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Witches, Vampires and Werewolves – 10 Ghoulish Archaeological Discoveries


Archaeologists are quite familiar with the unearthing of human remains. But occasionally they come across burials that are more bizarre and unsettling – from hybrid frankenstein-type skeletons, to ‘vampires’ pinned to the ground with wooden stakes, ‘witches’ held in their graves by heavy stones and individuals with stones wedged in their mouths, iron sickles against their throats, or holes in their skulls that had been drilled to exorcise evil spirits, there are no shortage of strange and grisly discoveries. This Halloween we examine ten such ghoulish discoveries.

Archaeologists uncover 'witch' burial in Italy

In 2014, archaeologists uncovered an ancient skeleton of a teenage girl in Albenga, Italy, which had been buried face down. The researchers said that burying an individual in this way was indicative of the person having been rejected by society or considered a danger, possibly due to accusations of witchcraft.

The discovery was made during an archaeological dig carried out by the Vatican’s Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology, at the complex of San Calocero – a burial ground on which a church was built around the 5th and 6th centuries AD – located in Albenga along the Ligurian Riviera in northern Italy. The excavation director, Stefano Roascio, said that such burials were carried out as an act of punishment intended to humiliate the dead, and discoveries like this were considered rare. According to the research team, in extreme cases, victims were buried alive in the facedown position, however, this was not the case with the newly discovered burial.

“The prone burial was linked to the belief that the soul left the body through the mouth. Burying the dead facedown was a way to prevent the impure soul threatening the living,” anthropologist Elena Dellù told Discovery News.

Ancient Greeks apparently feared zombies so much they weighed down the dead

Modern people have not been the only ones fascinated by the undead. Ancient Greeks on the island of Sicily had a fear of revenants so dire they weighed bodies down with rocks and amphora pieces to keep them from rising from their graves to haunt the living, says a researcher. On the other hand and paradoxically, writes Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver in Popular Archaeology, the Greeks also tried to contact the dead for divination through a practice called necromancy.

Earlier this year, archaeologists working in a large cemetery near Kamarina, an ancient coastal town in southeast Sicily, exhumed 2,905 bodies and excavated burials goods. In the necropolis (“city of the dead”) called Passo Marinaro, in use from the 5th through 3rd centuries BC, researchers found grave goods including coins, figurines and terracotta vases. They also found two bodies weighed down at the head, feet and torso with large stones and amphorae, apparently to keep them in their place—the land of the dead, or Hades.

“For the ancient Greeks, the dead were subjects of both fear and supplication. Necrophobia, or the fear of the dead, is a concept that has been present in Greek culture since the Neolithic period. At the heart of this phobia is the belief that corpses are able to reanimate and exist in a state that is neither living nor dead, but rather ‘undead’”. Weaver writes in her paper published in Popular Archaeology Magazine. “These liminal figures are deemed to be dangerous because it is understood that they leave their graves at night for the explicit purpose of harming the living. As a means of protection, the alleged undead were pinned in their graves or ritually ‘killed’.”

Bulgarian archaeologists unearth ‘vampire’ grave

In 2013, archaeologists working on Bulgaria’s Perperikon site found the skeleton of a male buried with an iron stake plunged through its chest, a ritual practiced in the Middle Ages to prevent the individual ‘turning into the undead’. Coins found with the body have been tentatively dated to the 13th and 14th century. It is not the first ‘vampire grave’ to be uncovered in Bulgaria. The discovery echoes a similar one made in Sozopol. Throughout Bulgaria, the remains of over 100 vampire-treated people, all of them men, and all of them prominent citizens, have been found. According to pagan beliefs, people who were considered bad during their lifetimes might turn into vampires after death unless stabbed in the chest with an iron or wooden rod before being buried. People believed the rod would also pin them down in their graves to prevent them from leaving at midnight and terrorizing the living. Vampire legends form an important part of the region's folklore.

Bulgarian farmer discovers skull resembling werewolf in a sealed box

In October 2014, a Bulgarian born farmer, Trayche Draganov, claimed to have found a box, chained shut, containing a werewolf-like skull while ploughing a new section of field in the village of Novo Selo, Republic of Macedonia. The account was reported to Ancient Origins by historian Filip Ganev, who spent time in Novo Selo while conducting research for his book on the Balkan Wars. Mr Ganev met the farmer, who showed him the box containing the unusual skull. He reported that the skull appears wolf-like with the exception of an enlarged cranium, a trait found only in primate species.

Mr Ganev photographed the skull and shared them with government wildlife officials, who concluded that it was likely a wolf that suffered from Paget Disease, a condition which causes the skull to increase in size and appear more human-like.

Mr Ganev said that werewolves have been a staple of Balkan folklore since before recorded history. The legends vary from region to region as far as how and why one becomes a werewolf. Some believe that a person is born with the ability to shape shift into a wolf. Babies born with hair are said to have a proclivity for this. Other regions believe that a person who died in a mortal sin or made some other union with the devil would be reborn as werewolves.

Have archaeologists found the last known witch grave in Scotland?

Archaeologists in Scotland believe that they located the final resting place of Lilias Adie, who was accused of being a witch and, following her death in prison, was buried in deep mud with a heavy flat stone placed on top of her – a tradition based on the belief that witches could rise from their graves unless held down by a heavy stone.

The Valleyfield Community Centre based in Fife, Scotland, recounts the story of the Lilias:

In the small village of Torryburn in the West of Fife in the year 1704 August 29th, an old woman, Lillias Adie, was accused of bringing ill health to one of her neighbours, a certain Jean Nelson. Summoned before the ministers and elders of Torryburn church, poor old confused Lillias confessed that she was indeed a witch. She told the grim faced committee of church elders that she had met the Devil in a cornfield and had accepted him as her lover and master. The terrified woman described how she and the devil had led many others, whom she named, in a wild heathenish dance. According to Lillias a strange blue unearthly light had appeared and had followed the dancers round the cornfield, her tales grew wilder and wilder and were eagerly accepted as proof of her dealings with the Devil. Lillias was, according to the official records, "Died in Prison and was buried within the sea mark at Torryburn.

As part of a 2014 program titled ‘The Walking Dead’, on BBC Radio Scotland, researchers tried to trace the original burial site of Lilias, based on 19 th century descriptions of the area. During the investigation, a large, seaweed-covered stone slab was found, matching the description of both the area and the features of the burial. Fife archaeologist Douglas Speirs, who examined and cleaned it, confirmed the slab was not natural to the beach but quarried and deliberately placed there. While a full archaeological excavation has not been undertaken, it is possible that there are still remains of Lilias left beneath the slab, in what is believed to be the only known witch’s grave of its type in Scotland.

The ‘Frankenstein’ Mummies of Scotland

In 2001, a team of archaeologists found four skeletons at an archaeological site on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. At first, it appeared to be a typical Bronze Age discovery, but the researchers soon discovered that the finding was far from normal. The skeletons, one male and one female, were buried in the foetal position. Initial tests revealed that the male had died in around 1600 BC and the female had died in approximately 1300 BC. However, some ten years later, further DNA examination of the remains led to a startling discovery – the two skeletons were actually made up of body parts from six different individuals, in what archaeologists have branded ‘frankenstein mummies’.

In the ‘male skeleton’, the torso, skull and neck, and lower jaw belonged to three separate men, and the ‘female skeleton’ is a composite formed from a male skull, a female torso, and the arm of a third person whose gender had not been determined. Carbon dating revealed that the skull of the ‘female’ mummy is 50 to 200 years older than the torso. It appears that the mummies were made up of parts from people in the same families and then put together like a jigsaw to make it look like they were just one person. Archaeologists have no idea why the remains were mummified and then mixed together. However, Parker Pearson believes that the mixing of remains was done to combine different ancestries of families to create a ‘symbolic ancestor’ that literally embodied traits from multiple lineages.

Medieval man may have had head drilled in an exorcism

A medieval or Saxon man whose skeleton was found in a Roman villa in Hampshire, England, may have been buried in the countryside because of a jaw deformity that made his community consider him plagued by spirits. It’s also possible the community had earlier trepanned his skull to exorcise the evil spirits.

The man with the deformed jaw, who died about age 35 to 45, had a missing right hand and missing foot bones, possibly a punishment or a result of desecration by grave robbers. His skull had been trepanned, or drilled. His remains and the remains of the other man at the Rockbourne Roman villa were excavated in the 1960s.

Archaeologists say the man, who was about 5 feet 7 inches (170 cm), was buried in a lonely place and weighed down with stones. His skeleton was found face down in a shallow grave in 1965.

