Monday 21 May 2012

Lively Debate over 'Vampire' Skeleton

'We all know about archaeological finds that get sensationalized and distorted by the media. What kind of obligation do archaeologists have to try to correct such stories? Should we ignore them? Perhaps they are not important in the larger scheme of scholarship. Perhaps we think that trying to correct them would be futile. Or should we try to correct the record? I occasionally try to address media errors when its a topic I know well and can speak with authority, although my success rate (with letters to the editor, etc.) has not been very high.'

So wrote archaeologist Michael E. Smith on his blog, Publishing Archaeology, in 2009 when he published an e-mail from bioarchaeologist Anastasia Tsaliki expressing a sceptical attitude towards the 'vampire' find in Venice. Tsaliki herself is author of Vampires Beyond Legend: A Bioarchaeological Approach. In M. La Verghetta and L. Capasso (eds.), Proceedings of the XIII European Meeting of the Paleopathology Association, Chieti, Italy, 18-23 Sept. 2000, Edigrafital S.p.A: Teramo- Italy, 295-300.

I have myself expressed some concern, cf. also this post, about the popular presentation of the archaeological find of a 'vampire' by Borrini and his colleagues, but have so far not written about their original paper on the subject, Forensic Approach to an Archaeological Casework of "Vampire" Skeletal Remains in Venice: Odontological and Anthropological Prospectus by Emilio Nuzzolese and Matteo Borrini, published in November 2010 in The Journal of Forensic Sciences (Vol. 55, No. 6, p. 1634-7). In it the deceased individual in question, i.e. the old woman, is referred to as 'ID 6'. The authors find that 'the insertion of the brick into the dead woman's mouth must be considered intentional,' and that 'this practice probably had a symbolic and ritual value, that the sextons working in the graveyard during the plague handled the corpse this way, despite the danger of infection.'

In conclusion, Nuzzolese and Borrini: 'assume that during the digging of a hole in the ground for a person who had just died of the plague, the gravediggers cut off the ID 6 deposition. They noticed the shroud (its presence is suggested by the verticalization of the clavicle) and a hole, which corresponded with the mouth. As the body appeared as quite intact, they probably recognized in that body the so-called vampire, responsible for plague by chewing her shroud. As a consequence, they inserted a brick in her mouth. The sequence of those events (time since death) can be deduced by the lack of alteration on the skeleton joints, so that we can suppose that the gravediggers dealt with the corpse when it was not disjointed yet. The insertion of the brick into the mouth at the time of the primary deposition can be ruled out because we have no reference, even folkloric, for such a practice in that historical and cultural context.

It is not strange that superstitions concerning vampires were widespread in the 16th to 17th centuries even in a "cosmopolitan" and evolved city like Venice. It is surprising, however, that this exorcism ritual has been clearly recognized in an archaeological context: the ID 6 grave could well be the first "vampire" burial archaeologically attested and studied by a forensic odontological and anthropological approach.'

From Minozzi, Fornaciari and Fornaciari (J Forensic Sci, May 2012, Vol. 57, No. 3, p. 843-4)
This May, however, a commentary was published by The Journal of Forensic Sciences with an answer by Nuzzolose and Borrini (Vol. 57, No. 3, p. 843-8). The authors of the commentary, Simona Minozzi, Antonio Fornaciari and Gino Fornaciari from the Universities in Pisa and Siena, have responded because 'in Italy the story of the "Vampire of Venice" is receiving extraordinary emphasis in the mass media', while it is still only supported by the one article by Nuzzolese and Borrini, and in the opinion of Minozzi and co., 'the argumentation presented in this paper suffers from many drawbacks and seems to lack adequate scientific evidence, not only in the conclusions, but also in its initial assumptions.'

Minozzi and co. discuss the photographs available to them, which in their opinion support the theory that the woman was interred in a coffin. They also find that the assumption that there was a shroud is based on 'weak evidence', and stress that the Nachzehrer belief 'is not attested in Italy during the Modern Age, but appears to be tightly confined to the East German world.' Furthermore, they point to other examples of skeletons found with stones or other objects in their mouth, that bear no relation to e.g. revenant beliefs:

'During archaeological excavations of medieval and postmedieval cemeteries, the opened jaw with preserved connection of the themporo-mandibular joints is frequently observed as an effect of decomposition in empty space. This condition can be followed by a secondary oral cavity filling, even with stones or bricks, if these are present in the surrounding sediment. We report an example from the medieval cemetery of Vecchiano, Pisa. Therefore the same event might have occurred in the Nuovo Lazzaretto burials; to support our more simple theory, we show an "eater of bones", a skeleton found in the cemetery of Vecchio Lazzaretto in Venice with a similar archaeological context.' (see the figure above)

Consequently, they find that the intentionality of of the action of a 'Vampire Slayer' inserting a brick into the woman's mouth is insufficiently documented, and 'therefore, we cannot draw any conclusions about the intentionality of the action, even less about the symbolic burial ritual.'

