Witches, Vampires and Werewolves – 10 Ghoulish Archaeological Discoveries
Archaeologists are quite familiar with the unearthing of human remains. But occasionally they come across burials that are more bizarre and unsettling – from hybrid frankenstein-type skeletons, to ‘vampires’ pinned to the ground with wooden stakes, ‘witches’ held in their graves by heavy stones and individuals with stones wedged in their mouths, iron sickles against their throats, or holes in their skulls that had been drilled to exorcise evil spirits, there are no shortage of strange and grisly discoveries. This Halloween we examine ten such ghoulish discoveries.
In 2014, archaeologists uncovered an ancient skeleton of a teenage girl in Albenga, Italy, which had been buried face down. The researchers said that burying an individual in this way was indicative of the person having been rejected by society or considered a danger, possibly due to accusations of witchcraft.
The discovery was made during an archaeological dig carried out by the Vatican’s Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology, at the complex of San Calocero – a burial ground on which a church was built around the 5th and 6th centuries AD – located in Albenga along the Ligurian Riviera in northern Italy. The excavation director, Stefano Roascio, said that such burials were carried out as an act of punishment intended to humiliate the dead, and discoveries like this were considered rare. According to the research team, in extreme cases, victims were buried alive in the facedown position, however, this was not the case with the newly discovered burial.
“The prone burial was linked to the belief that the soul left the body through the mouth. Burying the dead facedown was a way to prevent the impure soul threatening the living,” anthropologist Elena Dellù told Discovery News.
Modern people have not been the only ones fascinated by the undead. Ancient Greeks on the island of Sicily had a fear of revenants so dire they weighed bodies down with rocks and amphora pieces to keep them from rising from their graves to haunt the living, says a researcher. On the other hand and paradoxically, writes Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver in Popular Archaeology, the Greeks also tried to contact the dead for divination through a practice called necromancy.
Earlier this year, archaeologists working in a large cemetery near Kamarina, an ancient coastal town in southeast Sicily, exhumed 2,905 bodies and excavated burials goods. In the necropolis (“city of the dead”) called Passo Marinaro, in use from the 5th through 3rd centuries BC, researchers found grave goods including coins, figurines and terracotta vases. They also found two bodies weighed down at the head, feet and torso with large stones and amphorae, apparently to keep them in their place—the land of the dead, or Hades.
“For the ancient Greeks, the dead were subjects of both fear and supplication. Necrophobia, or the fear of the dead, is a concept that has been present in Greek culture since the Neolithic period. At the heart of this phobia is the belief that corpses are able to reanimate and exist in a state that is neither living nor dead, but rather ‘undead’”. Weaver writes in her paper published in Popular Archaeology Magazine. “These liminal figures are deemed to be dangerous because it is understood that they leave their graves at night for the explicit purpose of harming the living. As a means of protection, the alleged undead were pinned in their graves or ritually ‘killed’.”
In 2013, archaeologists working on Bulgaria’s Perperikon site found the skeleton of a male buried with an iron stake plunged through its chest, a ritual practiced in the Middle Ages to prevent the individual ‘turning into the undead’. Coins found with the body have been tentatively dated to the 13th and 14th century. It is not the first ‘vampire grave’ to be uncovered in Bulgaria. The discovery echoes a similar one made in Sozopol. Throughout Bulgaria, the remains of over 100 vampire-treated people, all of them men, and all of them prominent citizens, have been found. According to pagan beliefs, people who were considered bad during their lifetimes might turn into vampires after death unless stabbed in the chest with an iron or wooden rod before being buried. People believed the rod would also pin them down in their graves to prevent them from leaving at midnight and terrorizing the living. Vampire legends form an important part of the region's folklore.
In October 2014, a Bulgarian born farmer, Trayche Draganov, claimed to have found a box, chained shut, containing a werewolf-like skull while ploughing a new section of field in the village of Novo Selo, Republic of Macedonia. The account was reported to Ancient Origins by historian Filip Ganev, who spent time in Novo Selo while conducting research for his book on the Balkan Wars. Mr Ganev met the farmer, who showed him the box containing the unusual skull. He reported that the skull appears wolf-like with the exception of an enlarged cranium, a trait found only in primate species.
