Sometime between 500 B.C. and 200 B.C., residents of the Greek colony of Kamarina in Sicily dug two graves for two bodies. They pinned down each body with large rocks or pottery; if the bodies awoke from the dead, they could not escape.
Reanimated corpses did not, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, ravage the Greek Empire then, but ancient Greeks certainly believed they could. Instances of both necrophobia (fear of the dead) and necromancy (the practice of communicating with the dead) are common in ancient Greek culture, and are the focus of new research by Carrie Weaver, a lecturer and recent Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh.
The zombies of ancient Greece would put the zombies of American pop culture to shame -- if only because they were really, truly feared.
“Greeks imagined scenarios in which reanimated corpses rose from their graves, prowled the streets and stalked unsuspecting victims, often to exact retribution to them in life,” Weaver wrote in an article titled “Walking Dead and Vengeful Spirits,” published in the summer 2015 issue of Popular Archaeology magazine.
In the article, Weaver analyzed 258 burials and skeletons from the Passo Marinaro necropolis in Kamarina, which were excavated in the 1980s by Italian archaeologist Giovanni Di Stefano but never analyzed. Kamarina was colonized in 598 B.C., part of an expansion of the Greek Empire between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C. that reached into southern Italy.
Weaver, a classical archaeologist who specializes in human osteology (the study of bones) and funerary archaeology, was working in Sicily when she found these skeletons had been left unexamined in a museum. Of those burials, two in particular stood out.
“Any time that a body is buried differently from the rest of the members of the cemetery, it’s termed a deviant burial,” Weaver said. “When anyone studies burials, you’re looking for those red flags -- there are certain causes, and sometimes necrophobia is one of them.”
In one tomb, Weaver found an adult of indeterminate sex whose head and feet were completely covered by heavy ceramic pieces; in another, she found a child between the ages of 8 and 13 with five large stones placed on top of it.
In researching the explanation for these deviant burials, Weaver found that ancient Greek society’s belief in the supernatural extended to convictions that certain individuals were predisposed, predestined or compelled to become “revenants,” or the undead (from the Latin “revenans,” or “returning”).
Illegitimate offspring, victims of suicide, mothers who died in childbirth and victims of murder, drowning, stroke or plague could all become revenants. Improper treatment of a body, such as not providing proper burial rites or allowing animals or insects to leap or fly over a body, could cause it to transform.
“When you’ve got evidence that is out of the ordinary, you’ve got to hypothesize what’s going on. You have to keep control of your imagination,” said Roger Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Ancient Sicily at the University of British Columbia, who introduced Weaver to the site at Kamarina. “What she’s doing is splendid work.”
Weaver said that bioarchaeologist Anastasia Tsaliki found examples of similar activities around the Greek world and across multiple centuries, including a grave site in Attica where a woman was cut in half, buried with each half placed in parallel and then sealed in.
Around the Kamarina cemetery, Weaver also cataloged 11 curse tablets -- known as “katadesmoi” -- that were commissioned by mediums (goetes) and requested the intervention of spirits. Placing the tablets in a grave under the cover of night and reciting their inscriptions, ancient Greeks believed, would recruit spirits to remedy an injustice like theft or murder, or improve one’s life in business or love.
“These ideas were mainstream, and not rooted in folklore or fantasy, because the cultural and religious foundations of the ancient Greeks led them to believe that death was not necessarily a permanent state,” Weaver wrote.
The full findings from Weaver’s examination of the Kamarina cemetery will appear in her book, “The Bioarchaeology of Classical Kamarina: Life and Death in Greek Sicily,” to be released in September by the University of Florida Press.