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Scientists Analyze Skeletal Remains From Vampire Graveyard


There is another holiday better suited to talk about vampires, but we sort of can't get our fill. So here is a story about one scientist who found herself analyzing skeletal remains from a vampire graveyard. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has that story.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: If you ask Lesley Gregoricka what she does for a living, she'll say she's a bio-archaeologist.

LESLEY GREGORICKA: A bio-archaeologist is someone who examines ancient skeletal remains to learn more about what life was like in the past.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She's got a lab at the University of South Alabama. Normally she does chemical analyses of Bronze Age skeletons to understand patterns of trade and human migration. She never expected she'd veer off into vampire studies.

GREGORICKA: Never. I did not think that that would be the direction my career would go.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's because, of course, vampires are mythical beings who supposedly come back from the dead to suck the blood of the living. Her vampire adventure started because she has a good friend who was doing research on the graveyard in northwestern Poland. This burial site dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, but was discovered by accident in some farmers' fields outside a village called Dravsko. When archaeologists started excavating the site in 2008, they found something strange.

GREGORICKA: What they found in that first year was a burial of an individual that had a sickle placed across their neck.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Researchers believe that villagers put this sharp, curved blade around the corpse's neck as an anti-vampire precaution.

GREGORICKA: It was thought that by placing the sickle across the neck, if the deceased did indeed transform into a vampire and attempt to rise from the grave, that the sharp blade of this instrument would remove the head and prevent that person from attacking the living.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Archaeologists have found other grave sites in Europe where bodies have been given some kind of anti-vampire treatment.

GREGORICKA: Some have actually iron stakes driven through the left side of the chest.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Others have rocks placed beneath the jaw to prevent the dead from biting the living. But a sickle is really unusual. At Dravsko, scientists have unearthed over 300 graves and found five skeletons with sickles around the neck or abdomen. Gregoricka says she was intrigued. For the people who buried all these bodies, what marked those few as potential vampires?

GREGORICKA: That is the question, and that's what we wanted to figure out as bio-archaeologists; what could the skeleton tell us?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What the historical records them was that people were suspect if they hadn't been baptized or were the first person to die in an epidemic. But she and her colleagues wondered if other social forces might be at work. They knew that during this period, this region had seen the arrival of lots of immigrants.

GREGORICKA: We hypothesized that those individuals buried as vampires were targeted because of their outsider status as nonlocal immigrants.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And this was something she could test for in her lab. She collected teeth from 60 of the skeletons, including ones that had gotten the anti-vampire treatment. Then she did an analysis of the dental enamel. She looked at different types, or isotopes, of the element strontium.

GREGORICKA: Strontium isotope values are determined by local geology, and this is going to vary from place to place.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The results, which appear in the journal PLoS ONE, let her distinguished locals from recent arrivals, and as it turns out...

GREGORICKA: Contrary to our hypothesis, all of the vampires were local. We found others in the cemetery that were nonlocal to the region, but they were not buried as vampires.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Gregoricka says they'll keep doing more chemistry with these bones to see if they can find any difference that might explain why those five people were buried under a sickle. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.
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