Sensational(ised) Supernatural Skeletons

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:

Zombies1No. Of course they fricking didn’t. Because zombies aren’t real. Sorry for spoiling the article. Now, the reason for the zombies? Well, they found two skeletons buried with stones in their mouths.

Zombies2Briefly, 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.

Zombies3Even 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.

Like this:

Bonus points for the lack of apostrophe (although would the graveyard really belong to them, I wonder).

Bonus points for the lack of apostrophe (although would the graveyard really belong to them, I wonder).

A skeleton found with seven nails driven through its jaw…!

Witches2Or, 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?

Witches3Now 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.

Witches4No? Oh. You’re just going to say she’s a witch and move on? Fricking awesome.

We’ve had zombies, we’ve had witches. Personally though, I like the vampires.

Vampires1Ooh, plague AND vampires! Again, we’ve got things in the mouth.

Vampires2But if one vampire is good – then more has to be better!

Vampires3An entire graveyard of beheaded vampires…

Vampires4…conveniently buried right next to where the gallows used to be and executions used to take place! Coincidence? No. I don’t fricking think so.

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.

Vampires5And you know what? I’ll give them that, because we all know that’s how you kill a vampire. There’s even pictures.

Vampires6Wait. What’s that? Zoom in.


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.

Plague1Plague2Plague3Plague4Plague5Plague6Everything you knew about the Black Death was wrong. The rats aren’t to blame!

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.


Oh gods.

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).

4 responses to “Sensational(ised) Supernatural Skeletons

  1. I was lead to believe that the plague was predominantly due to the attempted eradication of all cats because the Pope at that time hated them, so as a direct result the amount of rats increased spreading it more rapidly?

  2. I love when a frisson of “oooo-EEEE-uuuu” travels down the spine at the merest mention of VAMPIRES! ZOMBIES! WITCHES AND WEREWOLVES AND SOME OTHER WORD THAT STARTS WITH A “W” OH MY!! when hearing of a newly-discovered grave of a person who was buried in a way we might not can immediately understand. The mystery, the supposition, the flights of fancy not (yet) grounded in logic – sure, that part’s always fun, but eventually logic IS found, and, to the sadness of some, applied. Headless skeletons found near (gasp) an institution of that era’s justice?? Gosh darn, you don’t say…

    It’s easy common sense for us in our learned and scientifically-aware states to scoff, however un/intentionally, at the now astoundingly – bizarrely – outlandish and WTF-rife beliefs apparently held during times gone by, but they do help to explain why those otherwise most-likely-very-intelligent-and-theoretically-sane ancestors of ours may have thought placing nails and rocks in poor dead peoples’ orifices was a *good* idea. (And I still don’t honestly understand how “theoretically using debrided skulls as drinking bowls” was supposed to somehow contribute to health/wellness/happiness/WTFever…but I digress…)(It was an ancient civilization thing I read about once and tried without obvious success not to think too often about thereafter.)

    However, just because they decided that Dead Aunt Matilda needed to chew nails for eternity doesn’t mean that, disregarding the “oooo-EEEE-uuuu” lure, *WE* should believe (much less sensationalize! Ugh!!) that she was a VompbieWitch-Were hybrid…

    (Wait, that sounds like an horrendous fanfic waiting to happen…brb…)

  3. Great, great, great post on all too quickly drawn conclusions, generalizing exceptional singular finds for the sake of sensationalism. While I can see (still not really appreciate) why popular papers and magazine do this, it’s even more bewildering to see colleagues jumping on that bandwagon. All too often, ‘fear’ and ‘banishing’ the dead is obviously *not* the only (or even most logical) interpretation at hand.

  4. Pingback: The Weekly Index: 23rd October 2015·

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