Mysteries of The (Not) Vampire Skeletons

Gottle o’ Gear!

 

I caught up with this documentary the other day, and was pleasantly surprised (though sadly it appears no longer available by legal means). It centred upon a very interesting find that I wasn’t aware of; the discovery on an Irish site of 30-40 Viking-age skeletons ‘stacked’ in ‘shallow graves’ with injuries caused by edged weapons. One was basically wrapped around/bound to a large stone/boulder, and at least two others displayed the deliberately inserted stone in the mouth method of keeping dead people dead – noted on various other occasions, most famously in the case of the ‘Vampire of Venice’ that I’ve commented on before. Unlike that story, this is not light on detail, comes from a geographic region with historical evidence for the practice, and gives us some of the earliest evidence for revenant belief, with Carbon 14 dates in the late 700s AD.

As well as (roughly) contemporary English stories of revenants (the Berkeley Witch and the Devil of Drakelow) and other archaeological finds in Britain and elsewhere, the programme also makes mention of an Irish ‘penitential text’, the 5th-6th century AD ‘First Synod of St Patrick’, which apparently alludes to fears of the living dead. In bringing us into the age of the vampire proper, Fluckinger’s Visum et Repertum is referenced, ‘Dracula’ features only in passing, and the segment on the present-day case of Petre Toma has new interviews with those involved. I do wonder though why Glam, the Icelandic revenant featured in the 13th century Grettir’s Saga was not included given the period and ‘Viking’ nature of the find.

There is also an impressive list of academic participants, from all over Europe, and a nice if tentative suggestion that revenant belief (or at least, this version of it) might have its roots in the Christianisation of Europe.

All-in-all, a well-argued, interesting and entertaining documentary. They actually used the academic phrase ‘deviant burial’, for the first time so far as I know. The only sticking point for me is the reliance on the idea that these were ‘vampires’, clearly used as a ‘hook’ for the audience. As in Venice, there’s no tradition of blood-drinking revenants in the British Isles, nor was any analogue for the word ‘vampire’ known in the medieval period. If anything they might better have drawn the parallel with the German nachzehrer (shroud-eater), as did Borrini et al. One academic uses the word ‘vampire’ to describe the find, and in the next breath qualifies it by calling the skeletons ‘something like vampires’. I completely understand why the makers did this, and of course a vampire is one type of revenant. Using the word ‘vampire’ in the title is inevitable. I just wish that the distinction had been more clearly drawn – perhaps a ‘family tree’ of revenants.

Which brings me to an interesting observation on the reporting of the case in question. The newspaper media have, despite the existence of the documentary, eschewed the vampire angle for the zombie one:

http://news.discovery.com/history/zombie-skeletons-ireland-grave-110916.html
http://m.cbsnews.com/storysynopsis.rbml?feed_id=0&catid=20107552&videofeed=36
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2038565/Skeletons-buried-stones-mouths-stop-returning-zombies-discovered-Ireland.html

Of course, though there’s no evidence that these were ‘vampires’, neither are they ‘zombies’ by either Haitian or Romerian definitions. Still, these two creatures are our closest modern analogues to the revenants in question, and the varying descriptions may tell us something interesting about the burgeoning popularity of the fictional zombie, and perhaps the decline of the vampire (though this is less certain).

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