Born out of wedlock, unbaptized, conceived during a holy time, protruding eyes, even corkscrew hair – these traits could once mark you as a witch, zombie or vampire.
These dangerous dead were buried in deviant ways to make sure they stayed where they were put – face down, bricks shoved in their mouths, staked, nailed or decapitated. Burying the dead face-down goes back around 26,000 years.
Why did people believe the dead would rise up?
Gravediggers reopening graves would sometimes come across bodies bloated by gas, with hair still growing, and blood seeping from their mouths and believe them to be still alive. The shrouds used to cover the faces of the dead were often decayed by bacteria in the mouth, revealing the corpse’s teeth, and vampires became known as “shroud-eaters.”
Here are some of the top 10 stories of “real-life” vampires, witches and zombies and how people tried to bury them – for good.
The Drawsko Vampires
A farmer in northwest Poland was peacefully tilling his field when he hit bone.
The field, a kilometre outside the rural village of Drawsko turned out to be chock full of bones – comprising more than 330 skeletons.
Shockingly, six of the bodies were found staked down with sickles or had a stone placed in or under their jaws – documented anti-vampire measures in Poland of the 17th- and 18th-century.
What accounted for these deviant burials?
“All of these things we’re seeing have to do with keeping the body in the grave,” says Tracy Betsinger, a bioarcheologist at SUNY Oneonta who, with the University of Manitoba’s Amy Scott, was called in to investigate.
By examining their tooth enamel, the team identified where the corpses were local (PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113564).
This confirmed that it wasn’t outsider status that had targeted them for deviant burial.
Instead, the team suggests the six supernatural suspects may have been victims of the cholera epidemics in the 17th century. Being the first local to die from a disease outbreak could be another reason to mark someone as a vampire risk, they say. People turned to the supernatural to make sense of death and misfortune.
“It’s possible that one or more of these people were one of the first to die in an outbreak,” says Betsinger. “But it’s also just as likely that they were born out of wedlock, that they hadn’t been baptized, that they were conceived during holy period, that they were suspected of witchcraft in their life: that old lady down the street with four cats that everyone finds creepy, that kind of thing.”
No less than two medieval teenage witch burials were discovered in the northern Italian town of Albenga.
The first skeleton — believed to be that of a 13-year-old — was unearthed by a team from the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology near a church built on the site of a burial ground. Its unusual face-down position in the grave has some calling the child a “witch girl.” “These rare [prone] burials are explained as an act of punishment. What the dead had done was not accepted by the community,” excavation director Stefano Roascio told Discovery News.
What is unique about the “witch girl” is that she was buried on church grounds, a place that is not reserved for those who would be punished. She is believed to have had scurvy that disfigured her body, causing her community to reject her, archaeologists concluded in May 2015.
The second girl was considered so dangerous that, even after death, the villagers burned her, threw her in a pit and covered her remains with big stone slabs.
The researchers said scurvy causes pale skin and possibly other symptoms, including bleeding from the eyes, legs and mouth; protruding eyes; frog-leg posture; epileptic seizures; and corkscrew hair. If the girls had all these symptoms, they may have been rejected and buried in what is called a deviant burial so their souls, which scholars speculate the community thought impure, could not rise to haunt living people.
Bulgaria’s 100 Vampires
A Bulgarian archaeologist nicknamed “Bulgaria’s Indiana Jones” has said that only 25-30 years ago in some Bulgarian villages there was a special person responsible for sticking the dead bodies with stakes – to prevent the body from turning into a vampire.
People who were considered bad during their lifetimes might turn into vampires after death unless stabbed in the chest with an iron or wooden rod before being buried. People believed the rod would also pin them down in their graves to prevent them from leaving at midnight and terrorising the living. Throughout Bulgaria, the remains of over 100 vampire-treated people, all of them men, and all of them prominent citizens, have been found.
A 13th century staked “vampire” was discovered at Perperikon, a 7,000-year-old sacred site. The remains once belonged to a man who was likely in his 40s. An iron rod had been hammered through his chest to keep the corpse from rising from the dead and disturbing the living. To make sure, his left leg had been removed and placed beside the corpse.
