Gratuitous personal sidenote: I went to graduate school to study Celtic languages and literatures. My focus was on modern and medieval Welsh, but I also had to study the languages from the other side of the Irish Sea. I studied Old Irish for a few years. Old Irish was an incredibly complex (at least, to a native English speaker) and fascinating language, just as its descendant, modern Irish, is today. Since they date from the 7th to 9th centuries, these skeletons may have spoken that language. Before they were skeletons.
The entire blog post (click the image to get to it) is fascinating. Particularly:
The tradition of weighting down or otherwise defiling corpses (as with nails through the temple and stakes through the heart) seems to be a long one in Europe, born out of a fear of the dead that was related to the rise of Christianity, the lack of understanding of germ theory, and the increase in epidemic diseases.
There weren’t, for example, vampires in Rome. The Romans actually had ongoing relationships with the dead, running pipes from the ground to the grave below in order to offer them food and drink and celebrating them at least once a year in the Parentalia. The Judeo-Christian idea that the dead should go into the ground and stay there means that deviations from this practice - as hair and nails seemed to grow after death, for example - probably caused a lot of general freaking out. But the simple introduction of monotheism may also have caused cultural stress, particularly in 7th century England, when kings were converting to Christianity and people were no longer sure what to believe.
I’ve gotta go watch the documentary on YouTube now. Laters!
Archaeology of the Undead
Lots of press has been given in the past week to two late 7th to early 9th century burials found at the site of Kilteasheen in Ireland. According to the news reports and the documentary (which won’t air in the U.S. until 2012, but which you can see on YouTube… for now), archaeologists excavating at the site from 2005-2009 uncovered over 130 graves. Two of them - both males - were buried with stones in their mouths, and one of the men also had a large stone on top of his torso. Aside from a 2008 report of a 4,000-year-old burial, these two early 8th century Irish burials seem to be the oldest evidence of what may be the practice of preventing “revenants” (zombies, vampires, and other undead people) from returning to the land of the living.
Check out this excellent blog post by Kristina Killgrove about archaeological ‘revenants’ and be sure to watch the documentary about the ‘vampire’ burials in Ireland - now available on Youtube!