Agilent and the Hunt for Vampires

A few years ago, archaeologists discovered an unusual grave in Northern Bohemia that dated to the 14th century.  The body was buried under a layer of ceramics, in a shallow pit outside of the normal cemetery.  The skeleton was positioned face down, with some hand and foot bones missing.

The archaeologists had a provocative question: Was this person a suspected vampire?  They used state-of-the-art analytical tools, including an Agilent ICP-MS, to find out.

Today we know about vampires from fiction and popular culture.  They drink blood.  They turn other people into vampires.  They come back to life if not killed and buried properly.

To people in the Middle Ages, vampires were real.  A well-buried body in cold weather might not decompose immediately.  Post-death bloating might force blood into a cadaver’s mouth, making it look as if the dead body had somehow recently sucked blood.  In more superstitious times, beliefs arose that vampires were rising from the dead.

People who looked or acted “different” were blamed for everything from bad harvests to infectious diseases.  Like witches, suspected vampires were hunted, convicted and executed.

After death, they were interred in very ritualistic ways.  They were buried with a stake through the heart or covered in stones, to “pin” them to the earth.  They were positioned face-down to prevent their souls from rising.  They were often decapitated.  A recent excavation in Poland uncovered 14 such anti-vampire burials among hundreds of graves in a Medieval cemetery.

Back to that grave in Northern Bohemia: Was this also an anti-vampire burial?  The archaeologists approached the question by reconstructing a forensic profile of the body in the grave.

Multi-elemental analysis, including DNA analysis and 3D modeling, enabled the researchers to put together a comprehensive and fascinating description of the individual.  He was a robust, well-muscled man about 5 feet, 7 inches tall.  He lived in an agricultural environment with fields, meadows and woodlands.  His diet consisted of fruits and vegetables, supplemented by sheep and goat meat.  He died in the spring between the ages of 40 and 60 years old.

The researchers concluded that this man was probably not the victim of an anti-vampire burial.  Suspected vampires usually had some physical or mental anomaly that drew attention, and this man showed no traces of any.  His unusual burial position most likely indicates that this poor unfortunate was either an unwelcome stranger, a condemned man, or someone professing a religion other than Christianity.

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