“The left side of the skull has a hole on the frontal bone, just below the temporal ridge,” says a blog called Hampshire Archaeology by Dave Allen. “This trepanning, near the muscle attachment for the lower jaw, was presumably done in an attempt to relieve chronic pain or exorcise the bad spirits associated with his deformity. He survived the operation and the bone had healed, but his ultimate burial in such a lonely place, face down and weighed down with stones, suggests that the community were worried that the evil influence that caused his troubles might still be around.”

Researchers examine 17th century vampire graves in Poland

In 2014, researchers examined the skeletal remains of 17th century graves in northwestern Poland and speculated that the ones given vampire burials may have actually been cholera victims, explaining the extra precautions the villagers took in dealing with their bodies.

Such popularly named “vampire graves” occurred predominantly in the post-medieval period and across the continent – Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, Ireland, and Greece to name only a few locations. Bodies are often found to have strange items buried with them or on them. Some have iron stakes driven through their torsos, yet others have bricks or stones found in their mouths. Some have stones placed on their necks. These apotropaic symbols and artifacts were used to ward off evil influences, a magical practice that existed around the globe throughout history. A thread connects most of these burials, including the graves found at Drawsko in northwestern Poland, in that they seem to have suffered through epidemics, or illnesses.

Lesley Gregoricka from the University of South Alabama, who published a study in the journal PLOS One, writes of the burials, “Of these six individuals, five were interred with a sickle placed across the throat or abdomen, intended to remove the head or open the gut should they attempt to rise from the grave.” These practices were purposeful treatment of the dead who were considered at risk of becoming vampires, and returning to the village to feast on the living or infect the heathy with their curse.”

Skeleton of ‘Witch who Turned Men to Stone’ Unearthed in England

Legend has it that centuries ago a witch turned a would-be king of England and his men and knights to stone, which still stand and are among the Rollright Stones circle at Warwickshire. Now a new legend has cropped up: A 7th century AD skeleton recently unearthed at the site is being called the witch who turned the ambitious men to stone.

The woman stood between 4 feet 11 inches and 5 feet tall (about 152 cm) and was buried with a Roman patera or bronze vessel possibly used to cook offerings to the gods, a large amber bead and an amethyst set in silver. The patera is only the fifth found in England. She also had with her a large spindle whorl, which, with the patera, ITV.com says, indicates that “Rita,” the Saxon pagan Rollright Witch, as she is being called, was a spiritual woman of high status.

The Bronze Age Rollright Stones have much lore and myth surrounding them to this day. Many stone circles in the British Isles were supposedly revelers petrified by God or the devil for dancing and fiddling or picking turnips on the Sabbath.

Excavation reveals bizarre Celtic burial with human and animal hybrid bone arrangements

The Celtic inhabitants of a small, industrious Iron Age settlement in Dorset, England, are believed to have sacrificed a young woman by slitting her throat, before burying her body in a curious arrangement of bones. Archaeologists also unearthed a series of bizarre hybrid-animals, in which the bones of different animals were intentionally combined together in what is reminiscent of the mythological beasts of ancient cultures.

The burials of hybrid animal bones at the site recall myths from the Mediterranean and Near East about bird-woman harpies, goat-lion chimeras, eagle-lion griffins, man-goat satyrs, man-bull minotaurs and man-horse centaurs. Ancient peoples imagined combining various animal and/or human parts into one fantastic and sometimes grotesque beast. Some were understood as monsters, others as wise counsellors or guardians of shepherds and the countryside.

“One particularly bizarre arrangement of animal bones also involved a human skeleton,” reports The Independent. “A young woman appears to have been sacrificed (there was an indication that her throat had probably been slit) – and was then buried on a ‘bed’ of specially arranged cattle, sheep, dog and horse bones. Significantly these animal bones had been deliberately sorted to mirror the bones of the dead woman. The animals’ skull fragments formed the surface her head rested on, while the animals’ leg bones formed the surface her legs rested on.”


Discovered in 1872 buried close to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, the eponymous mystery stone is dark, smooth, egg-shaped, and about 10 centimeters (4 in) tall and 6.4 centimeters (2.5 in) wide. On its surface are a number of carved symbols and images, including a face, ears of corn, and a teepee, among other unknown images.

Questions have emerged regarding the stone: Who made it? And what is it? One theory suggests that the stone may have been made by Native Americans to commemorate a peace treaty between two tribes. Other theories contend that the stone could be Celtic or Inuit in origin.

The mystery was further complicated when researchers investigated two holes in the stone, one at the top and one at the bottom. These holes were drilled with a level of precision that seems inconsistent with the ability of premodern tools. This has led some to believe that the stone may be an elaborate hoax, while it has convinced others that the stone may be a &ldquothunderstone&rdquo crafted by supernatural forces.


Witches, Vampires and Werewolves – 10 Ghoulish Archaeological Discoveries - History

Chinese archaeologists on Friday unveiled major new findings, including an unprecedented bronze figure holding a zun (cylindrical drinking vessel), during the excavations at the legendary Sanxingdui Ruins site over the past months.

A total of 534 cultural relics, such as ivory, bronze, gold and jade items, as well as more than 2,000 pieces of broken artifacts, have been unearthed so far at six new sacrificial pits unveiled earlier in March, the National Cultural Heritage Administration announced at a press conference in Guanghan, southwest China's Sichuan Province.

In the No.3 pit, a 1.15-meter tall bronze figure holding a zun (ancient Chinese drinking vessel) over head was unearthed under massive ivory objects.

A 1.15-meter tall bronze figure holding a zun (ancient Chinese drinking vessel) over head is unearthed under massive ivory objects in the No.3 pit at the Sanxingdui Ruins site in Guanghan, southwest China's Sichuan Province. /CMG

The huge bronze sculpture comprising of a figure and a zun vessel is the first of its kind ever found at home and in the world.

The excavation work of the ivory carvings in the No.3 and No.4 sacrificial pits has been basically completed, and more of the bronze wares that have been found will be removed from the pits.

According to the archaeologists, the No.5 sacrificial pit is special as numerous round gold foils scattered in the pit. Experts decided to carry out on-site laboratory archaeological research at some parts of the pit.

Chinese archaeologists on Friday unveiled major new findings during the excavations at the legendary Sanxingdui Ruins site over the past months at a press conference in Guanghan, southwest China's Sichuan Province, May 28, 2021. /CMG

A "wooden box" was found in the No.6 pit earlier and now is ready for the archaeological excavation, while at the bottom of the No.7 pit a large number of ivory objects were discovered.

At the No.8 pit, some pieces of sacred trees, gold ware and bronze masks were found in a 20-centimeter ash layer.

In the same pit, archaeologists also discovered the remains of a gold mask, on which the patterns of the ears and mouth are clearly visible.

Remains of a gold mask unearthed at the No.8 sacrificial pit at the legendary Sanxingdui Ruins site in Guanghan, southwest China's Sichuan Province. /CMG

"This is indeed spectacular, and of high archaeological and high scientific significance, not only to the history and archaeology of China, but also to the rest of the world. The meticulous work going on to provide details and interpretation to of the spectacular discoveries of this century is indeed commendable," said Webber Ndoro, Director General, International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in a congratulatory video.

Among a large number of heritage sites and cultural relics across China, the Sanxingdui Ruins site is considered one of the most important ancient remains in the world for its vast size, age and rich cultural content.

Chinese archaeologists have discovered eight major sacrificial pits, including six new sacrificial pits unveiled on March 20, which contain a wide range of cultural relics and artifacts, such as thousands of gold and bronze objects, hundreds of masks and heads, and artworks in jade and stone.

The archaeological discoveries and excavations at the site offer great historical evidence of the ancient Shu Kingdom from 5,000 years ago, shedding light on the cultural origins of the Chinese nation.


Biblical Archaeology’s Top 10 Discoveries of 2020

There was no shortage of biblical archaeology news in 2020, despite COVID-19 restrictions that canceled almost all of Israel&rsquos scheduled excavations. Some limited digs still took place in Israel and surrounding countries, and research on previous excavations continued, resulting in some major announcements.

Here are 2020&rsquos biggest stories about archaeology connecting us with the biblical world:

10. Assyrian god carvings

Italian and Kurdish archaeologists uncovered 15-foot rock carvings depicting an Assyrian king and seven Assyrian gods standing on the backs of sacred animals. The artwork was carved in relief in a cliff along a canal in the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq. The king is believed to be Sargon II, who ruled from 722 to 705 B.C. and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:6). It is possible that the canal where the relief was found was dug by Israelites enslaved by Sargon II.

9. Church built on a solid rock

A dig in Banias in northern Israel has revealed the remains of a fourth-century church built, as was a common practice, atop a shrine to another god. Banias was a cultic center of worship of the god Pan, and the shrine was likely for worship of the Greek deity associated with sex and spring.

