Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Undead, Alive in the Archaeological Record: Vampires

                               The Undead, Alive in the Archaeological Record: Vampires
One of the two "Vampire" skeletons found in Sozopol, Bulgaria. Source 

Vampire folklore, and generally fear of the dying and of the dead is among the oldest of anxieties and phobias. Current theory surrounding vampires that have been found in archaeological sites, particularly in Europe, is that these individuals were deviants, criminals, terminally ill  or deformed during their lives.  Illness demonization may have resulted from a lack of medical or scientific knowledge, though most likely a combination of them both.  The cultural response, both modern and historic,  to the unknown seems to be fear and violence towards the accused, behaviors or appearances that differed were cast as "other" and, thus, "bad". "Othering" reflects the exclusion or subordination of an individual. Within "vampire" burials, it is reflected in atypical burial practices or physical trauma.
Sorry, Edward. You're more accurately a revenant.

Included in this cultural response is the name "vampire" itself. The term was not popularized until the 19th century literature, namely Bram Stoker's Dracula. Instead, using "vampire" draws from the popular portrayal of vampires as sympathetic, dynamic, and heroic characters, as seen in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight
To avoid this, I propose that "revenant" is a more appropriate term as it describes any individual who returns from death, exits their grave, and terrorizes the living, while "vampire" denotes an individual who suck blood from their victims after exiting their grave. Etymology cannot be directly be derived from burial practices, and I would prefer the nomenclature of "revenant" as a more accurate term.  

To bury a vampire involved the removal of the cranium (making exiting physically challenging), placing stones in the oral cavity (preventing exiting by way of eating), or using objects such as rocks or stakes to pin down the corpse within its grave (more exiting restraint), or a combination of these.  Practices such as these that involved physical force and/or traumas, rather than acts that simply manipulated soft tissues. These practices can be investigated within the osteological remains.   Bone is preserved because of its collagen and hydroxyapatite composition, which form a strong bond that resists decomposition when conditions are favorable. Such is the case in dry, arid climate such as the Bulgarian landscape.

Close view of the iron stake, in the upper right torso area. Source

In the case of the Sozopol, Bulgarian vampire discoveries, two male individuals were found with a singular iron stake resting in the middle of the skeletonized remains. The burials date back to the 14th century, a time during which the plague ravaged most European countries.  Yet there are conflicting and contrsting reports by both National Geographic and the Sofia News Agency. While National Geographic refers to a singular man as a "corpse" and "skeleton", Sofia News Agency refers to both male "individuals". Simple manipulation and precision of language allows for these separate media outlets to construct very different identities for these "vampires". 

The presence of metal stakes in the male’s grave suggest that staking his deceased body would prevent his transformation into a vampire in order to protect the well-being of his family or community members.  Placing a sharp object in the grave was believed to puncture the body as it bloated, which was the how the deceased was thought to have transformed into a vampire. The sharp object also inhibited a vampire’s bodily movement, and prevented any possible escape from the grave. This evidence, found in the Bulgarian grave at Sozopol is indicative of a belief that this individual was different -- an "other"

By using the words of "skeleton", "vampire" and "corpse", media outlets are maintaining the deviant and monstrous identity under which the individual was buried, while additionally constructing the identity of a modern archaeological monstrous figure that exists for modern readers. 

The media has a responsibility not only to the archaeologist's work, their journalistic integrity, but also to the deceased about whom they are writing. Using the word "vampire" is itself sensational, as it draws upon the popularity of those creatures within popular culture to gain readership. Though, doing so risks dishonoring the memory of the individual in hopes of making a quick dollar. 

 Within the archaeological record these "vampire" remains, paired with revenant folklore, narrate a society's reaction to an illness, atypical behavior, or misunderstood postmortem processes. The creation of deviant burials serve to chronicle the process of "othering" during medieval Bulgaria. I take issue with the use of "vampire", "corpse" and "skeleton" by the media as there is a risk of further "othering" those accused of "vampirism" during their lives. The media risks their readership alienating those who were violently demonized. The Bulgarian cultural beliefs are not to be judged or evaluated by our modern audience. Rather, these cultural beliefs should be used, as a lens through which deviant burials can be understood. Additionally, our own popular cultural belief of vampires as sympathetic, dynamic characters should not be projected back onto the past. 

Kelsey Kephart


Further Reading:

Anastasia Tsaliki. "Vampires Beyond Legend: a Bioarchaeological Approach" Proceedings of the XIII European Meeting of the Paleopathology Association, Chieti, Italy, 18-23 Sept. 2000. Ed. M. La Verghetta and L. Capasso. Teramo: Edigrafital S.p.A, 2001. 295-300.

Anastasia Tsaliki. "Vampires, the media, and quality control in archaeology". Publishing Archaeology. March, 19, 2009.

Unrelated burials

Venice "Vampire", Plague Victim or Witch?

Vampire Skeletons Mystery by NatGeo

Great New England Vampire Panic


  1. I think this is a fascinating subject. I remember in class that you mentioned you were having some trouble finding sources. Could you possibly expand your geographic area to include other Balkan regions or maybe compare medieval Bulgaria to places traditionally associated with vampire folklore such as Transylvania or Wallachia?

  2. This is such an interesting topic. I am curious if you could find any connection between the way 'vampires' are represented in contemporary culture and the way they were seen during the times of these burials.

    It would also be interesting to do some mapping of where these 'vampire' remains have been discovered.

  3. You might find this text informative: Gilmore, D.D. 2003. Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and all Manner of Imaginary Terrors. Phil.: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  4. What is the difference between a revenant and a zombie?


    1. Also if ensuring the dead did not rise was a main concern why did they not just burn the body? Why did they opt for the complicated practices-the stone, the removal of the cranium, and so forth--?

  5. Ernest Becker –The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil

  6. I found this today on MSN- perhaps not directly related to your topic but interesting to see how vampires are seen/used today: