October is my favourite month. That is despite the fact that it is also the month where I go all Jekyll and Hyde with outbursts of nerd-rage directed at all of the media wonders that Hallowe’en brings.
Last year I reached breaking point and delivered an entire set about the subject for Bright Club (during Manchester Science Festival). This year, I thought that I might write some of it up into a little blogpost to share all of the (tongue-in-cheek*) frustrations that osteologists (and many others) face at this time of year.
This post is all about supernatural skeleton burials, you know: witches, zombies, werewolves, vampires, that sort of thing.
Now, some of you reading this, you may be thinking: yeah, Alison, those things don’t exist. And you’d be right, they don’t. But does the fact that they don’t exist stop archaeologists from digging them up? No it does not.
Now of course, I am not saying that these things actually literally existed. We are of course, as archaeologists, excavating burials of individuals that have been given specific funeral rites that may indicate within the context of their time period and culture, that they were perceived by others, as individuals who may have had (or may possibly acquire) supernatural predilections. But does ‘the media’ understand those nuances. No, of course they fricking don’t.
Take this for example:
Briefly, the theory being the soul could re-enter the deceased through the mouth, reanimating the corpse. So, obviously, you use a soul-repelling stone to stop any of that nonsense. And then you don’t mention, you know, that they were buried in soil that included an AWFUL lot of stones. Oh while we’re at it, even if they were zombies (which they’re not), TWO zombies, does not a ‘zombie graveyard’ make.
Even more, for them to be zombies they’d have had to reanimate after death – which they clearly didn’t, because they’re still buried there (because that’s the whole point of the stones, right). Over-sensationalising the over-sensationalised.
A skeleton found with seven nails driven through its jaw…!
Or, if we’re being picky about the truth – placed in its mouth. Things in the mouth! Why not a zombie? Because she’s a woman! She’s a woman? She must be a witch! Or a prostitute (seriously, that’s the other interpretation). They’re a lot alike, witches and prostitutes [totally inappropriate joke redacted]…
If stones and nails in mouths don’t convince you, what about this skeleton of a young girl buried face down?
Now that’s definitely unusual. She must be a witch! And even weirder, she was found in the super privileged part of the cemetery. A part of the cemetery where people buried face down are sometimes interpreted as kneeling before God… in so much as a skeleton can. So go on, Mr news article explain that.
We’ve had zombies, we’ve had witches. Personally though, I like the vampires.
But my absolute favourite has to be the discovery of a vampire skeleton just last week [plus one year]: recognised by being staked through the heart.
Zoom zoom in.
That ladies and gentleman, is a fricking bone. Part of your sternum. Definitely not a fricking stake through the heart.
But, you know what? They don’t even need skeletons to make up crazy sensational stories.
This was a brilliant news story. And since I’m doing a PhD on the plague, I had it sent to me about fifty million fricking times (yayyy, Twitter). Look at all of these headlines – which you’ll see don’t include the Daily Mail… because – too easy. Now, I’d be okay with changing the paradigm of my PhD research. If, you know, if was based on… evidence. And not a TV documentary.
I could go on and on. But, much like last year I am going to choose to segue ever so cleverly to this funerary archaeology Hallowe’en costume crossover comic I drew.
So remember kids, supernatural skeletons might be fun – but being sceptical and snarky is sometimes even funner.
Note for the purposes of bringing things up to date: It’s been a year since I did this set and there have been so many more examples of these ‘supernatural skeletons’ since then. I have nothing against getting people excited about archaeology and osteology. However, I do worry that by sensationalising cases like those above we risk misrepresenting the lives (and deaths) of people in the past. If you’re interested in this and want to read more, this piece by Kristina Killgrove over at Forbes is a great place to start (as are all of the linked pieces by Kristina and Katy Meyers Emery listed below the comic that is shared above).