Christians in the fourth century, however, would have recognized the location as the biblical Caesarea Philippi, near the location where Peter told Jesus, &ldquoYou are the Christ&rdquo and Jesus replied, &ldquoOn this rock, I will build my church&rdquo (Matt. 16:13&ndash19). One stone in the ruin is marked with cross etchings left by pilgrims who visited the church shortly after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

8. Fort allied with King David

Archaeologists uncovered a fortified building in the Golan Heights dated to the time of David&rsquos rule, about 1,000 B.C. A large basalt stone in the fortress is engraved with two horned figures with outstretched arms.

Archaeologists believe this building was an outpost of the kingdom of Geshur, an ally of King David. David&rsquos wife Maacah, the mother of Absalom, was the daughter of the king of Geshur.


10 Most Gruesome Archaeological Finds Ever Discovered in History

From headless Vikings and screaming mummies to bog bodies and tools made of human bone, these grisly discoveries make a gruesome snapshot of past lives and deaths.

H istory really is full of surprises, but they are far closer at hand than we generally like to think. The field of archaeology focuses on just such remnants, as it is “the Study of the ancient and recent human past through material remains,” according to the Society for American Archaeology. Analyzing what remains of the past can reveal secrets, but some can be less than savory.

From human sacrifice to the undead, archaeologists are often on the front lines of the weird – and of making sense of it for the rest of us.

1. The Headless Vikings of Ridgeway Hill

[Image via Ancient Origins] The seaside town of Weymouth in Dorset, England is home to more than just tourist attractions. Archaeologists discovered a gruesome mass Viking grave there in 2009 while surveying property earmarked for a new roadway. Among the fifty or so dead, the bodies had been piled in one area and the skulls in another. Apparently, somewhere between 970 and 1025 AD, the invaders had been captured, likely during a raid, and then killed by local Anglo-Saxons. However, they had done so with particular rigor – hacking the young men’s heads off in one blow, even as the Vikings faced their executioners, refusing to look away.

Related: Demon Traps and 6 Other Secrets Discovered in People’s Homes

2. Screaming Mummies

[Image via Strange Sounds] For archaeologists in the past, the banal could often appear terrifying. For instance, when Gaston Maspero, the Head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1886, first opened a plain sarcophagus, a screaming face met his gaze. The man inside had had his hands and feet bound before being buried in sheepskin, which ancient Egyptians viewed as unclean. Yet, the mummy known as Unknown Man E was simply victim to the natural process of decay, during which heads often fall backwards, creating the impression of anguish. More striking is an iconic mummy from the Chachapoya Indians of Peru, whose hands seem held over its face in terror. However, both are merely happenstance expressions – not actual, undead emotions.

3. Vampire Corpse

[Image via Smithsonian] Vampire corpses are found the world over, but perhaps nowhere has so great a concentration of undead remains as Bulgaria. With over 1000 such graves unearthed so far, this country has a long history of hunting the creatures of the night, going back to the Middle Ages. At that time, the suspected undead would have an iron or wooden stake hammered through their chests to prevent them from doing harm. Most likely, this tradition originated with the opening of crypts to bury plague victims, whose bodies would bloat with gas and have blood seep from their mouths after death.

Related: 7 Mysteriously Creepy Natural Wonders of the World

4. Neanderthal Cannibals

[Image via Inquisitr] In 1994, archaeologists discovered the 49,0000-year-old bones of a Neanderthal group deep within Spain’s El Sidron cave system. At first, it was unclear how the possible family of 3 men, 3 women, 3 adolescents, and 3 children had all died suddenly and simultaneously. However, bone markings indicated that they had been disarticulated, muscle had been removed, and long bones had been shattered for marrow. Even their skulls had been split to extract their brains – a clear sign that they had been attacked and eaten by other Neanderthals. Worse yet, there was apparently no fire present, so they had been eaten raw – and with vigor.

5. Tomb of the Sunken Skulls

[Image via History] In Motala, Sweden, experts discovered the remains of a strange stone structure at the bottom of a prehistoric lake bed in 2009. It had apparently been sealed at the lake bottom, with stone tools, animal bones, and the 8,000-year-old remains of 11 people of various ages stored inside. The strangest thing was their condition, as several had been set alight after having stakes driven through them. One skull that had been lodged deep into the mud inside the structure had been smashed using another of the skulls, as evidenced by a fragment lodged inside it. Archaeologists have since concluded that this was likely a monument of war trophies crafted by a group of warriors after defeating their enemies.

6. Pits Full of Severed Hands

[Image via The History Blog] One of the most bizarre discoveries in the study of ancient Egypt was a series of pits full of dismembered hands. A team of archaeologists unearthed four such pits at the 3,600-year-old palace of King Khayan in Hyksos, an area of Northern Egypt once ruled over by a West Asian civilization. Two had been placed outside the palace walls and two just outside the throne room, but all contained the right hands of adult males. Archaeologists later deduced that these were the evidence of an ancient practice of ritually removing enemies’ hands in order to steal their power. Upon presenting them to their leader, soldiers then received a reward, while the hands were dumped into just such ceremonial pits.

Related: 5 Macabre Cases of People Discovered Years After they Died

7. The Bog People

[Image via National Geographic] Thanks to their lack of oxygen, low temperatures, and high acidity, the peat bogs of Northern Europe are full of perfectly preserved human remains. In particular, going back to the early Medieval period, people used these grounds to execute criminals or commit ritualistic murder. Farmers today regularly unearth their remains – each incredibly preserved as they were in the moments after their untimely demise, with food in their stomachs and blood in their veins. The most famous is Grauballe Man, who was murdered after a bad harvest in 8,000 BCE and whose stubble indicates that he was a held for a time before being killed and buried in a consecrated bog area.

8. Huacas de Moche Temple

[Image via National Geographic] Peru has hosted several remarkable civilizations, including the Incas and, before them, the Moche. This sophisticated northern society existed between 100 and 800 AD and consisted of a hierarchy topped by a powerful warrior class where religion and battle were one and the same. Unsurprisingly, captives were sacrificed at temples, with many murals portraying bound foreigners offered to the gods. The biggest find has been at the ruins of the adobe-brick Huacas de Moche complex. There, archaeologists continue to unearth the remains of people from distant lands whose bodies were mutilated – with skulls forged into cups and bones into displays. There was even a ditch where the last bits were left for scavengers.

Related: Unearthed: 4 of the Strangest Skulls Ever Discovered

9. Tools Made of Human Bones

[Image via Forbes] Although it may be shocking to some, the bones of family members have been commonly used to create tools throughout human history. One of the most well-known traditions goes back to the pre-Aztec civilizations of modern Mexico. For instance, research done in the ancient city of Teotihuacan has found that bones were transformed into household implements from combs to buttons. In particular, family members would scrape flesh from bone shortly after death and then shape them into the necessary forms. Alternately, some of the oldest cups crafted from skulls have been found in Somerset, England, where they were likely used as part of a cannibalistic group, over 14,000 years ago.

10. The Sacrifices of the Peruvian Temple

[Image via Hidden Inca Tours]

Last but far from least, one of the most troubling examples of human sacrifice comes from Peru. In 2012, archaeologists were investigating a tomb at the Temple of Pachacamac, whose complex included around 20 pyramids and a full cemetery. However, they discovered an astonishing arrangement of adult skeletons inside a concentric circle of baby ones, some of which had false, wooden heads. All were likely diseased pilgrims who had traveled to visit the mysterious Ychsma tribe, an ancient, pre-Incan civilization associated with an unclear cure. Whatever fate they met – whether death by natural causes or as sacrifices – will likely never be known.

Many of the above examples are truly astonishing, but all make a certain degree of sense when placed into the cultural and social context of their own era. Archaeologists help demystify these seemingly bizarre remnants of the past. In so doing, they also do the incredibly important work of help humanity learn from history – rather than being doomed to repeat it, human sacrifice and all.

Read more from Weird World

You may also enjoy these stories:

  • Demon Traps and 6 Other Creepiest Secrets Discovered in People’s Homes
  • Unearthed: 4 of the Strangest Skulls Ever Discovered
  • 5 Macabre Cases of People Discovered Years After they Died
  • 7 Mysteriously Creepy Natural Wonders of the World

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One of the most controversial archaeological discoveries is a cemetery now, cemeteries are not at all unusual, but these cemeteries are quite different. Called tophets, these are cemeteries of infant burials, most not more than a few weeks of age at the time of death. Ancient writers reported on the prevalence of infant sacrifice in Carthage, however, these writings have frequently been questioned, with many scholars suggesting that these reports were incorrect or at the least, exaggerated.

Tophets are open-air spaces, containing a large number of urns containing cremated remains. These urns may contain the remains of human infants or of sacrificial animals. Inscriptions above the urns appear to be relatively standard dedications to the gods, similar for both animals and infants. Arguments have been made suggesting that these are infants who died of natural causes or were stillborn however, there is little evidence to suggest this is the case.

