Book Review: Geköpft und Gepfhält. Vampires in Archaeology

Franz, Angelika and Nösler, Daniel. Geköpft und Gepfählt: Archäologen auf der Jagd nach den Untoten. (Darmstadt, Germany: Theiss Verlag, 2016)

I needed some books about Central European history, books not available in English. So, while prowling Amazon.de and its cousins, this popped up. It translates “Beheaded and Staked: Archaeologists on the Hunt for the Undead.” It is a fascinating look at the evidence for belief in vampires and other undead, going back to the Paleolithic and as recently as the early 2000s in Romania. Probably more recently, although many cases of “vampire” elimination probably stay very quiet. The authors point out that moderns are the first generation to not believe in the undead, in people coming back to warn or destroy the living. At least, that is, if the archaeology and anthropology prove true.

This book combines popular science and hard science in a readable volume. Yes, it is in German. I’m used to reading archaeological reports and the like, so I could follow it very easily, although I did look up some legal terms.

The authors start with an overview of vampire legends and recent cases, along with accounts of vampire “scares” in the 1700s and 1800s. Then they look at “life and death in the middle ages and modern times,” including burial rituals and beliefs about death. From there they consider all the terms for “vampire:” draugr, morioi, shroud-chewer, and others, and where the names came from. The unhappy undead are found all over Europe, even if they are not called “vampire,” and took many forms and acted in different ways. “Count Dracula” of Bram Stoker and the movies was actually a bit of an exception, in that he did not focus on blood relatives or former neighbors.

From types, the authors move to ways of becoming a vampire. Some are just cursed, others became vampires by living an unjust life, or working in occupations thought to incline people toward sin and injustice (like being a lawyer or a surveyor!) Babies who died without baptism, women who died during childbirth, men who died while denying their sin, all might return to claim the lives of relatives and others.

Written sources from the Middle Ages come next, followed by archaeological evidence for vampires. This is some of the most interesting material, because it goes back, oh, tens of thousands of years. When people find bodies with stones piled on top of them, or a rock wedged into the jaws, or a sickle resting on the throat, or the head removed and jammed between the feet . . . vampire. Buried face down, or with the feet tied, or even cut off? Vampire or some other form of dangerous undead. Even priests and abbots were not immune to fears of their return, as certain burials showed.

The last chapters look at the forensics of the undead, and the process of decay (or lack of decay) that were taken as signs of the body housing a vampire. Then what steps were taken to prevent someone from returning, including putting thorns in the shroud, needles or thorns in the feet (to prevent walking), scattering poppy or sesame seeds in the coffin (the dead would have to count all the seeds and gather them before they could leave the grave), taking a winding route to the graveyard, and a different route back (to confuse the dead), burying possible vampires inside thorn-hedges to keep them from leaving . . . There were as many ways as cultures.

The book concludes with the undead of modern times, including Haitian zombies, and the undead in fiction and popular culture. I found the first four-fifths of the book to be the most interesting, especially the archaeology and the typology of restless undead. Popular culture associates vampires with Romania and the Balkans, or New Orleans (Ann Rice and followers), but the undead are found all over the world, and are generally malevolent. There’s no angst or regret for being a vampire in a German “shroud chewer” or his cousins. They want company, and that means killing relatives and neighbors to come join them.

The bibliography includes sources in English, German, and Romanian. Some are popular accounts, but most are academic papers about archaeology and anthropology. I plan to track down a few of the titles, English and German, for future use.

The book is well written and easy to follow. It helps if you know a little about archaeology and about the topic in general, but it’s not needed. Yes, the book is in German. But not academic German, and I had no trouble reading through, even without having a dictionary on hand. The dictionary helped in places, mostly legal terms and a few medical things I couldn’t suss out on my own. Alas, the book was not cheap, but most of that was postage. Boat freight has gone up since 2018, the last time I ordered books from a shipper in Germany.

I highly recommend this book to people interested in the folklore and archaeology of the undead, in vampires outside of Romania, and interested in popular beliefs about death and sin. A basic knowledge of German is needed, and a good dictionary helps.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration or consideration from the publisher or authors.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: Geköpft und Gepfhält. Vampires in Archaeology

  1. Moderns may be the first generation not to believe in the corporal undead.
    But ghosts and the like are still very much believed in.

  2. Backs away, looking for the exit. I had no idea a graduate history program was about to break out … 🙂

    But, yes. Vampires couldn’t get sparkly until no one believed in the traditional lore. All those cautionary fairy tales, etc. were told and re-told for good reasons.

  3. I’ve read that Modern America’s burial practices of either enbalming or cremation look designed to prevent traditional vampires. Almost as if the lack of belief in vampires is caused by effective prevention methods . . . if you’re looking for a good scare!

    • Don’t know if that’s true but there was an interesting vampire short story with a modern day victim of a vampire who woke up from a grave with no memory of his “living life”.

      Apparently, the vampire that attacked & killed him, buried the victim himself. IE The Victim wasn’t found by the authorities and later buried.

      The story ends with the victim having killed his “maker” wondering how he could learn who he originally was. He can’t see himself in a mirror so wouldn’t recognize himself in a Missing Person Picture.

      Oh, I don’t remember if cameras work for this type of vampire. 😉

    • This would also work for magic/elves/fay/fae/yokai/gods/local supernatural powers losing power exactly because Christian stuff is so overwhelmingly common, there’s not enough “space” for them. (Obviously, not very popular in modern fiction, Dresden Files is the only one I remember off the top of my head that plays with it at all, the closest most get is having the power of “faith” make “holy symbols” work.)

  4. When people find bodies with stones piled on top of them

    ???

    Isn’t that normal “keep the predators off” stuff? I know even with a backhoe, you don’t want to leave anything not rocked-down if you don’t want it dug up.

  5. Interesting book, sadly I’ll have to pass as German is not one of my languages. And some of the ‘twists’ sound like true inventiveness or ‘direction’ from others.

  6. Disclaimer: I know nothing else about burial customs. But General Braddock of French and Indian War fame is buried somewhere between Pittsburg and Virginia but we dont know where. The entire army, led at that point by George Washington, marched over his grave so that the opposing army could not find his body and hang it in the trees to upset his compatriots. So there is at least one reason why a body could be buried differently from others, that is not on account of belief in vampires.

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