Skeletons reveal our ancestors’ fear of the undead

TWO skeletons discovered with stones wedged in their mouths were buried this way around 1,300 years ago to prevent them rising from their graves to haunt the living.

A documentary featuring the work of archaeologists at Institute of Technology, Sligo, to be screened tomorrow, suggests the practice aimed to prevent the corpses becoming “revenants”.

The documentary says such “deviant burials” are associated with vampires and revenants — ghosts who were believed to come back among the living — unless steps were taken to keep them in their graves.

The skeletons from Co Roscommon date to some time in the 700s, long before vampires emerged in European folklore, but at a time when communities believed revenants, or ghosts, came back from the grave to haunt loved ones or harass those who bore them a grudge while living.

The two male skeletons were found side by side in a historic site which was the childhood home of Hollywood legend Maureen O’Sullivan.

The site overlooks Lough Key at Kilteasheen, Knockvicar. In a project funded by the Royal Irish Academy between 2005 and 2009, archaeologists excavated 137 skeletons from 3,000 buried during several centuries on top of each other.

Chris Read, head of Applied Archaeology at IT Sligo, who led the dig and detailed tests of the skeletons, said initially they thought they had found a Black Death-related burial ground, but radio carbon dating ruled that theory out. Now they are convinced the male skeletons, an older man and a younger man found lying beside each other, date from a period about 700 years earlier and the rocks in their mouths reflect the ancient fear of revenants or ghosts.

Mr Read said: “One of them was lying with his head looking straight up and a large black stone had been deliberately thrust into his mouth, while the other had his head turned to the side and had an even larger stone wedged violently into his mouth so that his jaws were almost dislocated.”

There is a tradition of revenants in Irish folklore. It has been suggested that Bram Stoker got the inspiration for Dracula not from a Romanian folk tale but from an Irish legend about an evil chieftain who had to be killed three times after he came back looking for a bowl of blood to sustain him.

* The project will feature in the Revealed series on Channel 5 at 8pm tomorrow and next year on National Geographic.

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