Could there have been vampires in Iron age Yorkshire?
It is certainly the case that Eastern Europeans would use sharp objects to pierce the bodies if suspected vampires or revenants. The piercing allowing gases to escape, making the bloated corpse deflate and look more ‘dead’. Which, obviously, led to the ideas in Vampire stories about a stake through the heart. The story here seems to suggest something similar in the UK during the Iron Age.
The Eastern European belief is that plagues and bad luck in an area were linked to the restless dead feeding. So, to end the bad luck they would dig up the last person buried (as the most likely candidate) and perform various rituals to lay them to rest – including using iron nails and even fence posts to impale them. Most of the time they would find a corpse that looked like it had gained weight and was showing signs of hair and nail growth*, which added to the evidence that they were still alive and feeding on the blood of the living. Piercing of any form would release the gases and the corpse would look more like you would expect it to. If the bad luck didn’t go away, they would go back and do more rituals that went up to cremating the body.
Is this case an example of the same thing? This is certainly a bizarre burial. The corpse was found pierced with 9 spears – some bone, others iron. There are theories. One being that it was because he did not die in battle – the postmortem injuries inflicted as a way to ensure a warrior’s death. Though this does not explain the head injury described in the article. Another theory is that it was a ritual killing similar to the bog burials, where the victim is knocked unconscious or killed with a blow to the head before being ritually murdered. However, the theory that is catching the imagination of most people is the vampire one – that there was some reason they feared his return as a revenant. Or even went back to perform the stabbing ritual after he was buried due to some bad luck or plague, the same as the Eastern European folklore. This, along with the sacrifice option, may explain why the spears were left in place – to ensure he did not get up.
We may never know the real reason why this bizarre ritual was performed but it does highlight some interesting parallels in folklore. Similar ideas appear in different cultures. Obviously, the conspiracy theory answer to this is ‘Vampires are real and many cultures encountered them’ but more likely this was because there was actually more travel and communication between cultures than used to be considered possible. Briton at this point may have been primitive but Rome (due to invade in another 250 years or so) was already a Republic and starting to form an Empire. Burial could in theory spread over Europe. It is, however, very likely too much of a stretch to link this practice with that of Eastern Europeans in the 1800s.
Instead, let us consider the coincidence of an iron age vampire being found in the same county as Whitby – the place where Bram Stoker had Dracula’s ship land on his journey from Transylvania.
*Due, as we now know, to the skin shrinking back from the hair follicles and nail bed rather than any actual growth.