Thursday, March 19, 2009

Vampires, the media, and quality control in archaeology

We all know about archaeological finds that get sensationalized and distorted by the media. What kind of obligation do archaeologists have to try to correct such stories? Should we ignore them? Perhaps they are not important in the larger scheme of scholarship. Perhaps we think that trying to correct them would be futile. Or should we try to correct the record? I occasionally try to address media errors when its a topic I know well and can speak with authority, although my success rate (with letters to the editor, etc.) has not been very high.

The rest of this entry is the text of an email I recently received from Anastasia Tsaliki about one such topic almost guaranteed to excite media interest--Vampires. I reproduce her email with permission.

Dear Dr Smith,

Here are some thoughts concerning quality control in the spread of archaeology news.

Recently, mainly the anglophone media (The Telegraph, the New Scientist, the National Geographic) covered the alleged finding of a Mediaeval 'vampire' skull near Venice. This consists of the remains of a woman's skull allegedly with a rock thrust into her jaws (see e.g. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/4959363/Mediaeval-vampire-skull-found-in-near-Venice.html).

The first problem lies with the fact that the journalists seem to just have copied and plagiarised each other's articles instead of doing some independent research and asking the opinion of experts in the field, especially after one expert in forensics, Dr Peer Moore-Jansen of Wichita State University in Kansas, made a serious negative comment. One would expect more from esp. the New Scientist and the National Geographic.

All the media publish the same couple of photos given to them by the young anthropologist Matteo Borrini of Florence University, whose exact status by the way is not clear: what is his capacity in the University? Is he a member of the staff, a student, a postdoc researcher? In Italy, graduate students assume the title of "Dr" even though they have not completed a doctorate. The media generally prefer to leave those areas unclear, but science requires more scrutiny.

The second big problem lies with the fact that Mr Borrini was keen on making claims at the meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Denver, Colorado, and the media, without first having researched his subject enough in order to find academic references to support his claims.

For example, that "grave-diggers put bricks in the mouths of suspected vampires to stop them doing this" is unheard of, to the best of my knowledge. So which is Mr Borrini's reference? An Italian colleague told me that he refers to "Dissertatio historico-philosophica de masticatione mortuorum, by Philippus Rohr, 1679" which is in Latin. I have read works in English who cite the above work extensively (eg. Montague Summers, "the Vampire in Europe") and still no mention of bricks. On Borrini's photos, it is not clear that this is a brick and not a stone and, either way, this could have fallen from the grave's sides during the grave diggers' work as they were adding more bodies in the mass grave.

Borrini also announces that "this is the first such vampire to have been forensically examined". However, as Dr Peer Moore-Jansen says, "while Borrini's finding is exciting, claiming it as the first vampire is a little ridiculous" and he reports that he has found similar skeletons in Poland.

I have presented a paper on the subject of vampires and science at the conference of the Paleopathology Association in Chieti, Italy, in 2000 and subsequently published it in 2001 (see here: http://bioarchaeology-palaeopathology.blogspot.com/2007/06/vampires-beyond-legend.html). It is a fact that there have been previous such cases discovered and examined by e.g. Dr Sledzik and Dr Bellantoni in New England in 1994, Prof. Hector Williams and Dr Sandra Garvie-Lok in Greece in the late '80s and myself in Greece during my PhD research. In addition, a milestone book on the subject is P. Barber's, "Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality", Yale University Press, new ed. 1990.

Mr Borrini will need to support his claims with archaeological, anthropological, forensic and literary facts. I have devoted my PhD research and career in the study of unusual burials, including the so-called 'vampire burials', and the standards required to prove such cases are very high and demanding (see e.g. http://bioarchaeology-palaeopathology.blogspot.com/2007/06/phd-thesis-abstract.html).

Anastasia Tsaliki, BA(Hons) PhD
Biological - Funerary Archaeology & Palaeopathology

5 comments:

A. Tsaliki said...

Needless to say that, although I sent emails to the Editors and journalists of the Telegraph and the New Scientist, I never received any reply. It seems they bother to apologise only if somebody threatens them with a lawsuit.

Anonymous said...

Dr Matteo Borrini (MS) is temporary research fellow at th University of Florence, where he works also as visiting professor for Phisical Anthropology Laboratory.
He is Visiting professor at the Vatican University "Pontificia Università San Bonaventura".

pubblication about this case
-La scoperta di una sepoltura di “vampiro”: archeologia e antropologia forense analizzano la genesi di una leggenda rendiconti della Società Italiana di Antropologia ed Etnologia, Archivio per l’antropologia e l’etnologia Vol. CXXXVIII-2008
-An exorcism against a vampire in Venice: anthropological and forensic study on an archaeological burial of XVI century, 3rd jubilee of Société d’Anthropologie de Paris 2008
-The vampire bites back in odontology: case report of skeletal remains in Nuovo Lazzaretto Island, Venice, Atti 61st Annual Meeting of American Academy of forensic Sciences 2008. other author: Emilio Nuzzolese
-Forensic approach to an archaeological casework of ‘vampire’ skeletal remains in Venice: odontological and anthropological prospectus, Journal of Forensic Sciences (on pubblication). other author: Emilio Nuzzolese

Anonymous said...

It was rather interesting for me to read that post. Thanks for it. I like such topics and anything connected to them. I definitely want to read more soon.

PhD Research Paper said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

Anonymous said...

It seems that the second comment above was not written by sby anonymous, but by Mr Borrini himself, as it can be seen in the identical comment here, signed matteo.borrini: http://doaav.blogspot.com/2009/06/tsaliki-on-lazzaretto-nuovo-vampire.html

Instead of leaving anonymous comments about himself, why doesn't Mr Borrini try to explain his views on the points raised in the original post?