The Grapevine

What Are Vampire Burials? Ancient Practice Was Used To Prevent Contagion

Vampires have long been a subject of fascination in pop culture — hard to dispute even if you were not much of a Twilight fan. But the lure of the undead is also evident in the world of archeology, with "vampire burials" to be specific. 

So what are they exactly? The term refers to burials dating back to the early centuries, designed in a way to keep the corpse from rising. In other words, they used a precautionary measure in the off chance that the buried person comes back to life to prey on the living — much like a vampire.

So far, some corpses unearthed in Europe have been found with sharp sickles or with rocks inserted in their mouths. Most recently, the body of a 10-year-old child was discovered in such a manner at an ancient Roman site. 

The same site also contained the body of a 3-year-old girl who had stones weighing down on her hands and feet. David Soren, an archeologist from the University of Arizona, said the discovery was an "eerie" one.

"We know that the Romans were very much concerned with this and would even go to the extent of employing witchcraft to keep the evil — whatever is contaminating the body — from coming out," he explained.

This "evil" was likely a disease as an examination strongly suggested that the child died from malaria. Researchers noted that the outbreak took place in the fifth century, killing vulnerable babies and children. 

This ritual, suggesting a belief that vampires could cause or spread epidemics, was first recognized in 2009 by researchers from the University of Florence who were examining the remains of an elderly woman known as the "Vampire of Venice." 

The remains dated back to the 16th century, a time when people did not have the most accurate understanding of diseases or decomposing corpses. So if gravediggers noticed blood seeping from the mouths of some corpses, they may have wrongly assumed that they were still alive and consuming blood for some reason. In reality, the human body tends to bloat after death which can cause blood to be forced out of the lungs, as noted by LiveScience.

"It's a very human thing to have complicated feelings about the dead and wonder if that's really the end," said bioarcheologist Jordan Wilson, who was a part of the team that uncovered the 10-year-old's body.

"Anytime you can look at burials, they're significant because they provide a window into ancient minds. We have a saying in bioarchaeology: 'The dead don't bury themselves.' We can tell a lot about people's beliefs and hopes and by the way they treat the dead."