The Archaeology of…Vampires

My first field school was a project investigating Medieval population demographics through the analysis of funerary excavations at various cemeteries in Romania, specifically in Transylvania. Before and after I went on this trip I got varying reactions from friends and family members. Someone even laughed at my destination, not realizing that Transylvania actually exists as a cultural/geographic region and not just as the mythological birthplace of Dracula. One of the most popular questions I received was “Oh, going to dig up some vampires, are you?” And while those who asked were obviously inquiring in jest the answer is not actually a resounding “no, of course not” that you might expect. While there are no un-dead among us, sucking blood and avoiding the garlic fries on the menu at your favorite restaurant, anthropology teaches us that many legends are based in fact. And the fact of the matter is, there was a time when people believed that their towns were being terrorized by vampires, and that fact may be translated into certain burial practices for the “monster” in question.

Carpathian Mountains, view from Peonari Fortress (Photo by Author, 2014)

Literary Legends

Before discussing burial practices, I would like to touch on the origin of vampires, both in history and literature. The vampires in popular culture today are more often than not the subject of paranormal romance novels and television series. I’m sure many of you are at least familiar (if not well versed) in the dangerous but soul searching characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, Let the Right One In, The Hunger, and True Blood – to name a few. But vampire lore has existed for centuries. As Elizabeth Miller, a prominent Dracula scholar, explains, the fear of death and the importance of blood are two powerful components of the legend, each of which is firmly rooted in ancient myth and practice (Miller 2005).

The very word “vampire” is actually somewhat of a linguistic mystery. There are no less than four competing theories for its etymology (Wilson 1985). The most popular theory is that of a Slavic origin of the word, either from the Polish pirati, the Lithuanian wempti (to drink), or the Serbian bamiiup (Wilson 1985). Whatever the origin of the word, it started appearing across newspapers in the early 1700s as the subject of police investigations. One of the most famous historical attacks occurred in Medvedja, a Serbian village, in 1731 when vampire activity was deemed the cause of 17 deaths in 3 months (Gomez-Alonso 1998; Melton 2011). It was only a year later in 1732 that the work “vampyre” appears in the English language for the first time, as reports of attacks like the one in Serbia reached the English press (Miller 2005).

Bran Castle, Romania (Photo by Author, 2014)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, was not the first novel to feature the undead but is widely regarded as the work that made vampires famous in the English speaking world. While Bran Castle, outside of Brasov in Romania, has the nickname “Dracula Castle”, Stoker never actually visited. However, this castle of the late Romanian royal family fits the description of Count Dracula’s residence from the novel (or at least according to those in charge of Romanian tourism). In chapter 2 Dracula describes his home as a castle “on the very edge of a terrific precipice . . . with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm [with] silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests.”

Dracula, as Bram Stoker created him, and the vampires we know today, are direct descendants of Central and Eastern European folklore (Miller 2005). Other cultures, however, have vampire like creatures in their legends and folklore as well. For example, from Greek mythology, we get the lamiai (demonic beings who sucked blood from children), empusai (daughter of a god and a spirit who seduced men and drank their blood) and mormolykiai. While these beings were all known to suck blood, they were spirits – the vrykolakas was a class of revenants (revivified corpses) that would develop into true vampires in the way we think of them (Melton 2011). Vlad the Impaler is cited as the inspiration for Stoker’s Dracula and that is indeed where Stoker got the name at least. While the 15th century ruler of Wallachia (historical region of Romania) was referred to as Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) for his unique manner of execution, he referred to himself as Vlad Dracula, meaning son of Dracul from the Order of the Dragon, of which his father was a member (Miller 2005). Incidentally, the remains of his castle, Peonari, sit in the Carpathian Mountains “on the very edge of a terrific precipice…”

Peonari Castle, including examples of Vlad Dracula’s execution style (Photo by Author 2014)


Pathological Plausibility

So if vampires are obviously more legend than reality – why did actual police investigations  exist concerning the capture of these monsters? It turns out there may be a medical cause rooted in the hysteria of the 1700s. One idea proposed by Barker (1987) is that people misinterpreted phenomena related to decomposition as evidence for the individual being undead. He sites this passage from a French literary magazine, Mercure galant, that details an account of how the vampire was understood in the late 17th century:

“They appear from midday to midnight and come to suck the blood of living people and animals in such great abundance that sometimes it comes out of their mouths, their noses, and especially, their ears, and that sometimes the body swims in its blood which has spilled out into its coffin. They say the vampire has a kind of hunger that causes him to eat the cloth he finds around him. This revenant or vampire, or a demon in his form, comes out of his tomb and goes about at night violently embracing and seizing his friends and relatives and sucking their blood until they are weakened and exhausted, and finally causes their death. This persecution does not stop at one person but extends to the last person of the family, at least as long as one does not interrupt its course by cutting off the head or opening the body of the vampire. Then one finds his body, in its coffin, limp, pliable, bloated, ruddy, even though he may have been dead for a long time. A great quantity of blood pours from his body.”

Figure 3 from Gardela & Kajkowski 2013 Artists rendering of deviant grave from Cedynia

Such accounts were not taken from drunkards off the street but in some cases from the authorities, including army personnel and surgeons (Barker 1987; Wilson 1985). Baker’s (1987) hypothesis is quite reasonable when you look at the facts of decomposition, facts which not everyone is aware. For example, blood flowing out of facial orifices may be due to the fact that when the source of oxygen is cut off quickly, like in a case of sudden death, blood can decoagulate or liquify even after it initially clots (Barker 1987). Bloating is a natural process of decomp via gas build up from internal organ decay. And the rate of decay may also vary, depending on the manner of burial and environment – bodies buried in the winter will appear “fresher” longer.