In their response, Nuzzolese and Borrini present more information on the find and their theory. They note that 'the intentional deposition of the brick in the mouth is strictly linked with the contextual analysis'. Analysing the position of various skeletons intercepting the ID 6 remains, that at the time of the deposition of one of the other corpses (ID 1), 'the body of ID6 was uncovered during its decomposition: the gravediggers encountered that cadaverous phenomena which was interpreted, at the time, as evidence of vampirism.' If the woman was not skeletonized, Nuzzolese and Borrini find it possible to 'hypothesize the presence of a shroud because of the verticalization of the left clavicle associated with medial rotation of humeri. It is certainly true that this phenomenon might be attributable to a wall effect originated from possible barriers in the ground (not present in this case) or a coffin, but no evidence of wooden containers for ID6 or any other skeletons in the site were attested during the excavation.' They also note that they have found pins to hold the bandages and shrouds on other individuals at the site, and go on to comment:

'The shroud question seemed to tax the Italian colleagues, to the point that they finished the sentence about the hypothesis shroud mastication with an exclamation mark. It is possible that because of the brevity of the case report the authors have not clearly emphasized the nature of those cliams: it is a reconstructive hypothesis based on ancient stories related to the "mastication" by the dead, or the fact that some of them were found apparently with chewed clothes or shrouds. This sort of postmortem bulimia (as already mentioned and published originated from the difference between the timing of fabric and body decomposition) was at the basis of the belief of a particular species of vampire, the nachzehrer.

Therefore, the authors found no evidence of a hole in the shroud but assumed the presence of the cloth and the intentional inclusion of a brick for the reasons already explained, they reconstructed, according to ancient tales, the possible scene of the accidental exhumation. During this operation, because of the lack of understanding the process of decomposition, the gravediggers thought they had come face to face with a vampire and then decided to exorcise it to stop the plague that raged in the city.'

Nuzzolese and Borrini then discuss the brick, noting that 'The deep introduction in the oral cavity and the relationship with the jaw bones preclude that the brick was simply loose in the soil after a "secondary infiltration of the sediment" (differently from what we see in Fig. 3 of our Italian colleagues' article), and also the preservation of anatomical joints (which is not present in the "eater of bones" from Lazzaretto Vecchio) "suggests the intentionality of the action" and can exclude that "the brick was accidentally put into the mouth".'

Finally, Nuzzolese and Borrini comment on the plausibility that the Nachzehrer belief travelled from one part of Europe to another: 'As it is known, when goods move, men, ideas, and cultures travel with them.' They take Philip Rohr's words on putting a small stone into the deceased's mouth as evidence 'that the practice to put something inedible in the nachzehrer mouth was attested and diffused: if no other archeological evidence of this ritual has been discovered (or recognized), this does not mean that the author's hypothesis is invalid.'

In conclusion, they quote from Tommaso Braccini's book Prima di Dracula: Archeologia del vampiro (2011): 'compared with many other more uncertain and hypothetical cases, that of the vampire of Venice (a vampire, in fact, only in the broadest sense of the word) is particularly striking and also supported by a rather solid base documentary.'
14th century illustration of gravediggers burying plague victims, according to Meurer: Vampire: Die Engel der Finsternis (2003)
So what are we to think without going into a discussion of details that no doubt require specialized knowledge to pass a verdict on? Nuzzolese and Borrini clearly maintain that their hypothesis is valid: The brick was intentionally stuck into the mouth of the dead person when the gravediggers chanced upon seeing the corpse while burying another deceased individual. The act of putting the brick into a corpse's mouth in their opinion must be understood in terms of the belief in the masticating dead, a belief that is not documented in Italy, but hypothetically may have been known by gravediggers at the Lazaretto Nuovo near Venice. And a belief that was frequently connected to the plague, a circumstance that may have contributed to the use of an otherwise unusual type of apotropaics in the area during an epidemic.

Assuming that Nuzzolese and Borrini are correct, their hypothesis poses intriguing questions concerning the possible migration of 'necrophobic' beliefs and customs, consequently contributing to the fundamental discussion regarding the geographical and cultural background to various European beliefs in what we would today call 'the undead'. To what extent are these diverse forms of 'posthumous magic' manifestations of common concepts concerning the dead and their possible malevolent effects on the living? To what extent are they the result of migrations, cultural influences and synchretism?

