was vital that the heart be left intake upon the death of a person.
Based on the stakes through the heart in vampire burials, it wouldn’t be completely unfounded to deduce that there were similar thoughts and beliefs present in the ideas and traditions in Bulgaria, along with many other European countries and areas that practiced this form of vampire disposal, during the time period.

Image via Nikolai Ovcharov
Image via Nikolai Ovcharov

The Smithsonian reports that:

Vampire hysteria commonly took hold of Slavic villages, with corpse-stakings occurring frequently. Around the region, archeologists have unearthed over 100 graves in which remains have been pinned down with such vampire-deterring methods.

Now, I want to discuss one of my favorite vampire burial traditions. I think I enjoy researching this one so much because it’s not seen or portrayed often in pop culture. In fact, I can’t be sure that I’ve seen it as a pop culture reference- probably because it is not as action packed as a stake through the heart or a beheading. However, it has some pretty good history and burials.
I’m talking about the skulls found with a rock inserted in their mouths!
During the 16th and 17th centuries, plague was very much a concern and would have shaped the culture and daily lives of Europe. As if the plague wasn’t enough, there were vampires doing the MOST!
Or at least that’s what a few burials seem to indicate.
Forensic anthropologist and archaeologist, Matteo Borrini, was working on a site in Italy (Lazzaretto Nuovo), excavating corpses of plague victims buried in the 16th and 17th centuries, when he and his team discovered a skull with a rock shoved in her mouth.  The myth that surrounded this particular practice, has been traced back as far as the 13th century. It was believed that vampires would chew through their burial shrouds and become vampires! (Read the full interview:
Shoving a brick in its mouth would prevent the body from chewing and eventually, the remains would die of starvation.

Image via Matteo Borneo
Image via Matteo Borrini

These stories might seem farfetched or the stuff of campfire awesomeness, but these ideas and beliefs persisted for centuries, and spread throughout the world until the advent of scientific knowledge. An iron spike, a rock, garlic, and other instruments of vampire exorcisms, while the methods seem crude, were the height of technology in their day.
Without the benefit of knowledge regarding germs, the spread of disease, decomposition, etc., people believed that ‘vampire’ was just as practical solution as any regarding how and why disease spread and caused a dead body to look a particular way (rigor mortis, bloat, expelling bodily fluids, etc). Demons were a very real part of every day existence.
When anthropologist examine the bones of many of the “vampire” burials, they notice in many cases, the bones are riddled with evidence of disease- ranging from plague to tuberculosis. Abnormality of behavior and the body could be explained through the creation and propogation of ideas that we now disregard as myth.
When we deconstruct culture, anthropologists try to provide a view that encompasses the historical records, the evidence, and the folklore. Each view point provides another clue into the whole picture. Without the records and folklore, the archaeological and bone evidence aren’t as compelling and are imcomplete. In fact, it may just seem like a weird burial. However, at its most basic, what we learn is that culture and humanity is rich with tradition, belief, and curiosity that seeks answers to the question ‘why?
Stay tuned to part 2, when I take a look at Witches!!!!
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