At the time of the man’s death, vampires were perceived as a real threat in many Eastern European communities. People who died unusually—from suicide, for example—were sometimes staked to prevent them from coming back from the dead.
The Romani believed that anyone who was missing a figure, had an appendage similar to those of an animal or a horrible appearance was “one who is dead”.
Pre-historic Triple Burial
About Twenty-seven thousand years ago, in a stone-age village fenced in by mammoth bones, three young people were buried together. A woman disfigured perhaps by some congenital abnormality was placed in the middle. To her left, a man was laid prone, his face in the dirt. To her right, another man had his hands angled awkwardly onto her groin, where red ochre, a pigment with ceremonial significance, was sprinkled. A thick wooden pole was driven through this man’s own groin and thigh, pinning him to the ground.
For archaeologists, including the researchers who exhumed this trio in the 1980s in the Czech Republic, such burials are like prehistoric murder-mystery puzzles. It’s likely that the three individuals buried together were genetically related and actually belonged to one family.
This may have been an example of human sacrifice, a new study claims.
The diversity of the individuals buried together and the special treatment they received could be a sign of ritual killing, said Vincenzo Formicola of the University of Pisa, Italy.
What is certain is that it seems to be the first case of “staking” the dead.
Did Zombies roam Medieval Ireland?
Two early medieval skeletons were unearthed in Ireland with large stones wedged into their mouths — evidence, archaeologists say, that it was feared the individuals would rise from their graves like zombies.
The skeletons emerged during a series of digs carried out between 2005 and 2009 near Loch Key in Ireland by a team of archaeologists led by Chris Read from the Institute of Technology in Sligo, Ireland and Thomas Finan from the University of St. Louis.
The “deviant burials” were two men who were buried there at different times in the 700s. One of the men was between 40 and 60 years old, and the other was a young adult, probably between 20 and 30 years old. The two men were laid side by side and each had a baseball-sized rock shoved in his mouth.
Revenants or the “walking dead” tended to be people who lived as outsiders in society. The two Irish men could have been considered potentially dangerous people, such as enemies, murderers, rapists or they could have been ordinary individuals who died suddenly from a strange illness or murder.
Anything outside the norm would have caused the community to fear that these people could have come back to life to harass their loved ones or others against whom they had a grudge. The mouth was seen as a key part of the body for such a transformation.
“It [the mouth] was viewed as the main portal for the soul to leave the body upon death. Sometimes, the soul could come back to the body and re-animate it or else an evil spirit could enter the body through the mouth and bring ithttp://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/zombie-skeletons-ireland-grave-110916.htm”> back to life,” Read said.
The Great New England Vampire Panic
In the 1990s, archaeologists working in a small 18th- to 19th-century cemetery near Griswold, Connecticut, came across something highly unusual: the grave of a 50-something-year-old man whose head and upper leg bones had been laid out in a “skull and crossbone” or jolly roger pattern.
Physical anthropologists determined that the man or J.B., as he came to be known, had died of what was then called “consumption”—and what is now known as tuberculosis. Those who suffer from this infectious disease grow pale, lose weight, and appear to waste away—attributes commonly linked both to vampires and their victims.
To play it safe, local inhabitants seem to have decapitated the body of the suspected vampire. Subsequent analysis showed that the beheading, along with other injuries, including rib fractures, occurred roughly five years after death. Somebody had also smashed the coffin.
Though scholars today still struggle to explain the vampire panics, a key detail unites them: The public hysteria almost always erupted in the midst of savage tuberculosis outbreaks. Often, the survivors blamed early victims as “vampires,” responsible for preying upon family members who subsequently fell sick. Often an exhumation was called for, to stop the vampire’s predations. In many cases, only family and neighbours participated. But sometimes town fathers voted on the matter, or medical doctors and clergymen gave their blessings or even pitched in.
In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton,” an early town history says. “It was the month of February and good sleighing.”
Mercy Brown – the quintessential American vampire story
History knows the 19-year-old, late-19th-century vampire as Mercy Brown. Her family, though, called her Lena.