One of these tophets, located on the outskirts of ancient Carthage, dates to 730 to 146 B.C.E. There were at least three periods of active use at this tophet, but additional tophets have been located at various Carthaginian outposts. The cremated state of the remains means that there is no decisive cause of death for the infants found in the tophets. It is, however, quite important to note that these cemeteries do not support any normal distribution of deaths the infants are nearly all under three months of age. In addition, the infant burials are treated in the same way as the animal sacrifices.

From the 1970s onward, interpretations of the tophets were relatively gentle by modern standards they were qualified as infant cemeteries, separate from adult burial grounds. The ancient sources were questioned and largely ignored. A modern reassessment of both written and archaeological sources suggests that archaeology supports the classical sources. Classical authors appeared to find child sacrifice curious, but not morally deplorable. It was, by all appearances, simply an unusual manifestation of religious fervor.


Discovery adds new species a lab's ghoulish insect menagerie

A horrifying insect soap opera with vampires, mummies and infant-eating parasites is playing out on the stems and leaves of live oak trees every day, and evolutionary biologist Scott Egan found the latest character -- a new wasp species that may be a parasite of a parasite -- within walking distance of his Rice University lab.

Egan, an associate professor of biosciences at Rice, studies gall wasps, tiny insects that cast a biochemical spell on live oaks. When gall wasps lay their eggs on oak leaves or stems, they chemically program the tree to unwittingly produce a tumor-like growth, or gall, which first shelters the egg and then feeds the larval wasp that hatches from it.

Egan describes the wasps as "ecosystem engineers," because their galls are attractive morsels that harbor a supporting cast of opportunistic ne'er-do-wells, thieves and killers. It's a great setting to study how competition for resources drives evolution, and Egan and his students have spent more than a decade documenting the eerie, interspecies who's-eating-who drama.

The latest species they discovered at Rice, Allorhogas gallifolia (al-UHROH'-guhs GAHL'-ihf-ohl-eeuh), is one of four new wasp species from the genus Allorhogas that Egan and collaborators Ernesto Samaca-Saenz and Alejandro Zaldivar-Riveron at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City described in a study this month in Insect Systematics and Diversity.

"They lay their egg in another wasp's gall," Egan said of A. gallifolia, which his group first hatched in 2014. "They're using the gall as a resource, and we're still not certain how, but I think they're attacking herbivorous caterpillars that are feeding on the gall tissue, and the wasp larva are eating those caterpillars after they hatch."

He said more than 50 species of Allorhogas have been found in Central America and Mexico, but only two species were previously documented in the United States, one at the University of Maryland campus in 1912 and another some years later in Arizona.

The A. gallifolia found at Rice was collected as part of an effort to describe the community of natural enemies for one species of gall wasp, Belonocnema treatae (behl-uh-NAHK'-nee-muh TREE'-tee). In that study and others like it that Egan's lab has published for other gall species, thousands of galls are collected across the southeastern United States, and everything that emerges from the galls is studied and cataloged. Egan describes the operation, which runs almost 365 days per year, as a "factory of discovery," and A. gallifolia was one of many mysterious specimens it has produced.

"It did not match any of the previously described species, so we documented that in our 2016 paper and raised the hypothesis that this might be a new species," Egan said. "A year or two went by and lead author Ernesto Samaca-Saenz contacted us and offered to collaborate on determining if this lineage was, in fact, a new species."

Samaca-Saenz is a graduate student in the UNAM lab of Zaldivar-Riveron, an expert in Allorhogas and similar predatory wasps, which can be used by farmers as biological controls for crop pests. By the time Samaca-Saenz reached out about the 2016 paper, Egan's lab had collected a number of other undescribed specimens that they also suspected were new species of Allorhogas. The email kicked off a close collaboration that has taken Rice researchers on a number of trips to Mexico to conduct field work and science outreach in remote village schools.

While the jury is still out on exactly how A. gallifolia interacts with other species on the galls of B. treatae, Egan said he, Samaca-Saenz and Zaldivar-Riveron have discussed a number of hypotheses.

"They think it could be phytophagous, meaning it's actually just eating plant material, or that it could be a gallmaker itself," Egan said. "But I'm convinced that these guys are predators of caterpillars that live inside the Belonocnema galls and eat the gall plant material. I think the larval wasp eats the caterpillar and then emerges out of the side of the gall."

Egan said it will take more research to determine whether that hypothesis is true. If it is, it would be "a whole new way of life that would be unknown to this entire genus." But it would not be the first -- or the creepiest -- interaction between species that Egan and his colleagues have found.

Take 2018's discovery, for example, that the parasitic vine Cassytha filiformis (kuh-SIHTH'-uh FIHL'-ih-form-ihs), commonly known as the love vine, targets B. treatae galls and sucks so many nutrients out of them that it mummifies the larval wasps inside. That marked the first observation of a parasitic plant attacking a gall-forming wasp, but it could not match the ghoulish weirdness of the crypt-keeper wasp they discovered in 2017.

Euderus set (yoo-DEHR'-uhs SEHT') is so diabolical that it was named for Set, the Egyptian god who trapped, murdered and dismembered his brother in a crypt. E. set -- which Egan discovered on a family vacation in Florida and later found on a tree in his front yard -- lays its egg inside the gall of the Bassettia pallida (buh-SEHT'-eeuh PAL'-ih-duh) wasp. Both eggs hatch and the larvae live side by side, maturing inside the gall. When the pair are large enough to emerge as adults, E. set manipulates its step-sibling into trying to escape before its emergence hole is finished. When B. pallida's head gets stuck in the undersized hole, E. set begins eating. Starting from the tail, it devours a tunnel through its roommate, emerging through the head to take its place in the world outside.

There are more than 1,400 known species of gall-forming wasps, and Egan said he believes there are many more species waiting to be discovered in their plant/bug-eat-bug-eat-plant corner of the world.

"We've focused on the gall former Belonocnema a lot, and that's where we initially found this first Allorhogas," he said. "When we reared out that entire community and tried to key out each of the members, A. gallifolia was one of those things where we could not narrow it down to a species. Nothing fit the description.

"Twenty-five percent of all the things we reared out of Belonocnema fit that same type of uncertainty," Egan said. "We can't find anything that's ever been described like them before. Some of those, including one I have on my desk right now, are also mostly likely new species. Considering there are 90 oak species in the United States, and I have studied only three of them, this is the tip of the biodiversity iceberg."

The research was supported by the UNAM Directorate General for Academic Personnel Affairs (IN201119) and the UNAM General Directorate of Computing and Information and Communication Technologies (LANCADUNAM-DGTIC-339).


Witches, Vampires and Werewolves – 10 Ghoulish Archaeological Discoveries - History

Do additional chambers lie behind these walls in King Tutankhamun’s tomb? Was Queen Nefertiti buried there? Photo: Hajor’s image is licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0.

This year was filled with thrilling archaeological finds and new interpretations—from the possible identification of Jesus’ childhood home to the discovery of the royal seal of King Hezekiah in the Bible. Some investigations, such as the search for hidden chambers (and perhaps Queen Nefertiti’s tomb) in King Tut’s tomb, will continue to reveal answers in 2016 and beyond. Others, such as the decipherment of a charred Hebrew Bible scroll that contained verses from the Book of Leviticus, highlight how advanced technology is constantly opening our eyes to new insights into our ancient past. As we look forward to 2016 and the excitements that lie ahead, let’s also take a moment to look back at the top Biblical archaeology discoveries that fascinated us in 2015.

**The stories below are listed in no particular order**

Has the Childhood Home of Jesus Been Found?
The childhood home of Jesus may have been found underneath the Sisters of Nazareth Convent in Nazareth, Israel, according to archaeologist Ken Dark.

Where is Queen Nefertiti’s Tomb?
An intriguing new hypothesis is the talk of archaeologists and historians in Egypt and around the world: Does King Tut’s tomb contain Queen Nefertiti’s crypt?

Royal Seal of Hezekiah Comes to Light
For the first time, the royal seal of King Hezekiah in the Bible has been found in an archaeological excavation.

Biblical Name Eshbaal Found Outside of the Bible
A 3,000-year-old inscription discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa references the Biblical name Eshbaal. This is the first time the name has been found in an ancient inscription.

Book of Leviticus Verses Recovered from Burnt Hebrew Bible Scroll
A burnt ancient scroll found 45 years ago has finally been deciphered thanks to advanced digital technology. The scroll was revealed to contain the first eight verses from the Book of Leviticus.

Ancient Egyptian Beer Vessels Unearthed in Tel Aviv, Israel
Archaeologists excavating in downtown Tel Aviv have discovered ancient Egyptian beer vessels dating back 5,000 years.

