Bioarchaeologist studies "vampire" burials


Tracy Betsinger teaching students

Research on “vampire” burials by Associate Professor of Biological Anthropology Tracy Betsinger is getting international attention.

"Generally, a belief in vampires is based on a similar notion of evil spirits reanimating corpses and then causing problems for the living,” Betsinger told the International Business Times, which featured a story on her research Friday. “The exact details of this belief, of course, vary over time and from culture to culture. The idea of the undead, however, and fear of the dead seems to be held cross-culturally."

A similar article on Betsinger’s research appeared in the Toronto Star on Saturday.

Betsinger is conducting research (with Amy B. Scott, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg) on health patterns and mortuary practices in a 17th-century Polish population. In particular, she has examined “vampire” burials—skeletons buried with sickles around their necks, or rocks at their jaws, to prevent their corpses from reanimating—from this population in order to understand the cultural context of such unusual burial practices.

A peer-reviewed paper co-authored by Betsinger was published in the PLoS One journal last fall. In the study, researchers analyzed skeletons from a 17/18th-century cemetery in Poland, where several graves were found with sickles and rocks placed across the bodies of the deceased to prevent their rising. Previously, it had been thought that many such burials were carried out on outsiders not known to the area, but Betsinger and her colleagues discovered that the skeletons were local inhabitants, not migrants. While the reason for this unusual burial treatment remains unclear, Betsinger believes it may be related to social factors, such as being born out of wedlock, or biological factors that cannot be observed on the skeleton, such as dying from cholera. The study has been featured in a number of national media outlets, including USA Today, NBC News, the LA Times and Science Daily.

Betsinger joined the SUNY Oneonta Anthropology Department in 2008. Her research interests include bioarchaeology, paleopathology, skeletal biology, and the effects of gender, social status and settlement patterns on health and well-being of populations.


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