Of Venetian Vampires

Magia Posthuma has posted an update on the so-called ‘Vampire of Venice’ that hit the news a couple of years back (see my comments here) and as the author says, has created its own piece of vampire lore based upon little more than speculation. Since then I’ve both seen the National Geographic documentary and read the accompanying book (reviewed here and here), both entitled ‘Vampire Forensics’.

The ‘documentary’ is predictably lightweight, and the book contains relatively little to do with the actual find of a partial skeleton with ‘brick’ in its mouth. However, it does address some of the questions I’d had, though my scepticism remains high. I had wondered whether the ‘brick’ (actually a stone so far as I can tell, though nowhere is this clarified) could have arrived between the skull’s jaws naturally – this does not seem to have been the case, as there were no other stones in the immediate area. I had mused on the idea of plague pits being reopened; apparently there are records of this one having been. I had wondered why a 60+ woman would have been singled out as a revenant (let alone a vampire). The hypothesis seems to be that as she had a displaced clavicle, she must have been tightly wrapped in her shroud, leaving scope for a ‘shroudeater’ scenario along the lines Matteo Borrini has suggested – a tight shroud sinking into the open mouth as she decomposed, leading those opening the pit to think her a ‘nachzehrer‘. The big problem with this, as Magia Posthuma points out, is that there is no known tradition of shroud-munching revenants in Italy (or indeed outside the German states, so far as I know), making Borrini’s speculation interesting but premature. There is also the small point that a nachzehrer is not a vampire. Oh, and too much is also made of the rosary found with the body. This is just as likely to be a personal possession of the deceased. The hypothesis must fit the evidence, not the other way around.

I still await any academic publication of this find, and any other evidence to suggest an Italian belief in the nachzehrer, with interest.


Figment of Imagination enquiries

What an actual Welsh zombie looks like – see this superb BBC documentary series…

The always excellent Zed Word blog has reported some interesting supernatural-related enquiries made under the UK Freedom of Information Act to Dyfed-Powys police in Wales. You can read the various disclosure reports here (page over to the 2010 content for most reports – alternatively I’ve linked most of them below).

Before we have too big a laugh at the expense of others, I should point out that tragically, if inevitably, many calls/reports (and possibly even FOI enquiries) have been made by those with mental health problems. Others are obvious nuisance/time-wasting calls. The zombie incidents make for particularly disappointing reading even for a hardened sceptic;

Unknown 04.11.2006 A phone call made with strange noises and sounded like someone saying zombie.

Haverfordwest 31.10.2008 Report of a person acting suspiciously wearing a zombie mask and dressed all in black.

Pembrey 14.12.2009 Reporting that they are filming a horror in the park about zombies.

Not really in the spirit of the enquiry, I would suggest. More of a keyword search data-dump. Can’t really blame the Fuzz for that though; I’m pretty sure they have other jobs to be getting on with.
Other, slightly more interesting reports just from this constabulary include phantom cats (lots), witches (some) and werewolves (none). Relatively few suggest even a legitimate claim of a supernatural sighting, let alone any subsequent earth-shattering investigation that provided any evidence of one. A handful of ‘actual’ sightings of ghosts is, amusingly, outweighed in the same report by complaints of ghosthunters causing annoyance or alarm. And of course, there are the UFOs, none of which were followed up using police resources, clearly indicating a massive cover-up…or some common sense, depending upon your point of view. Equally encouragingly, it’s clear that in common with virtually all police departments worldwide, the services of psychics are NOT called upon (another denial here).

Some disclosures contain no information as the enquirer has phrased things such that to provide a proper answer would take too much time and money – one of the exemption criteria. Frustratingly, one of these relates again to the activities of amateur (is there any other kind?) ghosthunters. Had they been more specific we might have discovered more about the ‘supernatural’ denizens of Wales, or at least the loons who go looking for them…

I’ll have to see which other UK police services and perhaps even local authorities might have published similar data online – without submitting my own frivolous FOI enquiry, of course!

Now you’re just making me Cross…

At least she was in Wayne’s World…

This piece about some berk who thinks he’s found nails from the true cross just beggars belief.  I’m sorely tempted to create a press release about evidence of an ancient zombie holocaust, just to see which news agencies will run it. Apparently there’s a “History” Channel “Documentary” (scare quotes intended) forthcoming about it. I will no doubt watch it and may yet tear it apart in a fuller post if I have time. Meantime, this and related articles are just so full of holes I barely know where to begin. So, I’ll just rant away.