Neolithic Figurine Could Lead to Reassessment of Prehistoric Israel
A small Neolithic figurine unearthed near Beit Hilkia in south-central Israel could have archaeologists rethinking the nature of the cultures living in the region some 8,000 years ago.

Hippos-Sussita Excavations Unearth Rare Pan Mask
Excavations at Hippos (Sussita) recovered an enormous bronze mask, most likely depicting the Greek god Pan. Too large and heavy to have been worn as a theater mask, what purpose did it serve?

A Judahite Administrative Center at Tel ‘Eton?
Archaeological work at the site of Tel ‘Eton, located between the Shephelah and the Hebron hill country in Israel, may have uncovered an important Iron Age Judahite administrative center.

Iron Age Gate and Fortifications Uncovered at Philistine Gath
Remains of the monumental city gate and fortifications of Iron Age Gath—home of the Biblical giant Goliath—were uncovered in excavations at Tell es-Safi in central Israel.

Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

Check out more fascinating stories from 2015!

This mosaic depicting a theater mask is one of the new discoveries that have come to light during excavations this summer at Huqoq. Photo: Jim Haberman.


The 10 most iconic archeological sites in Israel

Sitting at the crossroads of the ancient world, Israel is an archeologist’s dream. Peeling back the layers of history here is a never-ending pursuit.

Excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority with local and international experts are constantly turning up new clues to ancient civilizations.

And it’s quite common for casual hikers to contact the IAA about valuable antiquities they’ve stumbled across. Click here and here to read about kids finding rare artifacts.

Israel has invested heavily in enabling safe access to dozens of archeology sites for the public. Many of them have been turned into national parks and UNESCO Heritage Sites.

Ten of the most iconic Israeli archeological sites are described below. In a future article, we’ll look at 10 lesser-known sites where impressive discoveries have been made.

Archeological digs and conservation projects reveal the history of this capital city established by King David more than 3,000 years ago.

The most visited place in Israel, Jerusalem has been continuously inhabited for some 5,000 years. So it’s not surprising that hardly a month goes by without major archeological news here.

Although important discoveries are also made outside the Old City – for instance, underneath the Jerusalem International Convention Center — the most famed archeological heritage sites are in the Old City area and shed light on life during the First Temple period (1000-586 BCE), Second Temple period (516 BCE to 70 CE), Byzantine Muslim period (4 th to 11 th centuries CE) and Crusader period (1095 to 1291 CE).

Recently, cutting-edge micro-archeology tools were used to correctly date the construction of Wilson’s Arch, which supported one of the main pathways to the Second Temple.

The Western Wall (Kotel) is a 70-meter (230-foot) section of one of the huge retaining walls of Herod the Great’s expanded Second Temple compound, built around 20 BCE and destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE. It is revered as a place of worship for its proximity to the Temple Mount.

The tunnels behind the wall are still revealing amazing treasures and mysteries.

Davidson Archeological Park and Museum houses many artifacts including city walls from the First Temple period and the original street from the Second Temple period, as well as models and multimedia presentations.

The fourth-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Since 2016, National Geographic has been documenting the restoration of the church’s Edicule, a small chapel believed to contain the empty tomb of Jesus.

City of David, the original “Old City” just outside the present walls. Excavations include a hidden spring where biblical kings were coronated, the flowing waters of Hezekiah’s Tunnel from the eighth century BCE, and a recently unearthed half-mile pilgrimage road leading to the Temple Mount – complete with burned coins and clothing fragments from 2,000 years ago.

The Second Temple compound was one of many ambitious building projects carried out by Roman client king Herod the Great. Another is the fortress at Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea.

The Northern Palace, built on three rock terraces, included bedrooms with a semicircular balcony, colonnaded halls adorned with paintings, and a private bathhouse.

A public bathhouse was excavated atop the plateau along with 29 huge storerooms, hundreds of clay pots, 12 gigantic cisterns, ritual baths and a stable-turned-synagogue (one of the earliest synagogues in the world).

Hiking paths and a cable car take visitors to the top of Israel’s most popular paid tourist site. At the foot, a nighttime sound and light show tells the legend of a popular revolt against the Romans by a band of Jewish families here.

Archeologists found skeletons and more than 5,000 coins, mostly minted during the five years of the rebellion, along with scroll fragments and more than 700 shards bearing inscriptions.

In the Yigael Yadin Masada Museum, visitors will see hundreds of ballista balls that were fired at the fortress by Roman soldiers.

Following a 10-year hiatus, a new excavation project at Masada is now underway, headed by Tel Aviv University archeologist Guy Stiebel.

Most of the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the caves of Qumran, a rocky cliff above the Dead Sea where a Second Temple-era Jewish sect, the Essenes, made their home and left their writings.

You can’t enter the caves, but you can learn about the Essenes in a museum at the site and then explore archaeological finds including ritual purification pools and a communal building with the remains of a kitchen, watchtower, pottery workshops and stables. A two-room scriptorium contains pottery and metal inkwells that may have been used by the Essenes to write their scrolls.

You can sign up for a guided night-time lamplight tour or a dramatized tour reconstructing the discovery and purchase of the scrolls in the 1940s.

One of the most popular tourist spots in Israel, Caesarea National Park on the northern coast contains many important artifacts with significance for Jews and Christians.

The Herodian harbor area (yes, Herod is at it again) was excavated in the last decade and yielded finds such as a sumptuous Roman palace and amphitheater from the time of Jesus.

Click here to read about the coin cache, Greek inscription and Roman mosaic floor uncovered last year and revealed at the opening ceremony of Caesarea Harbor Visitors Center.

Known as “the land of a thousand caves,” Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park encompasses approximately 1,250 acres of rolling hills in the Judean lowlands.

Over thousands of years, people cut into the rock to make a network of bell-shaped quarries, burial caves, storerooms, industrial facilities, hideouts and dovecotes.

At a high point in the park is Tel Maresha, where the Bible records that King Rehoboam of Judah built cities for defense. It was abandoned during the Roman period, when the nearby city of Beit Guvrin was built and became an important locale of the Crusader era.

Located at a critical ancient and modern crossroad in the Lower Galilee, Megiddo has a long, bloody history. Megiddo is identified with Armageddon, the scene of the battle of the End of Days according to Christian Scriptures.

Already a fortified city by the third millennium BCE, 1,000 years later Megiddo became a center of Egyptian rule over Canaan. King David then conquered Megiddo, and the city flourished under his son Solomon, who may have installed its impressive water system.

The Megiddo Museum offers an audiovisual presentation and models of the site’s highlights, such as a Late Bronze Age gate (1500-1200 BCE), a palace, Solomon’s Gate, lookouts and stables.

Recent excavations have unearthed clues to the past including a royal Canaanite tomb from the Middle Bronze Age and surprising remnants of vanilla in jugs from a 3,600-year-old burial site.

One of Israel’s largest archaeological sites, Beit She’an National Park encompasses the restored ruins of a 7,000-seat Roman theater, Greek colonnaded streets, gladiator amphitheater, Byzantine bathhouse and marketplace, Roman and Greek temples and a Samaritan synagogue.

You could easily spend most of the day exploring the 2,000 years of history at Beit She’an with the help of a guide or an audio presentation. After dark, the “She’an Nights” audio-visual show brings alive the ruins with breathtaking projected images.

8. Herodion (Herodium) National Park

Herodion was a kind of royal country club in the Roman-Hellenist era. It later served as a hideout for rebels during the Bar Kochba Revolt against Roman rule, and even as a Byzantine leper colony.

In 2007, archeologists finally discovered the remains of Herod the Great’s tomb in this Judean Desert site after 35 years of digging up architectural and cultural treasures. There are ongoing excavations at Herodion.

Tzipori (Sepphoris), the traditional birthplace of Mary, was an important city in the hills of Lower Galilee, west of Nazareth. Herod conquered it in 37 BCE, but 33 years later it was destroyed by the Romans following rebellions there.

Herod’s son Antipas restored Tzipori as “the ornament of all Galilee.” It was the seat of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court) and a preferred residence for Talmudic sages until the mid-fourth century CE.

Archeologists have found evidence of a devastating earthquake around 363, but again the city was rebuilt and settled by an unusual mix of Christians and Jews in the fifth century. Remains of the Crusader church commemorating St. Ann can still be seen, as well as a Crusader fortress, rebuilt in the 18th century by the Bedouin ruler of the Galilee.

Visitors can explore a 4,500-seat Roman theater a restored third-century villa in which a mosaic depicts scenes from the life of wine god Dionysus and the so-called “Mona Lisa of the Galilee” a synagogue with a restored mosaic floor and a 250-meter-long, first-century CE underground water system.

In addition to the astounding views of the Negev at Avdat National Park, you’ll see the well-preserved remains of Roman, Byzantine and Nabatean cities, including two large Byzantine churches, a Byzantine bathhouse, a magnificent Roman burial chamber, and a Nabatean fortress.

