Any Buffy fan knows that you kill a vampire with a stake through the heart. And now we have further evidence that this method of destroying the undead is actually rooted in real-life practices. The latest study to explore this practice, by archeologist Matthew Beresford, is a close look at a 6th century skeleton found in the 1950s near an ancient church site in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. The body (pictured above at left) appears to have been buried in unhallowed, swampy ground outside the churchyard. And as Beresford puts it, "the remains had been ritually staked, with iron nails piercing the shoulders, heart and ankles."
Though it's tempting to say that this was an early example of vampire hunting, Beresford points out that these remains fit the profile for many kinds of "deviant burials" dating back as far as 27,000 years ago. A deviant burial is a gravesite whose remains have been treated in a ritualized manner that indicates the corpse belonged to a criminal, a blasphemer, or a person who simply fell outside social norms. Common signs associated with such deviant burials include things like mutilation (like the head being removed), rocks and/or talismans on top of the grave, the body buried face down, or a body that has been buried in a wet or boggy area. Also, many of these bodies have been staked through the heart or other parts of their bodies.
The body found at Southwell was buried in what Beresford speculates was a longstanding holy site. Originally a Roman residence, it probably became a church during the Dark Ages that underwent several changes, getting rebuilt multiple times over its history. Many bodies were found buried there, but none of the others was staked. It's notable, he says, that the body was buried in very wet ground. There was a widespread belief at the time that bodies buried in water or swamps were consigned to hell and would not return to plague the living.
There are many legends about the undead being unable to rise if they have been pierced with nails. Recently, two such deviant burials were discovered in Bulgaria. During the middle ages, these people had been buried with steel rods jammed into their chests, probably to prevent them from returning to prey on the living.
In his paper on the Southwell deviant, Beresford notes that staking bodies is an ancient ritual:
The earliest archaeological evidence for the practice comes from the site of Dolné Vĕstonice in Moravia (c. 27,000 before present) where [one body in a triple burial] had been staked to the ground by having a thick, wooden pole inserted through his thigh and into the ground below. Oldcroghan Man, an Iron Age bog body from Ireland found in 2003 and dating to c. 362-175 BC, had both his upper arms pierced with a sharp implement, after which hazel rods were inserted through the holes. Finally, his head had been cut off and he had been partially dismembered . . . Clearly someone wanted to prevent him from returning after death. A final example comes from the Greek island of Lesbos where Professor Hector Williams discovered a burial that had been inserted into the ancient city walls at Metholini, with heavy stones placed over the coffin. Inside the coffin was an adult male aged between 40-50 years old who had been nailed to the coffin with three, twenty centimetre long metal spikes, one through the throat, one through the pelvis and one though the ankles.
Incredibly, these early rituals survived through the middle ages and persist in our legends and popular culture today. The idea of sealing undead creatures up with specially-marked stones is a common one in horror fantasy stories, and staking vampires through the heart is pretty much de rigueur. What we seem to have lost, at least in western pop culture, is the belief that a watery grave can prevent the dead from rising.
I eagerly await the first horror tale to incorporate Beresford's findings, contained in his highly-readable academic paper on beliefs about the dangerous dead in the Dark Ages. Let's have some undead creatures who have to be staked through the shoulders, and who must be buried in marshes — or even just a story that tries to explain what happened to that guy who was buried at Lesbos. Now that would make a great Hammer film: The Man-Witch of Lesbos!