It starts with the title – “Did Journalist Find ‘THE Nails’ Used to Crucify Jesus?”. Dear Journalists – if you have to phrase your article as a question, the answer is probably “no”. That being the case, perhaps you should see what Justin Bieber is up to rather than run the piece.

Then we have;

“Controversial journalist Simcha Jacobovici says he may have found the nails that were used to crucify Jesus more than 2,000 years ago.”

That should really be all that we read on this subject, because that doesn’t just summarise the “news” of the “find” (OK, I’ll stop with the quotes now) – it IS the “news” (sorry, I did try). A journalist, a “controversial” one no less, is not in ANY WAY qualified to announce ANY archaeological find, let alone one of this supposed magnitude. He should be dismissed out of hand, but he isn’t. Why IS that, mainstream media? Why must you provide a mouthpiece for this idiocy?

Anyway, with a heavy heart, let’s proceed. I can’t really sum the remaining evidence for this claim better than JREF poster pobblob14;

“This guy finds two nails at Tel Aviv University. Those nails showed up there, apparently without labeling or other attribution, at about the same time as two nails from a tomb got lost.

The tomb where two nails (that might or might not be these nails) were found is the one with an ossuary marked Caiaphas, who might or might not have been that Caiaphas.

Therefore . . . Jesus? Did I miss a step in there someplace? Is he suggesting that Caiaphas kept the nails as a souvenir or something, and that when he died, somebody tossed the nails into the tomb (one in the ossuary, one on the ground), because . . . .

Was this argument constructed by the Underpants Gnomes?”

Perhaps; I imagine this chap is certainly banking on the missing Profit?! step working out for him. I’m guessing the James Ossuary debacle (here’s a hint – it turned out to be BULLSHIT) wasn’t without its benefits. And not being an academic, he has no reputation at stake. Win-win!

Anyway, if it isn’t already obvious, the above aren’t so much reaches as rocket-assisted takeoffs. There’s no provenance for the nails, let alone sound provable links between the rest of it. but wait – we’re told that the nails are bent…

“…in a way that is consistent with crucifixion.”

What, in the name of Sweet Zombie Jesus, is the difference between a nail used to, I don’t know, stick an ikon over a fireplace (say) and one used to nail someone to a bleedin’ tree? What is this claim based on? The nail in the picture doesn’t look long or substantial enough to successfully crucify Jesus’ pet CAT, let alone the big man himself. It could be ANYTHING. The one in the picture doesn’t even match the vague description of the missing nails – it’s sure as hell not “8cm” long.

Sorry, this one’s making me all shouty. I’ll leave it there and post this highly relevant Black Adder clip. This is an old, old well of snake oil that this guy is dredging. Bring on the documentary. It should make Deadliest Warrior look like The World at War…

Skepticblog shoot down a UFO

Another recent report that I need not write up – Skepticblog has the measure of these recent claims of FBI proof of alien visitation on Earth. It does highlight how dangerous releasing unmediated documents like this onto the internet can be. I suppose it’s a catch-22 – release without interpretation or comment and you risk people using it in this way – release with and you will inevitably face claims by the UFOlogists that you’re attempting to cover up the truth. Still, something other than the government agency equivalent of ‘I’ll just leave this here‘, might have been a bit more responsible. The UK National Archives usually at least provide some context, if not always overtly sceptical comment.

More braaains…

Just after my last post, I came across this article, and this talk by a neuroscientist on the subject of the zombie brain. One of these days I really must join the Zombie Research Society. If you’re reading this, ZRS, I can do a good line in data-mining history for instances of possible zombie-attack. I have no problem with BS history for fun and as a means of thought-experimentation – just so long as we’re up-front about it!


Apologies for the lack of updates of late. I’m proud to say however, that no less an organ than the Fortean Times have quoted me in one of their magazine pieces and are apparently keen to know my identity. I’ve a great deal of respect for FT, and as it happens I’ve been working on something with half an eye on submitting it to them when finished. So, I shall take their endorsement as encouragement to pull my finger out and get cracking on that. Unfortunately that plus work commitments will probably mean equally long gaps between posts, but I will try to do more in the way of smaller updates, more regularly. I’ve also removed the two-week limit on comments, as I’ve been feeling guilty about that. If moderating the comments becomes too much of a time-sink however, I’ll have to reluctantly reconsider.