An explanatory movie at the entrance plaza is available in 15 languages (Hebrew, English, Arabic, French, Italian, German, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Czech, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese and Hungarian).

For over 16 years, ISRAEL21c has brought you the faces and places of Israel every day, spreading the word about Israel to millions of people in virtually every country around the globe. First of its kind, our content is originally researched, written and produced by seasoned experts directly from Israel.

We cannot do this without financial support from people like you. Become a GEM member and enjoy exclusive briefings from our staff and more - for $18 a month.


The Great New England Vampire Panic

Children playing near a hillside gravel mine found the first graves. One ran home to tell his mother, who was skeptical at first—until the boy produced a skull.

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Because this was Griswold, Connecticut, in 1990, police initially thought the burials might be the work of a local serial killer named Michael Ross, and they taped off the area as a crime scene. But the brown, decaying bones turned out to be more than a century old. The Connecticut state archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni, soon determined that the hillside contained a colonial-era farm cemetery. New England is full of such unmarked family plots, and the 29 burials were typical of the 1700s and early 1800s: The dead, many of them children, were laid to rest in thrifty Yankee style, in simple wood coffins, without jewelry or even much clothing, their arms resting by their sides or crossed over their chests.

Except, that is, for Burial Number 4.

Bellantoni was interested in the grave even before the excavation began. It was one of only two stone crypts in the cemetery, and it was partially visible from the mine face.

Scraping away soil with flat-edged shovels, and then brushes and bamboo picks, the archaeologist and his team worked through several feet of earth before reaching the top of the crypt. When Bellantoni lifted the first of the large, flat rocks that formed the roof, he uncovered the remains of a red-painted coffin and a pair of skeletal feet. They lay, he remembers, “in perfect anatomical position.” But when he raised the next stone, Bellantoni saw that the rest of the individual “had been com­pletely. rearranged.” The skeleton had been beheaded skull and thighbones rested atop the ribs and vertebrae. “It looked like a skull-and-crossbones motif, a Jolly Roger. I’d never seen anything like it,” Bellantoni recalls.

Subsequent analysis showed that the beheading, along with other injuries, including rib fractures, occurred roughly five years after death. Somebody had also smashed the coffin.

The other skeletons in the gravel hillside were packaged for reburial, but not “J.B.,” as the 50ish male skeleton from the 1830s came to be called, because of the initials spelled out in brass tacks on his coffin lid. He was shipped to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Washington, D.C., for further study. Meanwhile, Bellantoni started networking. He invited archaeologists and historians to tour the excavation, soliciting theories. Simple vandalism seemed unlikely, as did robbery, because of the lack of valuables at the site.

Finally, one colleague asked: “Ever heard of the Jewett City vampires?”

In 1854, in neighboring Jewett City, Connecticut, townspeople had exhumed several corpses suspected to be vampires that were rising from their graves to kill the living. A few newspaper accounts of these events survived. Had the Griswold grave been desecrated for the same reason?

In the course of his far-flung research, Bellantoni placed a serendipitous phone call to Michael Bell, a Rhode Island folklorist, who had devoted much of the previous decade to studying New England vampire exhumations. The Griswold case occurred at roughly the same time as the other incidents Bell had investigated. And the setting was right: Griswold was rural, agrarian and bordering southern Rhode Island, where multiple exhumations had occurred. Many of the other “vampires,” like J.B., had been disinterred, grotesquely tampered with and reburied.

In light of the tales Bell told of violated corpses, even the posthumous rib fractures began to make sense. J.B.’s accusers had likely rummaged around in his chest cavity, hoping to remove, and perhaps to burn, his heart.

Headquartered in a charming old schoolhouse, the Middletown Historical Society typically promotes such fortifying topics as Rhode Island gristmill restoration and Stone Wall Appreciation Day. Two nights before Halloween, though, the atmosphere is full of dry ice vapors and high silliness. Fake cobwebs cover the exhibits, warty gourds crowd the shelves and a skeleton with keen red eyes cackles in the corner. “We’ll turn him off when you start talking,” the society’s president assures Michael Bell, who is readying his slide show.

Bell smiles. Although he lectures across the country and has taught at colleges, including Brown University, he is used to people having fun with his scholarship. “Vampires have gone from a source of fear to a source of entertainment,” he says, a bit rueful. “Maybe I shouldn’t trivialize entertainment, but to me it’s not anywhere as interesting as what really happened.” Bell’s daughter, 37-year-old Gillian, a member of the audience that night, has made futile attempts to tempt her father with the Twilight series, but “there’s Buffy and Twilight, and then there’s what my dad does,” she says. “I try to get him interested in the pop culture stuff, but he wants to keep his mind pure.” Indeed, Bell seems only mildly aware that the vampire—appearing everywhere from True Blood to The Vampire Diaries— has once again sunk its fangs into the cultural jugular. As far as he’s concerned, the undead are always with us.

Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell has documented about 80 vampire exhumations he believes that hundreds more cases await discovery. (© Landon Nordeman)

Bell wears his hair in a sleek silver bob and has a strong Roman nose, but his extremely lean physique is evidence of a long-distance running habit, not some otherworldly hunger. He favors black sweaters and leather jackets, an ensemble he can easily accentuate with dark sunglasses to fit in with the goth crowd, if research requires it. A consulting folklorist at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission for most of his career, Bell has been investigating local vampires for 30 years now—long enough to watch lettering on fragile slate gravestones fade before his eyes and prosperous subdivisions arise beside once-lonely graveyards.

He has documented about 80 exhumations, reaching as far back as the late 1700s and as far west as Minnesota. But most are concentrated in backwoods New England, in the 1800s—startlingly later than the obvious local analogue, the Salem, Massachusetts, witch hunts of the 1690s.

Hundreds more cases await discovery, he believes. “You read an article that describes an exhumation, and they’ll describe a similar thing that happened at a nearby town,” says Bell, whose book, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, is seen as the last word on the subject, though he has lately found so many new cases that there’s a second book on the way. “The ones that get recorded, and I actually find them, are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Almost two decades after J.B.’s grave was discovered, it remains the only intact archaeological clue to the fear that swept the region. Most of the graves are lost to time (and even in the cases where they aren’t, unnecessary exhumations are frowned on by the locals). Bell mostly hunts for handwritten records in town hall basements, consults tombstones and old cemetery maps, traces obscure genealogies and interviews descendants. “As a folklorist, I’m interested in recurring patterns in communication and ritual, as well as the stories that accompany these rituals,” he says. “I’m interested in how this stuff is learned and carried on and how its meaning changes from group to group, and over time.” In part because the events were relatively recent, evidence of historic vampires isn’t as scarce as one might imagine. Incredulous city newspaper reporters dished about the “Horrible Superstition” on front pages. A traveling minister describes an exhumation in his daily log on September 3, 1810. (The “mouldy Specticle,” he writes, was a “Solemn Site.”) Even Henry David Thoreau mentions an exhumation in his journal on September 29, 1859.

Though scholars today still struggle to explain the vampire panics, a key detail unites them: The public hysteria almost invariably occurred in the midst of savage tuberculosis outbreaks. Indeed, the medical museum’s tests ultimately revealed that J.B. had suffered from tuberculosis, or a lung disease very like it. Typically, a rural family contracted the wasting illness, and—even though they often received the standard medical diagnosis—the survivors blamed early victims as “vampires,” responsible for preying upon family members who subsequently fell sick. Often an exhumation was called for, to stop the vampire’s predations.

The particulars of the vampire exhumations, though, vary widely. In many cases, only family and neighbors participated. But sometimes town fathers voted on the matter, or medical doctors and clergymen gave their blessings or even pitched in. Some communities in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, opted to simply flip the exhumed vampire facedown in the grave and leave it at that. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, though, they frequently burned the dead person’s heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure. (In Europe, too, exhumation protocol varied with region: Some beheaded suspected vampire corpses, while others bound their feet with thorns.)

Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830. In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton,” an early town history says. “It was the month of February and good sleighing.”

Bell attributes the openness of the Vermont exhumations to colonial settlement patterns. Rhode Island has about 260 cemeteries per 100 square miles, versus Vermont’s mere 20 per 100 square miles. Rhode Island’s cemeteries were small and scattered among private farms, whereas Vermont’s tended to be much larger, often located in the center of town. In Vermont, it was much harder to keep a vampire hunt hush-hush.

