Aaaaagh! Vampire log!

Or is a saintly log? Surprisingly good preservation is often cited in folklore and history as evidence for a) vampires and revenants or conversely b) the very pious, depending largely upon one’s social status. If you’re a peasant with retarded decomp, you’re a tool of the devil, whilst if you’re a dead abbot or similar, you might even get canonised.

The deceased tree member in question seems to have attracted the interest of the superstitious because the locals expect wood to rot underground or in water. Well, sometimes it does. Other times, not so much. It depends entirely on the conditions involved, included the levels of oxygen in the water. The fact that they equate the decay rate of wood with that of metal shows a misunderstanding of how things decompose. I’m no expert myself, but I would certainly consult one before leaping to the conclusion that I had a magical garden fence.

Of Bulgarian Vampires

This post by Nils at Magia Posthuma raised my eyebrow. It seems the so-called Bulgarian vampire story was even more wildly popular than I’d realised. As I haven’t yet covered it, aside from a couple of comments on Nils’ blog, I thought it worth a post. He has subtly hinted that all may not be as it seems, but as the internet is not known for its subtlety, I think there needs to be an overtly critical voice out there. As you might imagine, I am that voice.

I’m afraid the evidence for these interments being ‘vampires’, imagined revenants of another sort, or even necessarily deviant burials at all, is pretty thin on the ground. Or, for that matter, IN it.

As usual, we have little to go on, and it’s perfectly possible that a forthcoming academic article might reveal all. But as we’ve seen in the past (check out the onward links there too), sometimes the eventual publication doesn’t live up to the media hype that we’ve all been suckered in by previously.

Here’s one of two ‘vampires’ from the Bulgarian dig in question (higher res available at the source, Fox News);

As you can see, there is disruption to the ribs area, but nothing that couldn’t be the result of burial under several feet of earth. It certainly appears to be unrelated to the iron lump that is claimed to be the ‘rod’ (by implication, stake) used to dispatch the undead creature/innocently decomposing corpse. The lump itself is just that – an unidentified angular ferrous object. If it’s the head of an iron shaft, that shaft must be huge. Far too huge, in fact. Why manhandle a valuable piece of metal into position when by far the most common folkloric weapon against vampires and revenants was a wooden stake? Perhaps that’s why they missed the heart or even chest/abdomen (it was not always necessary to penetrate the heart in folklore) completely. It looks for all the world as though the ‘vampire’ play-acted along, taking the ‘stale’ between body and arm like one of the henchmen in countless Hollywood swashbucklers. It’s not that iron wasn’t used as a weapon and a preventative measure against vampires; it certainly was in various Slavic countries.

After the story had circulated a while longer, it acquired a further embellishment, thanks to National Geographic, who claimed that the corpse’s teeth had been ‘pulled’. This seems to be based on the fact that the skull is missing many of its teeth, indeed much of its alveolar process – but only, I noticed, in the post-excavation images of the skeleton as it was being pimped to the media.

(Higher res available at the source, Fox News);

I’m as sure as I can be [edit – I was wrong on this – see the comments below] that this is indeed the same skeleton, that associated with the larger of the two iron lumps. If it isn’t, it’s a third skeleton, and only two have been claimed as ‘staked’. Photos show that the other skeleton and ‘rod’ are clearly different. Note that, like the other one, this too retains its teeth as discovered (image from Heritage Daily);

This being the case, why is it in substantially worse condition? Far from the loss of teeth being a counter-vampire measure, it appears that it is wear and tear, presumably sustained in the rush to get the thing on TV. Deliberate damage doesn’t bear contemplation. It usually takes weeks of post-ex work to clean, draw, document and analyse human remains. Yet here the poor bugger was hoiked out of the ground like a fossil in a plaster jacket, and wheeled in front of the cameras. This can’t be a good thing.

I would note here that the pointy teeth are a creation of fiction, starting with ‘Varney the Vampire’ in the 1850s. Iron teeth are sometimes referred to in folklore, but not their removal as a preventative measure. The usual threat cited is the use of the corpse’s teeth to chew on their burial shroud or on their own limbs, in the manner of the German Nachzehrer (though this belief was more widespread than just the Germanic world).

