Archaeology of the Undead

Lots of press has been given in the past week to two late 7th to early 9th century burials found at the site of Kilteasheen in Ireland.  According to the news reports and the documentary (which won't air in the U.S. until 2012, but which you can see on YouTube... for now), archaeologists excavating at the site from 2005-2009 uncovered over 130 graves.  Two of them - both males - were buried with stones in their mouths, and one of the men also had a large stone on top of his torso.  Aside from a 2008 report of a 4,000-year-old burial, these two early 8th century Irish burials seem to be the oldest evidence of what may be the practice of preventing "revenants" (zombies, vampires, and other undead people) from returning to the land of the living.

8th century male burial from Kilteasheen, Ireland,
with large stone on and under torso
(screencap from documentary)
Both Dorothy King (PhDiva) and Michelle Ziegler (Contagions) have already blogged about this.  Dorothy points out some of the other evidence for "vampire" burials in Europe, such as the 10th-11th century cemetery of Celakovice near Prague that held a dozen people who were buried oddly (as with rocks in their mouths) and the so-called Vampire of Venice, a 60-year-old woman from a 1576 plague cemetery in Italy, who was buried with a large rock in her mouth (Nuzzolese and Borrini 2010).

The tradition of weighting down or otherwise defiling corpses (as with nails through the temple and stakes through the heart) seems to be a long one in Europe, born out of a fear of the dead that was related to the rise of Christianity, the lack of understanding of germ theory, and the increase in epidemic diseases.

There weren't, for example, vampires in Rome. The Romans actually had ongoing relationships with the dead, running pipes from the ground to the grave below in order to offer them food and drink and celebrating them at least once a year in the Parentalia.  The Judeo-Christian idea that the dead should go into the ground and stay there means that deviations from this practice - as hair and nails seemed to grow after death, for example - probably caused a lot of general freaking out.  But the simple introduction of monotheism may also have caused cultural stress, particularly in 7th century England, when kings were converting to Christianity and people were no longer sure what to believe.

Michelle points out that Ireland suffered through two major epidemics of bubonic plague, in 664 and 683, followed by a massive famine in 700.  Based on the C14 dates reported in the documentary, it's possible these two burials date as early as the late 7th century.  Rocks in or on the body of the deceased may have been meant to pin the person into the grave to prevent that person from rising or coming back, or may have been placed there because the mouth was where the soul escaped from.  But rocks may also have been important in the mitigation of disease.  Many of the archaeological examples of skeletons with mouth-rocks are assumed to have come from plague cemeteries. Some of the symptoms of bubonic plague are delirium, heavy breathing, and continuous blood-vomiting. People knew that plague could spread but didn't understand how, so blocking a person's mouth may have been an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease. The sight of a terminally ill person coughing up blood could even have been the catalyst for the invention of vampires, as a cultural explanation for disease before the advent of germ theory.

The Kilteasheen burials are likely too late to be plague-related, but even a small urban center could have had endemic tuberculosis, which causes some similar symptoms, like bloody sputum.  I don't think a disease-based explanation can be completely ruled out for these burials.

8th century burial of a male, Kilteasheen, Ireland,
with stone in the mouth
(credit: Chris Read, found at
In sum, we can't be certain of the meaning of these Irish burials, but the long tradition of incapacitating the dead to prevent them from becoming revenants coupled with historical records of disease epidemics suggests the people who buried these men likely had a good reason for wanting them to stay dead.

Excavators at Kilteasheen estimate that there are around 3,000 burials at the site, so I suspect we'll be hearing more about this cemetery in the years to come.  It will be interesting in particular to see if other burials in the cemetery were given the same mouth-rock treatment and whether the practice dates only to the 8th century or continues to later periods of the cemetery's use.

Watch the documentary, Mysteries of the Vampire Skeletons, on YouTube:

Further Reading and References:

McLeod, J. 2010.  Vampires, a Bite-Sized History.  Pier 9.  [Google Books]

Nuzzolese E, & Borrini M. 2010. Forensic approach to an archaeological casework of "vampire" skeletal remains in Venice: odontological and anthropological prospectus. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 55 (6), 1634-7. PMID: 20707834.

Rickels, L.  1999.  The Vampire Lectures.  University of Minnesota Press. [Google Books]

Tsaliki, A. 2001. Vampires beyond legend - a bioarchaeological approach.  In Proceedings of the XIII European Meeting of the Paleopathology Association, ed. M. La Verghetta and L. Capasso, pp. 295-300.  [Read here]

Tsaliki, A. 2008. Unusual burials and necrophobia: an insight into the burial archaeology of fear.  In Deviant Burial in the Archaeological Record, ed. E Murphy, pp. 1-16.  Oxbow Books. [PDF here]


thou said…
wow, that's interesting!

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