Mr Ganev photographed the skull and shared them with government wildlife officials, who concluded that it was likely a wolf that suffered from Paget Disease, a condition which causes the skull to increase in size and appear more human-like.
Mr Ganev said that werewolves have been a staple of Balkan folklore since before recorded history. The legends vary from region to region as far as how and why one becomes a werewolf. Some believe that a person is born with the ability to shape shift into a wolf. Babies born with hair are said to have a proclivity for this. Other regions believe that a person who died in a mortal sin or made some other union with the devil would be reborn as werewolves.
Archaeologists in Scotland believe that they located the final resting place of Lilias Adie, who was accused of being a witch and, following her death in prison, was buried in deep mud with a heavy flat stone placed on top of her – a tradition based on the belief that witches could rise from their graves unless held down by a heavy stone.
The Valleyfield Community Centre based in Fife, Scotland, recounts the story of the Lilias:
In the small village of Torryburn in the West of Fife in the year 1704 August 29th, an old woman, Lillias Adie, was accused of bringing ill health to one of her neighbours, a certain Jean Nelson. Summoned before the ministers and elders of Torryburn church, poor old confused Lillias confessed that she was indeed a witch. She told the grim faced committee of church elders that she had met the Devil in a cornfield and had accepted him as her lover and master. The terrified woman described how she and the devil had led many others, whom she named, in a wild heathenish dance. According to Lillias a strange blue unearthly light had appeared and had followed the dancers round the cornfield, her tales grew wilder and wilder and were eagerly accepted as proof of her dealings with the Devil. Lillias was, according to the official records, "Died in Prison and was buried within the sea mark at Torryburn.
As part of a 2014 program titled ‘The Walking Dead’, on BBC Radio Scotland, researchers tried to trace the original burial site of Lilias, based on 19 th century descriptions of the area. During the investigation, a large, seaweed-covered stone slab was found, matching the description of both the area and the features of the burial. Fife archaeologist Douglas Speirs, who examined and cleaned it, confirmed the slab was not natural to the beach but quarried and deliberately placed there. While a full archaeological excavation has not been undertaken, it is possible that there are still remains of Lilias left beneath the slab, in what is believed to be the only known witch’s grave of its type in Scotland.
In 2001, a team of archaeologists found four skeletons at an archaeological site on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. At first, it appeared to be a typical Bronze Age discovery, but the researchers soon discovered that the finding was far from normal. The skeletons, one male and one female, were buried in the foetal position. Initial tests revealed that the male had died in around 1600 BC and the female had died in approximately 1300 BC. However, some ten years later, further DNA examination of the remains led to a startling discovery – the two skeletons were actually made up of body parts from six different individuals, in what archaeologists have branded ‘frankenstein mummies’.
In the ‘male skeleton’, the torso, skull and neck, and lower jaw belonged to three separate men, and the ‘female skeleton’ is a composite formed from a male skull, a female torso, and the arm of a third person whose gender had not been determined. Carbon dating revealed that the skull of the ‘female’ mummy is 50 to 200 years older than the torso. It appears that the mummies were made up of parts from people in the same families and then put together like a jigsaw to make it look like they were just one person. Archaeologists have no idea why the remains were mummified and then mixed together. However, Parker Pearson believes that the mixing of remains was done to combine different ancestries of families to create a ‘symbolic ancestor’ that literally embodied traits from multiple lineages.
A medieval or Saxon man whose skeleton was found in a Roman villa in Hampshire, England, may have been buried in the countryside because of a jaw deformity that made his community consider him plagued by spirits. It’s also possible the community had earlier trepanned his skull to exorcise the evil spirits.
The man with the deformed jaw, who died about age 35 to 45, had a missing right hand and missing foot bones, possibly a punishment or a result of desecration by grave robbers. His skull had been trepanned, or drilled. His remains and the remains of the other man at the Rockbourne Roman villa were excavated in the 1960s.