In the footage linked, note also the claim by the museum director that;

‘Iron rods were used for the richer vampires’.

This is the first time I have ever heard such a claim, and I’m pretty familiar with the literature by this point. It appears to me to be a way of heading off another obvious criticism of the ID for these finds – that historical vampires were not high status individuals. They were working class people, relatives and friends of those who were compelled to ‘slay’ their troublesome dead bodies. The vampire lord is another creation of fiction, as this media piece correctly points out.

This is all a bit of a shame. These are clearly deviant burials of potentially historically significant individuals, worthy of further study for both reasons. As much as I love vampirey news, and I’m sure all this is a wonderful boon to the Bulgarian tourist industry, I think forcing this evidence to fit Western preconceptions about vampires – derived from fiction –  is wrong. I can tell you that I’m not the only historian or archaeologist who is of this opinion, either.

I recommend reading Nil’s discussion of the background and characters surrounding this discovery, which also details the reburial of another skeleton. I’m not wild about this either, as it further prevents serious scholarly study of the remains and condemns them forever as ‘vampires’. I just hope all possible analysis was completed before the skeleton went back into the ground.

A Yorkshire Vampire Killing Kit

Another vampire kit has surfaced, this time in the UK. Being a Daily Mail article, no effort has been made to research the subject, and the auction house appear not to know much about them either. To their credit though, they aren’t claiming it as definitively 19th century in date.

As ever, it’s not quite like any other before it, but to me appears to have been fashioned out of a ‘vanity box‘ or possibly a writing case, instead of the pistol case typical of the ‘Blomberg’ kits. It’s a nice one – how nice we shall soon see. On past performance the £2000 estimate in on the low side…

Veni, vidi, vampire?

An English ‘vampire’, from ‘Medieval Towns’ by Schofield and Vince, 2003 edition

The always-fascinating Magia Posthuma blog has posted a really nice update on that ‘vampire of Venice’ story from 2009. It puts the original claims in perspective and provides much-needed insight into the academic side of the ensuing controversy that most of us haven’t been privy to.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my biggest gripe with the idea that this ID6 skeleton was an Italian ‘Nachzehrer’ (or ‘shroudeater’) remains valid – because there ARE no Italian Nachzehrer! It’s a Germanic phenomenon. The fact that there’s no Italian analogue means that, at the least, the (now contested) conclusions found in ‘Forensic Approach to an Archaeological Casework of “Vampire” Skeletal Remains in Venice’ (paywalled) and in the media versions that most people read should have been presented in a more tentative manner.

However, it did get me thinking about analogues to the practice of placing a stone or brick in the deceased’s mouth however, as this is more widespread than the shroud/self-devouring version of the ‘vampire’ (and strictly, I should use the more general word ‘revenant’ there).

The stone/brick-in-mouth (or under chin) apotropaic does appear outside the bounds of (modern) Germany. Folklorist Jan Perkowski refers to the practice amongst the Kashubs of Poland (who did actually cary the Nachzehrer belief with them also), and Paul Barber cites Stora’s ‘Burial Customs of the Skolt Lapps’ as describing a similar practice amongst the Laplanders.

Then there’re the skeletons of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, one of which was found with a stone inserted between the jaws of its disembodied head. The skull was also placed between the feet, which is something that Perkowksi and Barber also refer to in the Germanic and Slavic worlds.

Finally, there is a lesser-known British connection. A helpful source at the Museum of London referred me a while ago to two instances. First are 11th/12th century burials at St Nicholas Shambles church in the City of London, where small stones were found in the mouths of four inhumations. These were interpreted as a substitute for the ‘ferryman’s’ coin, aka ‘soul-scot’ in the Anglo-Saxon world. More were found at St Botolph’s church in Billingsgate, my MoL source reports that several 15th-17th century burials also had stones in their mouths, a few being ‘the size of cannon balls.’

