Mortuary Archaeology

Over the last week I looked into 3 very different burial practices that from both different ages and different countries. The first was that of a recently discovered unmarked grave site, ‘suspected’ as a vampire burial in the town of Gliwice in southern Poland. The article claims that there were 4 skeletons uncovered that had had their heads removed and placed between their legs during the burial practice. Such treatment according to Slavic folk beliefs would prevent a possible vampire from returning to the land of the living. Archaeologists believe that these bodies may also have been hung on gallows to rot before they were buried. The article references makes little reference to their age or gender but rather stipulates that at this stage more testing is required to determine this along with the ‘official’ cause of death. Other clues possibly suggesting a vampire burial included the skeleton’s lack of any personal items, such as jewelry, ceramics, belts or buckles. Despite the lack of grave goods, researchers believe that the burial took place in the early modern period likely around the 16th century and have also not ruled out the idea that the tomb may be a relic of human sacrifice. It is interesting to noted that the last recorded instance of vampire burial within Polish borders was as recent as 1914.

Another possibility is that these individuals suffered from tuberculosis which resulted in a paling of the skin and lead to a reinforced belief that they were vampires.


The second was the mummified remains of a sacrificed woman of the Moche culture which was discovered by archaeologists at the El Brujo complex, 570 kilometers north of Lima. The article writes that for the lead archaeologist, “it came as quite a surprise to find a woman, and even more to see she was buried in the prone position with her head toward the west in the direction of the sea, and with one of her arms extended, a very abnormal position”, one that perhaps shows and indifference, likely socially orientated, toward the person or subject. Life on most accounts was expendable so much as it pleased the gods. Archaeologists also added the supposition that the woman, aged between 17 and 19 years old, died as a result of “her swallowing some toxic substance or being strangled with a cord, the usual method with young women who accompanied Moche dignitaries to the tomb” and that following her demise her body was deposited into a pre-prepared pit” with no marking. She was uncovered in an area that now lay beneath the floor of the ceremonial courtyard which was constructed toward the end of the Moche occupation of the region, between the 7th and 8th centuries AD.

The third case comes from Egypt where on January 11th 2010, reports emerged recalling the finding of a series of modest nine-foot-deep shafts that each held a dozen skeletons of pyramid builders. Although the tombs themselves were devoid of any material objects, which probably safeguarded them from tomb-raiders, the remains were found to have been buried in a fetal position — the head pointing to the West and the feet to the East according to ancient Egyptian beliefs, along with jars that once contained beer and bread meant for the workers’ afterlife. What this importantly shows is that, contrary to popular belief, the workers who constructed the pyramids were not recruited from slaves. Hawass claims that the proximity to the pyramids and the way in which they were buried in preparation for the afterlife reinforces the notion that “the builders came from poor Egyptian families from the north and the south, and were respected for their work — so much so that those who died during construction were bestowed the honor of being buried in the tombs near the sacred pyramids of their pharaohs”. “No way would they have been buried so honorably if they were slaves,” he said.

Hawass notes that evidence found at the site appears to indicate that there were approximately 10,000 laborers working on the pyramids at any one time and that these laborers ate well and regularly a diet that included meat ( in the form of 21 cattle and 23 sheep sent to them daily from farms) and worked in three months shifts. Despite this and in addition to the fact that they were not slaves, it remains undeniable that the pyramid builders led a life of hard labor, such that their skeletons frequently exhibited signs of arthritis, and/or deformation of their lower vertebrae. Okasha remarks that “their bones tell us the story of how hard they worked”.



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