As satisfying as such mini-theories are, Bell is consumed by larger questions. He wants to understand who the vampires and their accusers were, in death and life. During his Middletown lecture, he displays a picture of a man with salt-and-pepper sideburns and weary eyes: an artist’s reconstruction of J.B.’s face, based on his skull. “I start with the assumption that people of past generations were just as intelligent as we are,” Bell says. “I look for the logic: Why would they do this? Once you label something ‘just a superstition’ you lock off all inquiry into something that could have been reasonable. Reasonable is not always rational.” He wrote his doctoral dissertation on African-American voodoo practitioners in the South who cast love spells and curses it’s hard to imagine a population more different from the flinty, consumptive New Englanders he studies now, but Bell sees strong parallels in how they tried to manipulate the supernatural. “People find themselves in dire situations, where there’s no recourse through regular channels,” he explains. “The folk system offers an alternative, a choice.” Sometimes, superstitions represent the only hope, he says.

The enduring sadness of the vampire stories lies in the fact that the accusers were usually direct kin of the deceased: parents, spouses and their children. “Think about what it would have taken to actually exhume the body of a relative,” Bell says.

The tale he always returns to is in many ways the quintessential American vampire story, one of the last cases in New England and the first he investigated as a new PhD coming to Rhode Island in 1981 to direct a folklife survey of Washington County funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. History knows the 19-year-old, late-19th-century vampire as Mercy Brown. Her family, though, called her Lena.

Mercy Lena Brown lived in Exeter, Rhode Island—“Deserted Exeter,” it was dubbed, or simply “one of the border towns.” It was largely a subsistence farming community with barely fertile soil: “rocks, rocks and more rocks,” says Sheila Reynolds-Boothroyd, president of the Exeter Historical Association. Farmers heaped stones into tumbledown walls, and rows of corn swerved around the biggest boulders.

In the late 19th century, Exeter, like much of agrarian New England, was even more sparsely populated than usual. Civil War casualties had taken their toll on the community, and the new railroads and the promise of richer land to the west lured young men away. By 1892, the year Lena died, Exeter’s population had dipped to just 961, from a high of more than 2,500 in 1820. Farms were abandoned, many of them later to be seized and burned by the government. “Some sections looked like a ghost town,” Reynolds-Boothroyd says.

And tuberculosis was harrying the remaining families. “Consumption,” as it was called, had started to plague New England in the 1730s, a few decades before the first known vampire scares. By the 1800s, when the scares were at their height, the disease was the leading cause of mortality throughout the Northeast, responsible for almost a quarter of all deaths. It was a terrible end, often drawn out over years: a skyrocketing fever, a hacking, bloody cough and a visible wasting away of the body. “The emaciated figure strikes one with terror,” reads one 18th-century description, “the forehead covered with drops of sweat the cheeks painted with a livid crimson, the eyes sunk. the breath offensive, quick and laborious, and the cough so incessant as to scarce allow the wretched sufferer time to tell his complaints.” Indeed, Bell says, symptoms “progressed in such a way that it seemed like something was draining the life and blood out of somebody.”

People dreaded the disease without understanding it. Though Robert Koch had identified the tuberculosis bac­terium in 1882, news of the discovery did not penetrate rural areas for some time, and even if it had, drug treatments wouldn’t become available until the 1940s. The year Lena died, one physician blamed tuberculosis on “drunkenness, and want among the poor.” Nineteenth-century cures included drinking brown sugar dissolved in water and frequent horseback riding. “If they were being honest,” Bell says, “the medical establishment would have said, ‘There’s nothing we can do, and it’s in the hands of God.’”

The Brown family, living on the eastern edge of town, probably on a modest homestead of 30 or 40 stony acres, began to succumb to the disease in December 1882. Lena’s mother, Mary Eliza, was the first. Lena’s sister, Mary Olive, a 20-year-old dressmaker, died the next year. A tender obituary from a local newspaper hints at what she endured: “The last few hours she lived was of great suffering, yet her faith was firm and she was ready for the change.” The whole town turned out for her funeral, and sang “One Sweetly Solemn Thought,” a hymn that Mary Olive herself had selected.

Mercy Brown’s remains were likely placed in the stone crypt at Exeter’s Chestnut Hill Cemetery before burial. (© Landon Nordeman)

Within a few years, Lena’s brother Edwin—a store clerk whom one newspaper columnist described as “a big, husky young man”—sickened too, and left for Colorado Springs hoping that the climate would improve his health.

Lena, who was just a child when her mother and sister died, didn’t fall ill until nearly a decade after they were buried. Her tuberculosis was the “galloping” kind, which meant that she might have been infected but remained asymptomatic for years, only to fade fast after showing the first signs of the disease. A doctor attended her in “her last illness,” a newspaper said, and “informed her father that further medical aid was useless.” Her January 1892 obituary was much terser than her sister’s: “Miss Lena Brown, who has been suffering from consumption, died Sunday morning.”

As Lena was on her deathbed, her brother was, after a brief remission, taking a turn for the worse. Edwin had returned to Exeter from the Colorado resorts “in a dying condition,” according to one account. “If the good wishes and prayers of his many friends could be realized, friend Eddie would speedily be restored to perfect health,” another newspaper wrote.

But some neighbors, likely fearful for their own health, weren’t content with prayers. Several approached George Brown, the children’s father, and offered an alternative take on the recent tragedies: Perhaps an unseen diabolical force was preying on his family. It could be that one of the three Brown women wasn’t dead after all, instead secretly feasting “on the living tissue and blood of Edwin,” as the Providence Journal later summarized. If the offending corpse—the Journal uses the term “vampire” in some stories but the locals seemed not to—was discovered and destroyed, then Edwin would recover. The neighbors asked to exhume the bodies, in order to check for fresh blood in their hearts.

George Brown gave permission. On the morning of March 17, 1892, a party of men dug up the bodies, as the family doctor and a Journal correspondent looked on. George was absent, for unstated but understandable reasons.

After nearly a decade, Lena’s sister and mother were barely more than bones. Lena, though, had been dead only a few months, and it was wintertime. “The body was in a fairly well-preserved state,” the correspondent later wrote. “The heart and liver were removed, and in cutting open the heart, clotted and decomposed blood was found.” During this impromptu autopsy, the doctor again emphasized that Lena’s lungs “showed diffuse tuberculous germs.”

Undeterred, the villagers burned her heart and liver on a nearby rock, feeding Edwin the ashes. He died less than two months later.

So-called vampires do escape the grave in at least one real sense: through stories. Lena Brown’s surviving relatives saved local newspaper clippings in family scrapbooks, alongside carefully copied recipes. They discussed the events on Decoration Day, when Exeter residents adorned the town’s cemeteries.

But the tale traveled much farther than they knew.

Even at the time, New England’s vampire panics struck onlookers as a baffling anachronism. The late 1800s were a period of social progress and scientific flowering. Indeed, many of the Rhode Island exhumations occurred within 20 miles of Newport, high society’s summer nucleus, where the scions of the industrial revolution vacationed. At first, only people who’d lived in or had visited the vampire-ridden communities knew about the scandal: “We seem to have been transported back to the darkest age of unreasoning ignorance and blind superstition, instead of living in the 19th century, and in a State calling itself enlightened and christian,” one writer at a small-town Connecticut paper opined in the wake of an 1854 exhumation.

But Lena Brown’s exhumation made news. First, a reporter from the Providence Journal witnessed her unearthing. Then a well-known anthropologist named George Stetson traveled to Rhode Island to probe “the barbaric superstition” in the surrounding area.

Published in the venerable American Anthropologist journal, Stetson’s account of New England’s vampires made waves throughout the world. Before long, even members of the foreign press were offering various explanations for the phenomenon: Perhaps the “neurotic” modern novel was driving the New England madness, or maybe shrewd local farmers had simply been pulling Stetson’s leg. A writer for the London Post declared that whatever forces drove the “Yankee vampire,” it was an American problem and most certainly not the product of a British folk tradition (even though many families in the area could trace their lineage directly back to England). In the Boston Daily Globe, a writer went so far as to suggest that “perhaps the frequent intermarriage of families in these back country districts may partially account for some of their characteristics.”

One 1896 New York World clipping even found its way into the papers of a London stage manager and aspiring novelist named Bram Stoker, whose theater company was touring the United States that same year. His gothic masterpiece, Dracula, was published in 1897. Some scholars have said that there wasn’t enough time for the news accounts to have influenced the Dracula manuscript. Yet others see Lena in the character of Lucy (her very name a tempting amalgam of “Lena” and “Mercy”), a consumptive-seeming teenage girl turned vampire, who is exhumed in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes. Fascinatingly, a medical doctor presides over Lucy’s disinterment, just as one oversaw Lena’s.

Whether or not Lucy’s roots are in Rhode Island, Lena’s historic exhumation is referenced in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House,” a short story about a man being haunted by dead relatives that includes a living character named Mercy.

And, through fiction and fact, Lena’s narrative continues today.

Part of Bell’s research involves going along on “legend trips,” the modern graveside pilgrimages made by those who believe, or want to believe, that the undead stalk Rhode Island. On legend trips, Bell is largely an academic presence. He can even be a bit of a killjoy, declaring that the main reason that “no grass grows on a vampire’s grave” is that vampire graves have so many visitors, who crush all the vegetation.