My own search for von Schertz's Magia posthuma was sparked by an interest in understanding the relationship between these diverse beliefs that sometime in the 18th century increasingly became understood under the common term of vampirism. Whether the brick placed in the mouth of a skeleton was actually put there to prevent the woman from harming the living or not, these are questions that the literature on vampires and other revenants should address more explicitly than is usually the case.

Furthermore, whatever people think of the find in Venice or of the media's way of telling the story about it, I think that this find has once and for all made archaeological evidence part of the field of vampires and other revenants. Unfortunately, a lot of the finds have only been described in reports and papers in native languages, that is e.g. the case of some of the relevant archaeological finds in the Czech Republic, so it can be difficult to get hold of exact information. Still, here is a subject that has only partially been explored and developed in the literature, so I hope we will see some interesting books and papers on the subject in the future.

I am grateful to Roberto Labanti for notifying me of recent developments in the case.

Sunday 20 May 2012

A Study in Survivals and Greek folklore a century ago

'Mr. Lawson informs us that in Thessaly he was actually told of a family in the neighbourhood of Domoko, who reckoned a vrykolakas among their ancestors of some two or three generations ago, and by virtue of such lineage they inherited a certain skill which enables them to deal most efficaciously with the vrykolakas who at intervals haunt the country-side, indeed so widely was their power esteemed that they had been on occasion summoned as specialists for consultation when quite remote districts were troubled in this manner.'

Yet two more recent reprints from Cambridge University Press are of some interest in connection with the subject of this blog, in both cases with Greek folklore and anthropology. These two books from the early twentieth century are among the works studied and referred to by Montague Summers (cf. the above passage from The Vampire: His Kith and Kin, p. 230), so they will no doubt be familiar to many people.

Macedonian Folklore by George Frederick Abbott, was originally published in 1903. Abbott, born 1874, 'spent two years at the turn of the twentieth century studying the cultural beliefs and folklore of Greek-speaking Macedonia. His results are formulated in this 1903 book and include accounts of such varying topics as the folk-calendar, funeral rites and bird legends among many other observations. Filled with anecdotes of his adventure and reports from local inhabitants, this work is a highly engaging travelogue with many ethnographic insights. Those interested in the development of anthropology will find Abbott's study a telling example of Victorian methods while the general reader will find his prose style warm and enjoyable.'

Abbott died in 1947, cf. Wikipedia.

Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Folklore by John Cuthbert Lawson was published in 1910, and 'analyses the customs and superstitions of modern Greece as a means of gaining a greater understanding of ancient Greek belief structures. Analogies and coincidences between ancient and modern Greece had been pointed out prior to the publication of this edition, but no large attempt had been made to trace the continuity of the life and thought of the Greek people, and to exhibit modern Greek folklore as an essential factor in the interpretation of ancient Greek religion. The text is highly accessible, and all quotations from ancient and modern Greek are translated into English. This is a fascinating book that will be of value to anyone with an interest in anthropology and the classical world.'

A recent assessment of Lawson's work - which is still frequently referred to in various books - can be found in 'On the Beliefs of the Greeks' by Karen Hartnup:

'His Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion is immensely learned, and his treatment of beliefs and practices in this work is often sensitive and perceptive, but the title of his work indicates his underlying concern. He argued that although Christianity altered the ethical standards and imposed a religiously sanctioned morality on ancient Greece, practically all ancient religious customs continued up to his own day. Christianity was merely grafted on to paganism and the conciliatory practices of the early church meant that the Christinaity of the masses became polytheistic. Lawson concluded that the inhabitants of modern Greece "with all this external Christianity ... are as pagan and as polytheistic in their hearts as were ever their ancestors." In fact, for him modern Greek Christianity was just a thin cover for the continuing system of paganism.

Although Lawson's work follows the prevailing methodology of his time, it typifies the archaeological and romantic folkloric approach to Greek popular religion, which until recently held sway in Greek studies. In such studies the aim was to strip away the modern 'accretions' in order to extract information on the classical period and to reveal a 'pristine Hellenic past'. No attempt was made to trace the practices through the intervening periods and the impact of such momentous events as the conversion to Christianity, the conquest of Constantinople, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire was ignored.' (p. 7-8)

Saturday 19 May 2012

Vampires at the archive

Danish language video about the copy of the Visum et Repertum stored at the Danish State Archives in Copenhagen, as I wrote about in a post on the Visum et Repertum and in my contribution to the 2009 conference in Vienna, now available in Vampirismus und magia posthuma im Diskurs der Habsburgermonarchie edited by Augustynowicz and Reber.

