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A ''vampire'' skeleton in Gliwice, Poland.

Polish archaeologists believe this skeleton with the head between the legs was found in a 'vampire' grave.

Photograph by Andrzej Grygiel, European Pressphoto Agency

Heather Pringle

for National Geographic

Published July 15, 2013

When archaeologists opened an ancient grave at a highway construction site near Gliwice, Poland, they came across a scene from a horror movie: a suspected vampire burial.

Interred in the ground were skeletal remains of humans whose severed heads rested upon their legs—an ancient Slavic burial practice for disposing of suspected vampires, in hopes that decapitated individuals wouldn't be able to rise from their tombs.

But the recent Polish discovery isn't the first time that archaeologists have stumbled upon graves of those thought to be undead. Here's what science has to tell us about a few of history's famous revenant suspects.

How to Bury the Undead

To date, researchers have reported suspected vampire burials in both the Old World and the New World.

In the 1990s, University of British Columbia archaeologist Hector Williams and his colleagues discovered an adult male skeleton whose body had been staked to the ground in a 19th-century cemetery on the Greek island of Lesbos. Whoever buried the man had driven several eight-inch-long iron spikes through his neck, pelvis, and ankle.

"He was also in a heavy but nearly completely decayed wooden coffin," says Williams, "while most of the other burials [in the cemetery] were simply in winding sheets in the earth." Clearly, someone did not want the man to escape the grave. But when physical anthropologists studied the skeleton, Williams adds, they "found nothing especially unusual about him."

More recently, an archaeological team led by University of Florence forensic anthropologist Matteo Borrini came across another suspected vampire burial on the Italian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo. In this case, the body proved to be that of an elderly woman, who was apparently interred with a moderate-sized brick in her mouth—a recorded form of exorcism once practiced on suspected vampires in Italy.

Then there's the New World. In the 1990s, archaeologists working in a small 18th- to 19th-century cemetery near Griswold, Connecticut, came across something highly unusual: the grave of a 50-something-year-old man whose head and upper leg bones had been laid out in a "skull and crossbone" pattern.

Upon examination, physical anthropologists determined that the man had died of what was then called "consumption"—and what is now known as tuberculosis. Those who suffer from this infectious disease grow pale, lose weight, and appear to waste away—attributes commonly linked both to vampires and their victims.

"The vampire's desire for 'food' forces it to feed off living relatives, who suffer a similar 'wasting away,'" the researchers noted in a paper in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.  To play it safe, local inhabitants seem to have decapitated the body of the suspected vampire.

The Dead Truth

Most archaeologists now think that a belief in vampires arose from common misunderstandings about diseases such as tuberculosis, and from a lack of knowledge about the process of decomposition.

Although most 19th-century Americans and Europeans were familiar with changes in the human body immediately following death, they rarely observed what happened in the grave during the following weeks and months.

For one thing, rigor mortis eventually disappears, resulting in flexible limbs. For another, the gastrointestinal tract begins to decay, producing a dark fluid that could be easily mistaken for fresh blood during exhumation—creating the appearance of a postprandial vampire.

When and where the next one will appear is anyone's guess.

26 comments
D. Davies
D. Davies

kool.....just another ancient alien

Dianne Severs
Dianne Severs

Not to mention that the History Channel had a show called Ancestors in the Attic, which "revealed" that Prince Charles was related to Vlad the Impailer -as a repeat,  the repeat may well to be cancelled.

D Larocque
D Larocque

I think this is all well, but no one mentioned Vlad tsepes the ruler of Wallachia. The impaler and original vampire from the house of Dracula. His life has been documented well. Wiki ref. That should scare you more.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vlad_the_Impaler

beverly ballard
beverly ballard

PEOPLE THEN DID NOT KNOW WHAT WE  KNOW NOW IT MAKES FOR INTERESTING TALK

Karolina G.
Karolina G.

It was not 'near Gliwice' it was exactly IN the centre of Gliwice!!!