Archaeologists say the man, who was about 5 feet 7 inches (170 cm), was buried in a lonely place and weighed down with stones. His skeleton was found face down in a shallow grave in 1965.
“The left side of the skull has a hole on the frontal bone, just below the temporal ridge,” says a blog called Hampshire Archaeology by Dave Allen. “This trepanning, near the muscle attachment for the lower jaw, was presumably done in an attempt to relieve chronic pain or exorcise the bad spirits associated with his deformity. He survived the operation and the bone had healed, but his ultimate burial in such a lonely place, face down and weighed down with stones, suggests that the community were worried that the evil influence that caused his troubles might still be around.”
In 2014, researchers examined the skeletal remains of 17th century graves in northwestern Poland and speculated that the ones given vampire burials may have actually been cholera victims, explaining the extra precautions the villagers took in dealing with their bodies.
Such popularly named “vampire graves” occurred predominantly in the post-medieval period and across the continent – Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, Ireland, and Greece to name only a few locations. Bodies are often found to have strange items buried with them or on them. Some have iron stakes driven through their torsos, yet others have bricks or stones found in their mouths. Some have stones placed on their necks. These apotropaic symbols and artifacts were used to ward off evil influences, a magical practice that existed around the globe throughout history. A thread connects most of these burials, including the graves found at Drawsko in northwestern Poland, in that they seem to have suffered through epidemics, or illnesses.
Lesley Gregoricka from the University of South Alabama, who published a study in the journal PLOS One, writes of the burials, “Of these six individuals, five were interred with a sickle placed across the throat or abdomen, intended to remove the head or open the gut should they attempt to rise from the grave.” These practices were purposeful treatment of the dead who were considered at risk of becoming vampires, and returning to the village to feast on the living or infect the heathy with their curse.”
Legend has it that centuries ago a witch turned a would-be king of England and his men and knights to stone, which still stand and are among the Rollright Stones circle at Warwickshire. Now a new legend has cropped up: A 7th century AD skeleton recently unearthed at the site is being called the witch who turned the ambitious men to stone.
The woman stood between 4 feet 11 inches and 5 feet tall (about 152 cm) and was buried with a Roman patera or bronze vessel possibly used to cook offerings to the gods, a large amber bead and an amethyst set in silver. The patera is only the fifth found in England. She also had with her a large spindle whorl, which, with the patera, ITV.com says, indicates that “Rita,” the Saxon pagan Rollright Witch, as she is being called, was a spiritual woman of high status.
The Bronze Age Rollright Stones have much lore and myth surrounding them to this day. Many stone circles in the British Isles were supposedly revelers petrified by God or the devil for dancing and fiddling or picking turnips on the Sabbath.
The Celtic inhabitants of a small, industrious Iron Age settlement in Dorset, England, are believed to have sacrificed a young woman by slitting her throat, before burying her body in a curious arrangement of bones. Archaeologists also unearthed a series of bizarre hybrid-animals, in which the bones of different animals were intentionally combined together in what is reminiscent of the mythological beasts of ancient cultures.
The burials of hybrid animal bones at the site recall myths from the Mediterranean and Near East about bird-woman harpies, goat-lion chimeras, eagle-lion griffins, man-goat satyrs, man-bull minotaurs and man-horse centaurs. Ancient peoples imagined combining various animal and/or human parts into one fantastic and sometimes grotesque beast. Some were understood as monsters, others as wise counsellors or guardians of shepherds and the countryside.
“One particularly bizarre arrangement of animal bones also involved a human skeleton,” reports The Independent. “A young woman appears to have been sacrificed (there was an indication that her throat had probably been slit) – and was then buried on a ‘bed’ of specially arranged cattle, sheep, dog and horse bones. Significantly these animal bones had been deliberately sorted to mirror the bones of the dead woman. The animals’ skull fragments formed the surface her head rested on, while the animals’ leg bones formed the surface her legs rested on.”