Happy Samhein!

Happy Halloween! This candy and costume filled holiday has some very interesting roots.  The Halloween we celebrate today is a combination of Samhain (an old Celtic holiday), standard begging traditions, and teenage angst.  Samhain (traditionally held on November 1) was celebrated over 2000 years ago in modern day Ireland and marks the transition from summer into winter.  During this festival people would feast, light bonfires, take advantage of the supernatural activities present.  This period was not only a transition into winter but during Samhain and All Hallows Eve, the wall between the living and spirit worlds would thin and allow for communication with the dead.  There is very little archaeological evidence of the Samhain ritual so a majority of the information come from oral traditions or documentation.


Researchers believe that the Samhain (soon to be Halloween) tradition arrived in the US with the mass immigration of Irish people during the early 1900s.  Before the arrival of Samhain, the US practiced traditions that were very similar to trick or treating.  During Thanksgiving, children would go from house to house begging for food.  In other areas a tradition known as Mumming and Guising was popular during which people would dress up in costume and going around asking for food.  All Hallows Eve tricks were also present during the 1800s.  Children would tip over outhouses, egg houses, and release livestock as tricks.  As time moved on these tricks escalated into block parties and vandalism.  Around WWII parents started to encourage their children to go Trick-or-Treating as a way to stop most of the tricks.

The much beloved Jack-o-Lantern also originates from Ireland.  This custom is unrelated to Samhein and actually comes from an old legend about a man name Stingy Jack.  Jack invited the Devil to drink and tricked him into turning into a coin.  Rather than paying for the drinks with the Devil coin, Jack kept it next to a cross so the Devil could not return to his original form.  Jack eventually freed the Devil who agreed to leave Jack alone for a year and not claim his soul when he died.  The next year, Jack trapped the Devil in a tree only freeing him once he agreed to leave Jack along for ten years.  When Jack died neither heaven nor hell would take his soul, so the Devil gave him a burning coal to use for light as he roamed the Earth.  Jack put the coal into a carved turnip and thus Jack of the Lantern was born.  The Irish began carving turnips and potatoes to ward of Jack and when they arrived in the US found the native pumpkin to be an even better Jack’s Lantern.

Have a Happy and Spooky Halloween Everyone!

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Halloween PSA: Vampires

With Halloween fast approaching we need to prepare for the many monsters that will come out to terrorize innocent victims.  One such monster is the horrific undead blood-sucking vampire.  Vampires have been around in folklore for ages.  They are said to rise from the dead at night and kill living people.  In order to prevent the vampires from rising villagers would cut off the corpse’s head, take out its heart, nail or weigh it down, reinforce the coffin so it can’t get out, or stab it repeatedly with wooden stakes.  Some cultures thought that vampires had uncontrolled compulsions and would distract the vampire with tasks like picking up seeds in its coffin or untying fishing nets.  Archaeologists have excavated many graves, especially from Europe that show signs of postmortem violence.  Their limbs have holes from metal spikes and some even have rocks or bricks jammed in their mouths so they cannot bite people.


JB 55 burial with crossed limbs

This vampire phenomenon has even spread to the US where a Connecticut cemetery was excavated.  One of the burials had the remains rearranged so that the head and limbs were crossed on the chest similar to the pirate skull and crossbones.

Vampire burial in Poland with a rock in her mouth prevent her from biting victims

So how we know how to rekill or restrain a vampire but how do we know who is a vampire?  Folklore has many rules about how to identify a vampire.  The main identifier is that when the body is exhumed, there is a lack of decomposition, however the body may also show signs of bloating, blackening, and other changes.  They are often found with blood coming out of their mouths, eyes, nose, and even ears.  The lore suggests this is because the vampire gorges on so much blood that it seeps out.  The suspected vampire also produces a terrible smell, no rigor morits, and the hair and nails appear to still be growing.  I don’t know about you but these all sound like common elements of natural decomposition.  Especially considering that the lore specifies that most of these vampires appear in winter and take between 9 and 40 days to actually become vampires.  All of these ‘vampire characteristics’ occur naturally during the early stages of putrefactions.

Holes in limbs of Polish vampire to nail her to the coffin.

Now you know what to look out for if you come across a dead body.  So, what are some signs in the living?  Vampirism is essentially a plague.  Once one person becomes a vampire, they infect those around them.  Often, when a vampire dies their family and close friends die shortly after.  And those most likely to become vampires die from murder, suicide, or the plague.  The Connecticut vampire shows signs of having died from Tuberculosis which is a common plague and trend seen in vampire burials.  The victims of TB would often cough blood from their mouths and take on a pale appearance.  Sounds like a vampire, right? Because TB is extremely contagious and people lived in very close proximity to each other, it isn’t hard to see the connection between one death and the deaths of the rest of the family.  The vampire was probably just the first victim of the plaque.