Two days before Halloween, Bell and I head through forests of swamp maple and swamp oak to Exeter. For almost a century after Lena died, the town, still sparsely settled, remained remarkably unchanged. Electric lights weren’t installed in the western part of Exeter until the 1940s, and the town had two pound keepers, charged with safekeeping stray cattle and pigs, until 1957. In the 1970s, when I-95 was built, Exeter evolved into an affluent bedroom community of Providence. But visitors still occasionally turn a corner to discover the past: a dirt road cluttered with wild turkeys, or deer hopping over stone fences. Some elderly locals square-dance in barns on the weekends, and streets keep their old names: Sodom Trail, Nooseneck Hill. The white wooden Chestnut Hill Baptist Church in front of Lena’s cemetery, built in 1838, has its original blown-glass windows.

An early Nor’easter is brewing as we pull into the church parking lot. The heavy rain will soon turn to snow, and there’s a bullying wind. Our umbrellas bloom inside out, like black flowers. Though it’s a somber place, there’s no immediate clue that an accused vampire was buried here. (Except, perhaps, for an unfortunately timed Red Cross blood drive sign in front of the farmer’s grange next door.) Unlike Salem, Exeter doesn’t promote its dark claim to fame, and remains in some respects an insular community. Old-timers don’t like the hooded figures who turn up this time of year, or the cars idling with the lights off. They say the legend should be left alone, perhaps with good reason: Last summer a couple of teenagers were killed on a pilgrimage to Lena’s grave when they lost control of their car on Purgatory Road.

Most vampire graves stand apart, in wooded spots outside modern cemetery fences, where snow melts slower and there’s a thick understory of ferns. But the Chestnut Hill Cemetery is still in use. And here is Lena. She lies beside the brother who ate her heart, and the father who let it happen. Other markers are freckled with lichen, but not hers. The stone looks to have been recently cleaned. It has been stolen over the years, and now an iron strap anchors it to the earth. People have scratched their names into the granite. They leave offerings: plastic vampire teeth, cough drops. “Once there was a note that said, ‘You go, girl,’” Bell says. Today, there’s a bunch of trampled daisies, and dangling from the headstone’s iron collar, a butterfly charm on a chain.

How did 19th-century Yankees, remembered as the most pious and practical of peoples, come to believe in vampires—especially when the last known vampire panics at the time hadn’t occurred since 18th-century Europe? Some modern scholars have linked the legend to vampiric symptoms of diseases like rabies and porphyria (a rare genetic disorder that can cause extreme sensitivity to sunlight and turn teeth reddish-brown). Exeter residents at the time claimed that the exhumations were “a tradition of the Indians.”

The legend originated in Slavic Europe, where the word “vampire” first appeared in the tenth century. Bell believes that Slavic and Germanic immigrants brought the vampire superstitions with them in the 1700s, perhaps when Palatine Germans colonized Pennsylvania, or Hessian mercenaries served in the Revolutionary War. “My sense is that it came more than one time through more than one source,” he says.

The first known reference to an American vampire scare is a scolding letter to the editor of the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer, published in June 1784. Councilman Moses Holmes, from the town of Willington, warned people to beware of “a certain Quack Doctor, a foreigner” who had urged families to dig up and burn dead relatives to stop consumption. Holmes had witnessed several children disinterred at the doctor’s request and wanted no more of it: “And that the bodies of the dead may rest quiet in their graves without such interruption, I think the public ought to be aware of being led away by such an imposture.”

But some modern scholars have argued that the vampire superstition made a certain degree of practical sense. In Vampires, Burials and Death, folklorist Paul Barber dissects the logic behind vampire myths, which he believes originally arose from unschooled but astute observations of decay. (Bloated dead bodies appear as if they have recently eaten a staked corpse “screams” due to the escape of natural gases, etc.) The seemingly bizarre vampire beliefs, Barber argues, get at the essence of contagion: the insight that illness begets illness, and death, death.

Vampire believers “say that death comes to us from invisible agents,” Barber says. “We say that death comes to us from invisible agents. The difference is that we can get out a microscope and look at the agents.”

While New England’s farmers may have been guided by something like reason, the spiritual climate of the day was also hospitable to vampire rumors. Contrary to their Puritanical reputation, rural New Englanders in the 1800s were a fairly heathen lot. Only about 10 percent belonged to a church. Rhode Island, originally founded as a haven for religious dissenters, was particularly lax: Christian missionaries were at various points dispatched there from more godly communities. “The missionaries come back and lament that there’s no Bible in the home, no church-going whatsoever,” says Linford Fisher, a Brown University colonial historian. “You have people out there essentially in cultural isolation.” Mary Olive, Lena’s sister, joined a church just two weeks before she died, her obituary said.

In place of organized worship, superstitions reigned: magical springs with healing powers, dead bodies that bled in the presence of their murderers. People buried shoes by fireplaces, to catch the Devil if he tried to come down the chimney. They nailed horseshoes above doors to ward off evil and carved daisy wheels, a kind of colonial hex sign, into the door frames.

If superstition likely fanned the vampire panics, perhaps the most powerful forces at play were communal and social. By 1893, there were just 17 people per square mile in Exeter. A fifth of the farms were fully abandoned, the fields turning slowly back into forest. In her monograph The New England Vampire Belief: Image of the Decline, gothic literature scholar Faye Ringel Hazel hints at a vampire metaphor behind the westward hemorrhage: The migration “seemed to drain rural New England of its most enterprising young citizens, leaving the old and unfit behind.”

As Exeter teetered near collapse, maintaining social ties must have taken on new importance. An exhumation represented, first and foremost, a duty to one’s own kin, dead or dying: the ritual “would alleviate the guilt someone might feel for not doing everything they could do to save a family, to leave no stone unturned,” Bell says.

Even more significant, in small communities where disease could spread quickly, an exhumation was “an outward display that you are doing everything you can to fix the problem.” Residents of the already beleaguered town were likely terrified. “They knew that if consumption wiped out the Brown family, it could take out the next family,” Bell says. “George Brown was being entreated by the community.” He had to make a gesture.

The strongest testament to the power of the vampire myth is that George Brown did not, in fact, believe in it, according to the Providence Journal. It was he who asked a doctor to perform an autopsy at the graveyard, and he who elected to be elsewhere during the ritual. He authorized his loved ones’ exhumation, the Journal says, simply to “satisfy the neighbors,” who were, according to another newspaper account, “worrying the life out of him”—a description with its own vampiric overtones.

Perhaps it was wise to let them have their way, since George Brown, apparently not prone to tuberculosis, had to coexist with his neighbors well into the next century. He died in 1922.

Relatives of the Browns still live in Exeter and are laid to rest on Chestnut Hill. Some, planning ahead, have erected their grave markers. It can be disconcerting to drive past somebody’s tombstone on the way to his or her home for a vampire-oriented interview.

On a sunny Halloween morning, when Bell has left for a vampire folklore conference at the University of London, I return to the cemetery to meet several Brown descendants at the farmer’s grange. They bring, swaddled in old sheets, a family treasure: a quilt that Lena sewed.

We spread it out on a scarred wooden table. The cotton bedspread is pink, blue and cream. What look from a distance like large patches of plain brown fabric are really fields of tiny daisies.

It’s the work of a farm girl, without any wasteful appliqué Lena clearly ran out of material in places and had to scrimp for more. Textile scholars at the University of Rhode Island have traced her snippets of florals, plaid and paisley to the 1870s and 1880s, when Lena was still a child they wondered if she used her sister’s and mother’s old dresses for the project. Perhaps her mother’s death, too, explains Lena’s quilting abilities, which are considerable for a teenager: She might have had to learn household skills before other girls. The quilt is in immaculate condition and was likely being saved for something—Lena’s hope chest, thinks her distant descendant Dorothy O’Neil, one of the quilt’s recent custodians, and a knowledgeable quilter herself.

“I think the quilt is exquisite, especially in light of what she went through in her life,” O’Neil says. “She ended up leaving something beautiful. She didn’t know she’d have to leave it, but she did.”

Lena hasn’t left entirely. She is said to frequent a certain bridge, manifested as the smell of roses. She appears in children’s books and paranormal television specials. She murmurs in the cemetery, say those who leave tape recorders there to capture her voice. She is rumored to visit the terminally ill, and to tell them that dying isn’t so bad.

The quilt pattern that Lena used, very rare in Rhode Island, is sometimes called the Wandering Foot, and it carried a superstition of its own: Anybody who slept under it, the legend said, would be lost to her family, doomed to wander.


Watch the video: Das Unerklärliche: Hexen, Vampire und Werwölfe (January 2022).