Saturday, 17 September 2011

Irish zombies?

Forget the nipple-obsessed Irish kings, now we have Irish zombies! Yay!

Two early medieval skeletons were unearthed recently in Ireland with large stones wedged into their mouths -- evidence, archaeologists say, that it was feared the individuals would rise from their graves like zombies.  

Although before we arrive at the zombies, vampires were considered (of course):

Initially, Read and colleagues thought they had found a Black Death-related burial ground. Remains of individuals buried at the end of the Middle Ages with stones stuck in their mouths have hinted at vampire-slaying rituals.
It was believed that these "vampire" individuals spread the plague by chewing on their shrouds after dying. In a time before germ theory, the stone in the mouth was then used as a disease-blocking trick.
Since the vampire phenomenon didn't emerge in European folklore until the 1500's, the archaeologists ruled out this theory for the 8th century skeletons.

To be fair here, as wacky as this bit might sound, the journalist does actually mention the proper word for it, revenants. But zombies and vampires? It's a perfect combination for a sensationalist article.

Except, of course...

In spite of the excitedly breathless opening paragraph, the archaeologists in question at no point during the course of the article ever mention the word 'zombie.' But of course, everybody loves zombies these days, so why not, if it gets people reading the article? The zombie word implies the eighth century Irish were concerned about the living dead rising with a penchant for other people's brains, though, whereas I think what the archaeologists were actually saying is that the dead might rise due to an unholy communion with Satan, or something, with the general intent of terrorising the local population or spreading disease (but not the living dead zombie kind). That's not something that necessarily implies eating other people's brains and turning the whole world into zombies.

But no. Zombies.


Saigh said...

As I noted on FB, my first thought would likely be that it was to keep them from speaking. Or is that just too obvious? I mean early Christian Ireland seemed to have a real thing about the spoken word, what with the power of satire, the importance of oaths and all that. Perhaps they were satirists and their power after death was a concern. Perhaps they gave false oath or false testimony. Just saying.

Seren said...

I wondered that, too, although my first thought was along the lines of their being heretics, or something. Satirists, or giving false satire, false oaths, or something would work too.

I think the stone in the mouth thing is well-attested in archaeology, in the kind of context they're proposing, but it seems this example is far earlier than usual. I was under the impression, though, that bodies they wanted to stay dead were generally 'killed' again in some way during burial - like decapitating them or stabbing them and leaving the knives/daggers in etc. They tended to make sure that the bodies would stay dead, and I don't think just a stone would do that. Unless they worried about the ghost rising, and that's what the stone was supposed to keep in.

I suppose just a stone could be enough if they really did want to stop the dead from biting through the shrouds - being unable to do so would prevent them from rising again as well. But as the archaeologists say, these bodies are several centuries earlier than the practice is usually attested. They don't mention finding any evidence of a shroud, or it being likely that a burial of that time period would've used one, so it's difficult to say.

Saigh said...

I agree, heretics is a very good speculation as well, along the same lines of speaking something unwanted.

My annoyance with this, along with the use of the z-word, is that whole "one theory" thing. With referencing of "someone else at a different time did it for this reason so these people did it for this reason." And I'm now wondering how much that isn't itself single theory speculation based on something from another area. Yeah, most of the practices with vampires (and I used to have a great deal of interest in traditional vampire lore, but sort of lost it as pop culture made vampires increasingly pathetic...and now sparkly!) involves "killing" again, dismembering and/or pinning down and I'd never heard of the stone in the mouth thing.

So a bit of, not very intensive, poking around and I found stories about the find of a female skull in Venice with a stone shoved in her mouth. In one report it said it had been thought to be the first but there are unconfirmed reports that others were found in Poland.

All in all, it appears that the whole vampire thing there is purely speculation on the Borrini's part while reading some stuff, which apparently did not mention stones, about German vampires. Um, so...cross-cultural speculation goes mad once again.

Seren said...

OK, I've looked up the documentary the article is referring to, it's called Mysteries of The Vampire Skeletons, and I'm watching it just now. Which makes me think, ahhhh, so that's why they didn't say what the documentary they were referring to was called...

Anyway, there were the two bodies with the stone in the mouth, and then there was another body found in the same part of the site that had been contorted (spine snapped and bent) with its legs wrapped around and weighted down by a large boulder. They're situated at the edge of the cemetery, which marks them out as deliberately 'deviant' burials.

The documenatary is treating each find as having been buried like that for the same reasons, although it does mention that other bodies in the cemetery show signs of violent death. So basically (IMHO) it seems like a lot of the people buried there were subject to violence, and perhaps some were targeted and marked out for *really* violent ends - for what they said, who they were, who knows.

I'm beginning to think that this is nothing more than bollocks wrapped up in archaeologists 'raising their profile' to enable them to get more funding. I'm an awful cynic, though...

The documentary's awful, by the way. "Finds that bring to light our most basic fears" and all that kind of crap. It's worse than the article.

nefaeria said...

Hehe, they're getting really creative now! ;)