Two more were found at Fillingham in Lincolnshire, and another at Raunds Furnells in Northamptonshire. Note however that stones, big and small, are a feature of medieval graves in England, and seem to have served more than one purpose. Unlike burials elsewhere, we lack any real historical or folkloric evidence to back up the idea that these placements were aimed at keeping the dead…dead, but given the stones found in the two eye-sockets of one of the two Fillingham bodies (and bearing in mind the analogue practice observed even today of coins over eyelids), deliberate placement at least seems highly likely (more discussion here, including the connection with heavy stones perhaps used to weigh down the dead).

This doesn’t really aid the ‘Vampire of Venice’ claim any, as we still lack even support in an Italian context for the stone-in-mouth burial practice. But together with the rebuttal by the authors, it does perhaps increase our confidence that this was a deliberate effort by somebody, and by analogy, may indeed have been to prevent the return of a revenant of some kind. If so however, the shroud-eating hypothesis remains dubious, and the relevance of the term ‘vampire’ is, I suppose, a matter of definition. It certainly attracts a lot more press than ‘revenant’.

An honest miss-stake.

Here’s a quick follow-up to the article on Vampire Killing Kits in the current issue of Fortean Times. Thanks to Darth Saber of the Replica Prop Forum for pointing out this intriguing new kit that’s somehow (so far) survived Ebay’s anti-weapons policy.

We’ve seen kits containing real antique firearms sold on Ebay before, but only where the pistol itself is listed on a different site. So whether this one stays the distance is anyone’s guess.

It’s interesting because it’s far superior to most ostensibly antique kits that we see on the ‘bay, but falls short of the mark in a few key ways. Firstly, there’s the deviation from the original Blomberg label style, typeface, and wording. You can’t beat the classic, so why even try?

Secondly, there’s the bizarrely-named bottle labelled ‘Daffy’s Eliyir’ [sic];

An oblique ‘Count Duckula’ reference? Who knows?!

Finally, and most obviously, there are the glaring spelling/typo and grammar mistakes (see how  many you can spot):

I realise Blomberg is meant to be a non-native English speaker, but really.

At least he’s consistent! (NB this odd spelling appears elsewhere…)

Now, I should point out that in common with recent auction house trends, there’s no direct claim of antiquity here. It’s simply presented as a ‘Vampire Killing Slayer Kit’, leaving the bidder to make up his own mind about its age and authenticity. Note however that it uses mostly antique components and those that aren’t have been deliberately aged. Is there intent to deceive? I leave that to the reader to decide.

Vampire Killing Kits article in Fortean Times

I hope readers won’t mind my drawing attention to this month’s issue (288) of Fortean Times, which I’m proud to say features as its cover article a synthesis of my research – and that of others – into those vampire killing kits that I’ve posted so much about. Whilst reiterating that we have no real evidence for their existence prior to the 1970s, it does try to make room for the kits as ‘invented artefacts’ of modern pop culture. Because, quite simply, many of them are lovely! It also features a detailed sidebar by the talented Darth Saber of the Replica Prop Forum, and a couple of other interesting vampire-related articles. Well worth a look, and always a stimulating read due to its policy of including different points of view, from what we might regard as somewhat uncritical, to the outright sceptical.

On the Nicolas Cage vampire ‘story’

There’s nothing I can usefully add to these great pieces by Anthony Hogg on the bizarre sort-of-hoax (more of a joke/publicity stunt really) that’s doing the rounds at the moment that looks a bit like Nic Cage. Save to emphasise that as the photo is from (as Anthony points out) an archive of Victorian death and mourning photos), the chap in the photo, far from being immortal, is deceased. He is no more. He is an ex-Nic Cage. So unless someone brought Cage back to unlife Lestat-style some decades later…

The market in photos of dead loved ones in artificial poses no longer exists, but it seems that there’s another in photos of other people’s loved ones instead. If you’re going to advertise something weird, you might as well invoke Hollyweird to do it!

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).

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!