In Pursuit of Dracula

À la poursuite de Dracula (In pursuit of Dracula) is a book under preparation by photographer Gwenn Dubourthoumieu and SF/fantasy novelist Simon Sanahujas. Dubourthoumieu writes:

'The book is about our journey in Romania, UK and Paris, looking after Dracula and the modern vampyres. It is not our first collaboration. We regularly send ourselves on quests for both the fictional and historic traces of popular characters from literature. One fruit of this joint-labor is the book Conan the Texan, published in 2008, after the character Conan the Barbarian created by the Texan novelist Robert E. Howard. In 2009, we repeated this experience with Tarzan, for whom we searched throughout Gabon. Our adventures, this time, could be followed on our blog, hosted by the French newspaper Libération, and gave rise to the publication of another book, in 2010.

However, in order to collect the necessary funds to publish the book and organize a related photo exhibition, we have launched a call for contributions through the crowdfounding platform "kisskissbankbank". Our aim is to collect 3300€ in 90 days.'

So if you are intrigued to know more about this project, and perhaps contribute to its completion, please go to Kiss Kiss Bank Bank for more details. If you contribute at least €40, you will receive a signed copy of the book when it is published.

Friday 18 May 2012

The Philosophy of Spirits, Apparitions, Etc.

Cambridge University Press has reissued Henry Christmas's translation of Calmet, The Phantom World, as a set of two paperbacks. Available at at RRP of £39.00, it appears that there is no new material, like e.g. an introduction:

'The Benedictine monk and biblical scholar Antoine Augustin Calmet (1672–1757) published this work in 1746; it was translated into English in 1850 by Henry Christmas (1811–68). It examines a wide selection of supernatural tales and beliefs from across Europe. Taking the stance of a scientific enquirer, Calmet sought to understand the truth behind stories of good and bad angels, vampires, witchcraft, possession by demons, and the dead who come back to life. He compiled accounts of the supernatural from official reports, newspapers, eyewitness accounts and travel writing, and this two-volume anthology of his collected data analyses the material, noting problems and inconsistencies. Volume 1 investigates the appearance of good and bad angels, magic among the Greeks and Romans, sorcerers and witches, and possession by demons. Volume 2 investigates tales of vampires and ghosts across many different European countries.'

Henry Christmas (1811–1868), according to Wikipedia, 'at the end of his life going by the surname Noel-Fearn, was an English clergyman, a man of letters and editor of periodicals, known also as a numismatist.'

Also in the Cambridge Library Collection is a two volume edition of Emily Gerard's The land Beyond the Forest.

Friday 11 May 2012

Close Encounters in Whitby

Not only Count Dracula and other macabre and gloomy people are attracted by Whitby, but according to the issue of the Fortean Times mentioned in my former post, extraterrestrial phenomena have also been observed in that portal town. A Labour politician and town councillor, Simon Parkes, claims to be the son of a green alien (!) and to have had no less than hundreds of close encounters with extraterrestials!

'I get more common sense out of the aliens than out of Scarborough Town Hall,' Parker says. Listen to him telling about his experiences in the youtube video below. Mind you, it goes on for over an hour, if you have time for that (I only listened to the beginning). Maybe you will end up agreeing with another viewer: 'Kudos to him for being honest. He's simply confirming what most of us have always known to be true. That all politicians live on a different planet.'

I have never visited Whitby. Now, I am no longer sure if it is safe to visit the place :-)

"Calmet had corresponded with Maria Theresa"

To me there is something anachronistic about forteana in the twenty first century. Charles Fort's collections of strange phenomena remind me of my youth when theories about biblical myths being inspired by UFO visits, claims that the Egyptians knew about electromagnetics, and various parapsychological notions of telekinesis were popular. Still, the magazine The Fortean Times, apparently has an avid audience, and judging from its current issue, some of the articles are pretty well written and researched.

This issue - no 288 - is a special on the 'creatures of the night', including an article on the historical origin of the interest in vampires, i.e. the Serbian vampires of the 1730's, by Dr. Leo Ruickbie. I doubt that readers of this blog will be surprised by most of what he writes, except a claim that Dom Calmet corresponded with Empress Maria Theresa. This is certainly an intriguing angle that I would never have considered. Ruickbie, unfortunately, does not quote any source for this information.

Other articles include an analysis of 'vampire killing kits' and a history of two men who played a key role in  Romanian Dracula tourism.

The Fortean Times is available for purchase and reading digitally.

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