Keep in a cool, anaerobic place.

And so, to the meat of this post. Brain-meat to be precise. Now, this is really just a comment on reporting angles. This piece from fellow anonymous writer ‘DAILY MAIL REPORTER’ is basically sound; like most other articles on the subject of this unusually-preserved brain tissue, it doesn’t stray too far from the original press release by the University of York. There’s nothing at all left-field in it. Not my usual fodder. However, there are issues with it.

Firstly, this was a discovery not from “last year”, but from December 2008, and that press release I linked to dates from that time. I remembered the find distinctly as in weak moments I like to wilfully misinterpret finds like this as imagined evidence of (in this case) zombies. I know, I’m a geek. But come on – decapitation, suspiciously well-preserved brain? It’s pure Max Brooks.

Where was I? Ah yes. The Mail itself reported on the find at that time. So why the reprise? There is some new info there regarding the context of the find and the individual who once owned the brain, but it’s hardly extensive. As audiences have short memories, much of the column space is taken up with info repeated from the original find. There’s more in the science press, e.g. the article from Livescience.com [edit – this Alphagalileo piece is even better]. To the Mail’s credit they actually tell you that there’s a new paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science, but following apparent journalistic convention, refuse to actually link to it or even give you the title. Mind you, even if they had, it’s behind a paywall, reducing us to reading the abstract or being spoonfed by the press.

Thus it’s possible that the Mail’s (and other’s) revised date of 2500BP reflects some refined C14 dating, but equally they might just have rounded up the original “at least 2000 years” estimate to make it seem all the more impressive. Any subscribers to AS, feel free to fill us in on this and any other new info – I’m sure there will be plenty.

However, the embellishment regarding decomposition is, I’m pretty sure, the second actual boob by the Mail in this article. As the 2008 press release and new quotes from those involved make clear, the brain is usually one of the first parts of the body to rot. Yet the newspaper decides to eschew actually looking up how long it takes for the brain to decompose, and plucks a figure out of thin air;

“Scientists have been baffled by how the brain tissue – which usually rots after a couple at (sic) years – managed to remain intact for so long.”

Years? Not quite:

“The brain begins to decompose in the basal ganglia and dependent portions, where fluids naturally gravitate, and in the course of two or three weeks usually becomes nearly diffluent. Structural details have, however, been recognized after some months.”
-‘A Text-book of Legal Medicine and Toxicology‘, p.128

Admittedly that source is over a hundred years old, and environmental conditions will retard or speed up this estimate – but we’re not talking years here but weeks. It’s for this disappointing reason that actual zombies aren’t at all scientifically plausible. OK, for other reasons too.

Anyway, so far so typical of press reporting of such things. No particularly big deals, nothing to really bash the Mail with specifically. However, we’ve now come to one of my pet peeves, and something the the Mail is especially bad for – though other papers and sites have taken a similar tack. It’s the difference in tone.

“Archaeologists baffled at how brain has survived”…

…brays the Mail. The word “baffled” appears four times in the article. These so-called experts are clearly out of their depth. Why, they’re no better than you or I, the humble down-to-earth Mail-reader! Why do we allow them our hard-earned taxpayer’s money? But wait, what’s this? Right at the end of the article however, there’s a quote from one of the team;

“The hydrated state of the brain and the lack of evidence for putrefaction suggests that burial, in the fine-grained, anoxic sediments of the pit, occurred very rapidly after death. This is a distinctive and unusual sequence of events, and could be taken as an explanation for the exceptional brain preservation.”

Oh. How disappointing. I don’t know about you, but I was hoping to be able to chortle at the poor addled boffins as they scratch their bald pates and throw up their hands in impotent academic frustration, thus validating my preconceptions about people with drive and a university education.

That’s my gripe – I can’t read this sort of sensationalised, passive-aggressive, grudging admiration of intellectual endeavour without thinking of Mitchell & Webb’s ‘Big Talk’ sketch.

So, come on, boffins! Are you out of your massive minds?!