Donna Gingrasso
Donna Gingrasso

Emily, I think it is time to face reality and just read the article in the National Geographic about where the idea of Vampires came from to begin with.  I don't know how old you are, but TV is a very compelling influence to young people and if a person isn't careful, they can believe a myth very easily. There really isn't any evidence anyone has ever been bitten by one, nor has anyone ever seen one, right?

Emily Tomak
Emily Tomak

I still feel as though vampires do indeed exist, but this is my opinion. Whether or not people think that I am crazy, will not change my mind on how I feel about vampires. I believe that vampires are blood-sucking carnivores and they will stop at nothing to kill their pray and keep 'what' they are a secret from all.

João Petronilho
João Petronilho

Although this is evidently a very logic explanation. I can stop wondering that, even if most people didn't had a "scientific" knowledge of the decomposing body. Death was a much more active and present agent in the lives of these people, from North America, to Italy. Admitting that  those individuals involved had the same cognitive capacities that the average Human has, its strange that this "misunderstandings" can be found in all corners of the globe, and during different times. 

My point being, that we should not try to resume the explanation of this social and cultural phenomenon to one or two causes, since it probably results  from a long process of construction, going from the most ancient "fear" of the shadow in the night that hunts Humans, to the romanticized 21 st century Vampire "lover". 

T H
T H

Also notable is that post mortem gasses produced during decomposition makes bodies often bloated, appearing that the deceased had been eating or even feasting. 

Furthermore, as the skin dries it shrinks, exposing recently grown fingernails and thereby has the appearance of actually growing fingernails. 

Ross Beake
Ross Beake

Burials which include the decapitated head being left at the deceased feet, are not only thought of as necessarily vampires but as undesirable characters, mutilated in the hope that they can not come back and haunt the living.

There have been similar cases from Iron Age Britain

Aaron Conaway
Aaron Conaway

Or someone died with their head up their A__

Minh Duc
Minh Duc

I want to have more details on this news after reading this post:)

Ryszard Parka
Ryszard Parka

As an author of original story about Vampires from Gliwice, I strongly recommend to watch pictures of discovered skeletons here: http://www.dziennikzachodni.pl/artykul/941551,sensacja-na-budowie-dts-w-gliwicach-odkryto-groby-wampirow,id,t.html.

A week after discovery, number of found "vampiric" graves rose to 13. So closer to historical truth is a theory of burial place of victims dead by hanging. As for hanging bodies were left on a gallows until they naturally fell down - some of them have heads separated from the rest of body.

We plan write more about it on DziennikZachodni.pl as well as in our printed edition. More pictures here: http://www.dziennikzachodni.pl/artykul/942386,szkielety-wampirow-w-gliwicach-to-jedna-z-hipotez-nowe-zdjecia,id,t.html

Biju Toha
Biju Toha

Vampire' grave. That's the amazing news ... 

Catherine Plant
Catherine Plant

@Donna Gingrasso

Donna, there has been apparent evidence of people (in this case girls), being attacked and bitten by a vampire in London in the late 60's & early 70's, in the vicinity of the Highgate Cemetery. This case of vampirism has been well documented over the years and is probably the one of the most well known cases of actual "real" vampires. People are free to research this case and make up their own minds on this. As a starting point I've included the Wikipedia link, but further research is a must with this case.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highgate_Vampire

Catherine Plant
Catherine Plant

@Donna Gingrasso

Donna, here in England there was a well documented vampire case in the late 60's & early 70's. It became known as the Highgate Cemetary Vampire. It is probably one of the most well documented cases of vampirism to date. Several young girls were attacked and bitten this vampire. People can make up their own minds on this, but as a starting point, I will give this Wikipedia link.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highgate_Vampire

Bryony Taylor
Bryony Taylor

@João Petronilho you say that but there are many similarities in all forms of folk lore. though the lose transcriptiomn of vampires maybe similar. their attributes and characteristic, not to mention ways of dealing with them vary. though we all have a little hope, including myself, fo rthe existence of the ethereal.

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