The vampire epidemics were probably responses to plagues with unknown origins and cures.  People sought to explain the process of decomposition and illness in a world of superstition.  These people were likely innocent victims of illness who were then violated after death.  These burials provide more information about the living community than the dead community (or undead).  How people treat their deceased tells archaeologists a lot about their culture.  In this case vampire burials tell us about a time of superstition, fear, and sickness.  So next time you open a coffin, don’t judge the skeleton by its burial. It might come back to haunt you.

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The third Saturday in October is International Archaeology Day.  Groups all across the world participate in the celebration of archaeology and its contributions to those communities.  Here in the US both national organization like the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), Society for American Archaeology (SAA), and the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and small organization such as the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, and the IUP Anthropology Department host event in honor if this holiday.  This year, IAD falls on Saturday, October 19th.

Archaeology Day was first celebrated in 2011.  This firs IAD had 115 programs including 38 US states who celebrated National Archaeology Day.  Since then the program has grown immensely. In 2017 there were over 900 events and 600 participating organization.  Of those the United States hosted 500 events.  Also in 2011, the US Congress passed that the entire month of October is to celebrate archaeology and specifically October 22, 2011 will be National Archaeology Day.

“Mr. CAPUNANO [Hon. Michael E. Capuano of Massachusetts]. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to support the designation of October 22, 2011 as National Archaeology Day. Throughout the month of October, but particularly on the 22nd, archaeological societies across the country will celebrate the thousands of years of history that have been unlocked through artifacts and discoveries” (Source: AIA website, For full text click here).

IUP is hosting out annual Archaeology Day Open House on October 19th from 12:00-3:00 in honor of International Archaeology Day.  There are many activities for the whole family.  We have a Kidz room with pottery puzzles, cave painting, and wampum beading.  Students from IUP’s Anthropology Department will also be teaching the public about human evolution, animal bones, and how to be a good archaeological citizen.  Representatives from the Westmoreland chapter of SPA will be discussing their excavations and identifying artifacts.  If you have an artifact at home you want to know more about bring it and see if you can stump our experts. Outside we will have a mock excavation, atlatl demonstrations, and flint knapping demonstrations (although she will be using chert).

The event is free, open to everyone who wants to learn about archaeology, and Insomnia Cookies has donated cookies for visitors.  Hope to see you there!





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Oh Indy

All archaeologists agree that Indiana Jones, while a dreamy professor, is a terrible archaeologist and is more akin to grave robbers than archaeologists.  Although a majority of the actions in these films are fictional, they are based on real world facts.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is chased by the Chachapoyan Tribe.  This was a real-life tribe who lived in Peru just prior to the Spanish invasion.  They were conquered by the Inca in 1450.  The temple Indiana Jones robbed was similar to the actual Chachapoyan temple of Kuelap.  Like the fictional temple, Kuelap has a long narrow entrance way that was probably designed as a defensive measure.  The biggest discrepancy is that Kuelap does not have a large rolling boulder that chases looter down the narrow hallway.

Now let’s talk a little about Nazis.  I think it was one of archaeology’s proudest fake moments when Indy punched the Nazi.  This iconic image has become a running meme for archaeologists and very few of us desire to argue against that image.  So real world: Hitler did steal and hide many historically significant artifacts.  There mostly consisted of highly valuable statues, paintings, and books that he stole from Jewish families and businesses and hid in caves across Europe.  The actions of the Monuments Men returned some of these priceless treasures to the public.  While many of the treasures Hitler’s men hunter were real-life works of art, they did pursue mythical artifacts such as the Spear of Destiny, The Holy Grail, and The Ark of the Covenant. The Raiders film could depict what might have happened if the                                                                                    Nazis did find the Ark.

Regardless of all his faults, the Indiana Jones franchise inspired many archaeologists.  Statistics show an increase in archaeology students after the premiere of the first movie.  As well, many famous archaeologists admit to being inspired by Indy.  In 2015 the National Geographic Museum created an exhibit combining the thrills of Indiana Jones with actual artifacts and archaeological education material. Along with inspiring future archaeologists, George Lucas was inspired by real archaeologists including Hiram Bingham, Roy Chapman Andrews, and Sir Leonard Woolley.  Lucas based the films off of the feeling of discovery we all experience.  He did not include many of the necessary but admittedly boring paperwork, layer-by-layer excavation, and cataloging.

Even though these films portray archaeologists as gun toting, whip cracking, Nazi punching, action heroes, we must remember that we are even cooler than that because we take detailed field notes, photograph, map, and preserve the world’s past.

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