Porphyria has also been offered as an explain for vampirism but has been largely discounted (Cox 1995). Dr. Gomez-Alonso, however, makes a compelling case for the role of rabies in the origin story for revenants. Many of the symptoms of this disease fit descriptions of vampiric actions. For example, individuals with furious rabies (from the virus’ interference with the limbic system) may experience a wandering tendency, restlessness, hypersensitivity to stimuli (like light), feelings of terror, persistent insomnia, and increasing agitation (Gomez-Alonso 1998). Spasms of the face and neck muscles may cause a patient to emit hoarse sounds and appear to grimace like an animal (Gomez-Alonso 1998). Additionally, the animals involved in rabies and vampirism are similar – think dogs and bats – so the two conditions share zoonotic features. At the height of vampire hysteria in the 17th and 18th century, a diagnosis of rabies could have easily been missed and the person mistaken for a creature of the undead.

Digging up the UnDead

In bioarchaeology, the study of burial practice is extremely pertinent to understanding past populations and how they viewed death. In that respect, the way an individual is buried can reflect just as much about the society/culture as that individual. As a result, there are graves that have been interpreted as vampiric – meaning one possible interpretation of the burial practice is that the individual was perceived to be a member of the undead. These graves are always what we call deviant burials.

Figure 2 from Gardela & Kajkowski 2013 Examples of deviant burials excavated in Poland

Deviant burials are those classified as atypical of what is accepted as the normal burial practice for the time period or population of study (Murphy 2008). Of course this means we first have to know what is typical. For example, in the two funerary excavations which I have participated in, both were Medieval Christian, so we would expect all the individuals to be buried in a W-E orientation so that when the resurrection occurs, Christians will be facing Jerusalem once they rise from the dead. The exception is the priest or leader of the church who is buried E-W so he can face his congregation. This burial practice would have been the norm in Christian societies during the 17th and 18th centuries when revenants were such a concern. Therefore, deviant burials in Europe at this time include the following: prone (face down), stoned (large stones placed directly on the body), perforated skulls, unusual orientation of the grave, objects in the mouth of the corpse, and burials with cut off limbs (Garela and Kajkowski 2013).

Poland especially seems a hotspot for research into possible revenant burials – indeed much research has been conducted on deviant burials there. Gardela and Kajkowski (2013) argue that the revenant explanation, which seems to be used quite often, may ignore the complex historical/cultural context of some of these burials. Decapitation, for instance, may have been a way to ensure that the undead hauntings would cease and desist, but may also be the burial of a criminal who faced such a judicial sentencing for crimes committed.

Figure 2 from Nuzzolese & Borrini 2010

In Italy, a compelling case for a revenant burial was discovered during an excavation of plague deaths from the 16th and 17th centuries in Venice. The individual in question was a female aged 61 ± 5 years and was discovered with a brick inserted into her mouth (Nuzzolese & Borrini 2010). The authors determined the insertion of the brick to be postmortem though while the mandible (lower jaw) was still articulated, since there was no disturbance of the joints. They argue that grave diggers for later plague graves must have happened upon this women’s burial and seen a hole in the shroud corresponding with her mouth – determining this to be vampiric activity, they inserted the brick (Nuzzolese & Borrini 2010). While the authors of this paper do not adequately explain the connection, the passage in the above section detailing the understanding of vampires centuries ago provides us with important context – “They say the vampire has a kind of hunger that causes him to eat the cloth he finds around him.”

Burial practices can be highly ritualized funerary rites that reflect belief or superstitions with in a society. Therefore, individuals who are buried in a different – deviant manner would include individuals who were themselves different or deviant while alive. This would include those that were seen to be revenants, and in the case of vampires, returning from the dead to suck the blood life from other individuals. This may have been reinforced when a suspected vampire was exhumed and found to be bloated or still fresh from the timing of decomp, or by a paranoid sleepwalker actually suffering from furious rabies. But not everything is ritual – as Gardela and Kajkowski (2013) remind us, sometimes a deviant burial may be the result of careless/clumsy burial practice or a display of an executioner’s contempt for a criminal, especially in the case of prone burials. Therefore it is paramount to consider the context of a deviant or seemingly deviant burial. It is possible however that vampire actually falls within the range of reason.


Cox, A. M. (1995). Porphyria and vampirism: another myth in the making. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 71(841), 643–644.

Gardeła, L., & Kajkowski, K. (2013). Vampires, criminals or slaves? Reinterpreting “deviant burials” in early medieval Poland. World Archaeology, 45(5), 780–796.

Gomez-Alonso, J. (1998). Rabies A possible explanation for the vampire legend. Neurology, 51(3), 856–859.

Melton, J. G. (2011). The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead. Visible Ink Press.

Miller, E. (2005). A Dracula Handbook. Xlibris Corporation.

Murphy, E. M. (2008). Deviant Burial in the Archaeological Record. Oxbow 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), 1634–1637.

Stoker, B. (2010). Dracula. Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition.

Wilson, K. M. (1985). The History of the Word “Vampire.” Journal of the History of Ideas, 46(4), 577–583.

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