Twenty-seven thousand years ago, in a stone-age village fenced in by mammoth bones, three young people were buried together, their bodies covered by burnt spruce logs and branches. A woman, disfigured perhaps by some congenital abnormality, was placed in the middle. To her left, a man was laid prone, his face in the dirt. To her right, another man had his hands angled awkwardly onto her groin, where red ochre, a pigment with ceremonial significance, was sprinkled. A thick wooden pole was driven through this man’s own groin and thigh, pinning him to the ground.

For archaeologists, including the researchers who exhumed this trio in the 1980s at Dolní Věstonice, a prominent excavation site in the Czech Republic, such burials are like prehistoric murder-mystery puzzles. The trio’s internment is one of the oldest examples of a “deviant burial”—a term in archaeology for graves that are atypical, unexpected, or just downright weird. Is the prone man’s position a mark of disrespect? Did the woman’s disfigurement change the way she was treated? And is the other man’s “staking” evidence (as some have suggested) of an ancient fear of the “dangerous dead”—the belief that corpses would rise from their graves to cause mayhem?

Historically, archaeology hasn’t paid much attention to deviant burials, which tend to involve peasants and criminals and are often discovered in excavations where time and resources are limited, precluding detailed analysis. But over the last few years, thanks to a broadening focus beyond the lavish mortuary practices of the elite, the field has begun to take a much keener interest. Researches have been systematically collating the phenomenon, revealing that these deviant burials weren’t just some fringe practice, but surprisingly widespread across cultures. A whole array of gruesome techniques now have been reported, all with the apparent intention of keeping the dead firmly in their graves.

The remains of the “vampire of Venice” who was buried with a brick in her mouth, in order to allegedly prevent her from consuming plague victims. (Ho New / Reuters)

In Eastern Europe, for instance—where Bram Stoker drew inspiration for Dracula—there have been numerous discoveries of corpses that have been “staked.” Bulgaria has had multiple cases of 700-year-old skeletons with ploughshares—the hefty blade of a plough—thrust through them into the ground. Recent Polish excavations unearthed skeletons with sickles placed around their waists or the necks. Other techniques—such as “stoning” (weighing the corpse down with heavy objects)—have been found all over the world, from 4,000-year-old Bronze Age burials pinned down with huge rocks, to graves from Ancient Greece weighted down with amphora fragments, to medieval English skeletons buried under grinding stones. The approach of ramming something firmly in a corpse’s open jaw has been observed both in 8th-century Irish “zombie burials” and the grave of the “Vampire of Venice,” a 16th-century skeleton disinterred from a plague cemetery with a large sized brick wedged between the teeth.

Abundant media coverage has followed these discoveries, which has fueled public fascination, but often frustrated archaeologists, because many of the stories are based on unpublished findings that have yet to be thoroughly scrutinized. When further Polish excavations found decapitated skeletons with skulls placed neatly between the feet, for instance, tabloids screamed “vampire burials.” But the local Polish press pointed out that there were medieval gallows nearby, which suggested that the bodies simply were executed prisoners. Some scientists worry that media biases could be influencing archaeology itself. Simona Minozzi—a paleopathologist at the University of Pisa—argued that the media hype surrounding the Vampire of Venice was backed up by only a single publication that lacked “adequate scientific evidence.” It “cannot be excluded that the brick slid accidentally into the mouth,” she wrote.

To actually get to the bottom of these strange practices and resist misdirection, archaeologists have begun to develop new systematic approaches by collating deviant burials into datasets. The most comprehensive analysis was performed by Andrew Reynolds, a medieval archaeologist at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, for a book he published in 2009. He tracked down obscure references from the musty basements of university libraries, eventually compiling practically every known burial from Anglo-Saxon Britain: a staggering 25,000 burials. Reynolds plugged the data into a vast spreadsheet, which allowed him to organize the information into categories like “position of decapitated heads” (most commonly “missing”).

Thanks to this approach, Reynolds was able to draw broad inferences into deviant burials in Britain that up until his project could only have been guessed at. The most common deviant burial type, for instance, was a prone burial, which Reynolds says in fact was a superstitious measure “to prevent the corpse returning to haunt the living.” (“Burying people face down means they will only dig themselves deeper if they reanimate,” he points out.) Post-mortem decapitation similarly seems to have been used to lay “a suspect corpse to rest.” The dataset allowed Reynolds to probe for historical influences on mortuary practices, revealing, for example, that the introduction of Christianity led towns to exile the “dangerous dead” from the new church graveyards and bury them at the margins of society. (Distant crossroads were a particular favorite for this, as they give the “re-animated corpse lots of options in terms of direction of travel—hopefully not in your direction!” Reynolds says.)

Last year, a similar systematic study was published by Marco Milella, an anthropologist at the University of Zurich. His project covered the whole of Western Europe from the first to fifth centuries, confirming that deviant burials can be discovered well beyond Britain. While Milella warns that applying “concepts derived from later times and completely different cultural contexts (e.g. vampires) is a risky exercise,” his data is powerful evidence that a fear of the undead wasn’t just isolated to the “vampires” of Eastern Europe. There were some cross-cultural, systematic forces at work.

In folkloric sources as diverse as Babylonian literature, the shroud-eating Nachzehrer of Germanic tradition, and the Chiang-Shih “hopping vampires” of Chinese legend, notions of corpses rising from the grave have long been documented. But what these new archaeological datasets reveal is that these ancient accounts weren’t just stories that our ancestors told to each other on dark and stormy nights. Many of our forefathers were genuinely scared, taking time and trouble to ensure that the dead stayed where they belong.

Why this fear in the first place? One widely accepted explanation, outlined by the folklorist Paul Barber in his book Vampires, Burial, and Death, is rooted in the panic that would grip a society during a deadly epidemic. The first person to die from a disease often would be blamed for the ensuing outbreak, and the body would be exhumed for investigation. Thanks to the process of decomposition, the corpse would be found transformed from its previous cold, pale, and stiff state: Fresh-looking blood would be seeping from the lips; the face would be ruddy; the body would be engorged, and have a “fresh, new skin” that made the nails and hair to appear to have grown. The corpse might even “gasp” if a stake was driven through its lungs, releasing foul and noxious gases, Barber notes.

As for why the threat of vampires and zombie still captivates us today, that’s much harder to pin down, Barber tells me. After all, the science to debunk these myths is quite a bit stronger than it was centuries ago. Perhaps the undead stir up our deepest fears about our own mortality? Maybe they simply make for great television and movies? Rather than entertaining any large-scale cultural or anthropological explanations, Barber prefers a more grounded perspective. “Who the hell knows?” he says.