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.