Mercy Lena Brown lived in Exeter, Rhode Island — “Deserted Exeter,” it was dubbed. By the 1800s, when the vampire scares were at their height, consumption was responsible for almost a quarter of all deaths in the north east. People dreaded the disease without understanding it. The year Lena died, one physician blamed tuberculosis on “drunkenness, and want among the poor.” Nineteenth-century cures included drinking brown sugar dissolved in water and frequent horseback riding.
The Brown family began to succumb to the disease in December 1882. Lena’s mother, Mary Eliza, was the first. Lena’s sister, Mary Olive, a 20-year-old dressmaker, died the next year. Within a few years, Lena’s brother Edwin—a store clerk whom one newspaper columnist described as “a big, husky young man”—sickened too, and left for Colorado Springs hoping that the climate would improve his health.
Lena didn’t die until nearly a decade after her mother and sister were buried. Neighbours approached George Brown, the children’s father, and offered an alternative take on the recent tragedies: Perhaps an unseen diabolical force was preying on his family. It could be that one of the three Brown women wasn’t dead after all. If the offending corpse was discovered and destroyed, then Edwin would recover. The neighbours asked to exhume the bodies, in order to check for fresh blood in their hearts.
George Brown gave permission. On the morning of March 17, 1892, a party of men dug up the bodies, as the family doctor and a Journal correspondent looked on. After nearly a decade, Lena’s sister and mother were barely more than bones. Lena, though, had been dead only a few months, and it was wintertime. “The body was in a fairly well-preserved state,” the correspondent later wrote. “The heart and liver were removed, and in cutting open the heart, clotted and decomposed blood was found.” During this impromptu autopsy, the doctor again emphasized that Lena’s lungs “showed diffuse tuberculous germs.”
Undeterred, the villagers burned her heart and liver on a nearby rock, feeding Edwin the ashes as a “cure”. He died less than two months later.
Vampire of Venice
Italian researchers found the remains of a female “vampire” in Venice, buried with a brick jammed between her jaws to prevent her feeding on victims of a plague which swept the city in the 16th century. The discovery marked the first time archaeological remains had been interpreted as those of an alleged vampire
New investigations have now shed light on who this “vampire” was, why people may have suspected her of dabbling in the dark arts, and even what she looked like. DNA analysis revealed that the woman was European and between 61 and 71 years old (very old for the 16th Century).
In medieval Europe, when fear of witches was widespread, many people believed the devil gave witches magical powers, including the ability to cheat death. That means such a relatively old woman—suspected after death of being a vampire—may have been accused in life of being a witch, the researchers say. In any case, Europe’s misogynistic society specifically linked old women with witchcraft.
A 3D reconstruction showed the face of an “ordinary woman”.
In the 1990s, University of British Columbia archaeologist Hector Williams and his colleagues discovered an adult male skeleton whose body had been staked to the ground in a 19th-century cemetery on the Greek island of Lesbos, also known as “Vampire Island”. Whoever buried the man had driven several eight-inch-long iron spikes through his neck, pelvis, and ankle.
“He was also in a heavy but nearly completely decayed wooden coffin,” says Williams, “while most of the other burials [in the cemetery] were simply in winding sheets in the earth.” Clearly, someone did not want the man to escape the grave.
According to 18th- and 19th-century travellers, suspected vampires were nailed to their caskets to keep them from rising from the dead. The body was almost certainly that of a Muslim, believed to be the first time a corpse of a person other than a Christian had been found treated in this fashion.
Vampire and the Volcano
Another 411 miles South of the Island of Lesbos is the Island of Kammeni (or Kaimmeni) in the area of Santorini. Kammeni is known to be a powerful and mystical place of vampire exile. Relatives of the deceased would prep the body, place a small cross comprised of a piece of silver and two pieces of wood into the mouth of the corpse. The hands would then be bound by rope that had been saturated with holy water before placing the body in a boat and transporting their loved one to the island.
The belief was that because of the volcano, the soil was rich in sulfur which would inhibit the corpse from rising once more. The families would also have the additional security of knowing that if the deceased were to turn into a vampire, it would not be able to cross the salt water.
Unintendedly, the cautious families were in fact preserving their dead. The high levels of sulphur combined with the anti-bacterial properties of the soil work together to delay the decomposition of the corpse while mummifying the remains. It is said that on the island the dead won’t melt thus numerous mass vampire graves are being discovered more and more frequently.