British Video Team Documents
Brighton Films, a British video team, was in Connecticut last week making a documentary for National Geographic about New England vampire folk beliefs with the State Archaeologist, the Connecticut Archaeology Center, and the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History at UConn.
State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni was the first scientist to demonstrate that Connecticut colonists rearranged the corpses of individuals who had died of tuberculosis but were believed to be 'undead'.
"The documentary will tell the story beginning in 1990 when a couple of very surprised young boys discovered two skulls at the site of a new gravel quarry," says Leanne Kennedy Harty, director of the museum.
The videographers followed Bellantoni's investigation, from discovery and excavation to identification and preservation of the remains of 28 people who died between 1750 and 1830. His work included comparative gross morphology and x-rays at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, research to trace descendants, and a reburial ceremony.
"This is a very good example of how interdisciplinary archaeology can expand our understanding of the ways of life of people who lived before us," Harty says.
One burial site contained the remains of 'J.B.,' a man who died around the age of 55, whose corpse had been dug up and rearranged five to 10 years after his death and original burial. The find was the first physical evidence in America to verify written accounts that colonists believed that the dead were coming back to life to infect family members with the dreaded tuberculosis, the major cause of death in adults until the Civil War.
"Colonial farming families lived in crowded, unsanitary conditions, and diseases like tuberculosis spread inexorably," says Bellantoni, state archaeologist and head of the Archaeology Center. "They had no idea of germ theory and did not understand airborne disease transmission. All they knew was that family members were dying.
"One attempt to explain transmission suggested that the recent tubercular dead remained 'undead' and were capable of leaving their graves and feeding on living family members, giving them the disease in the process," he says.
"The New England vampire belief was a folk medicine belief system developed among rural farming families because physicians at the time could do little to save their loved ones," he adds. "This is not a 'Dracula' story. This is a public health story."
The documentary is one of a 13-part series about the science and folklore of ancient humans that will air on the National Geographic Channel in the fall.
"We are trying to discover who 'J.B.' was, how he lived and died, and what his life was like," says director Ian Parton. "The story of J.B. is rare, because there is a conclusion. In most stories from the distant past, you can never be sure what the ending was."