Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dowser and the Legendary Gypsies

From my soon to be local paper, a story that suggests psychic or dowsing techniques can be used to do the work of bioarchaeology.

The Mayor of Sesser, Illinois has asked a local dowser to investigate folklore concerning a Gypsy mass grave. Not only does the dowser suggests she can use some mix of energy (related to her Christian beliefs concerning souls) and DNA to detect graves, but also to determine age and sex.

While excavations won't be based on the "findings" of the psychic investigation, a historical plaque may be placed there based on further historical research prompted by the dowsing.

In my reading on pseudo and alt-archaeology, a big deal has always been made of psychic archaeology. Something I had never really heard of in new reports or personal experience (in contrast with other pseudo topics like ancient astronauts or Phoenicians in Utah). But I guess now I have, and I am amazed at it, and the relatively straightforward media coverage of it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Vampire Archaeology

A recent news report from the Czech Republic immediately grabs the attention: archaeologists have uncovered the 4000-year old grave of a vampire in Bohemia. Or rather, the grave of someone who was treated as a vampire. According to the report, sometime in the Early Bronze Age, a man died, and was buried with heavy stones placed in the grave over his head and chest. This is interpreted as treatment to ensure the man didn't return from the grave to plague the living as a vampire.

I'm no expert, but there is a problem with this. The development of the legend of the vampire in the Balkans dates back about a thousand years, with some elements being older. The term upir first appears in a Russian text in 1047 CE. Bruce McClelland discusses the history and development of the Balkan vampire (specifically focusing on Bulgaria) in his dissertation (openly available online) Sacrifice, Scapegoat, Vampire: The Social and Religious Origins of the Bulgarian Folkloric Vampire and in his book Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. In those works, he ties the development of the vampire to a mix of pre-Christian ideas about death and the afterlife and religious strife between groups during the early centuries of Christianity in the region.

And the folkloric vampire of the 17th century or so has many differences from that of Bram Stoker's Dracula or subsequent tales. I'm pretty sure Anne Rice never had one of her pretty-boy protagonists roll around the landscape as a literal bag of blood, easily killed by a puncture wound from a hawthorne, for the first few years of their undead existence. The classic Balkan vampires were most commonly "dead sorcerers, witches, werewolves, excommunicates, and those who died unnatural deaths (such as suicides and drunkards)" Some were destined at birth to become vampires, including those with a caul on their head, with teeth showing at birth, or with contiguous eyebrows. Also, if a human or unclean animal steps over the body before burial after it is buried, the dead might rise as a vampire (Oinas 1982). This last is very common (Mclelland 2006: 53). Also, in general, bad people, unavenged people, etc. will return from the dead. The Romanian version (non-slavic) suggests that unmarried dead people, or those unforgiven by their parents, have a greater chance of rising as a strigoi (Perkowski 1982). In Serbia and in Greece, at least, this happens 40 days after death, when a "devilish spirit" enters the body to create a vukodlak (Serbia) or a vrykolakas (du Boulay 1982; Fine 1987). In some greek legends (of the vrykolakas) children born on Christmas will be vampires).

But even if there was something vaguely reminiscent of the vampire in Central European cultures 3000 years before the first appearance of the term, tying those pre-literate beliefs to skeletal and archaeological evidence becomes very difficult.

There is, however, more secure archaeology involving vampires. Archaeology and bioarchaeology on several cases in New England has noted the relationship between tuberculosis outbreaks and vampire panics in the nineteenth century. This report describes some of the details (Sledzik and Bellantoni 1994) and this press release discusses the filming of some work for a documentary.

And a major update. Anastasia Tsaliki, a PhD candidate at Durham University in the UK, is conducting dissertation research on "disposals of the dead" involving "necrophobia." That indeed fits the bill. She has already written a paper on "Vampires Beyond Legend: A Bioarchaeological Approach" which she has made available on her blog. She is indeed pointing at the use of rocks as a sign of necrophobia, and tying that into vampire folklore. As I mention above, I am skeptical of this. Broadening the interpretation to a general fear of the dead rising is of course more acceptable, and I could see myself doing something similar if I were working on remains with such treatment, but it remains speculation. I look forward to Ms. Tsaliki's dissertation.

EDIT: New update. Lots of new information on the Italian "Vampire" announced last year.

UPDATE 5-31-12: Critics suggest the Italian "vampire" may be the product of a misinterpreted brickfall, and not a purposely placed act.

du Boulay, Juliette
1982 The Greek Vampire; A Study of Cyclic Symbolism in Marriage and Death. Man 17: 219 - 238.

Fine, John V. A., Jr.
1987 In Defense of Vampires. East European Quarterly 21: 15 - 23.

Mclelland, Bruce A.
2006 Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Oinas, Felix
1982 East European Vampires. Journal of Popular Culture 16: 108 - 114.

Perkowski, Jan Louis
1982 The Romanian Folkloric Vampire. East European Quarterly 16: 311 - 322.

Sledzik, Paul S. and Nicholas Bellantoni
1994 Bioarchaeological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief. The American Journal of Physical Anthropology 94.