Much like the Stone Age people before them, it turns out that the ancient Greeks had a healthy fear of the walking dead.

Archaeologists studying grave sites in southeastern Sicily dating back to the 5th century B.C. discovered two unusual tombs that contained skeletons weighed down by large amphora fragments and heavy rocks.

"The heavy amphora fragments found in Tomb 653 were presumably intended to pin the individual to the grave and prevent it from seeing or rising," Dr Carrie Sulosky Weaver, an archaeologist at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in Popular Archaeology.

While the two unique graves have been known to archaeologists for a couple decades, new analysis recently tied them to the ancient Greeks fear of "revenants" –– basically the old-school equivalent of your modern day zombie. According to Weaver, deceased suspected of potentially rising from the dead were either incinerated, dismembered, or given the less gruesome option of pinned in their graves.

"Alternatively, revenants could be trapped in their graves by being tied, staked, flipped onto their stomachs, buried exceptionally deep or pinned with rocks or other heavy objects," she wrote.

greek zombieA sketch showing one of the unusual graves with heavy amphora placed on the head and feet of the deceased. (Photo: D. Weiss based on G. Di Stefano Journals)

While pop culture hits like "The Walking Dead" and "World War Z" often show zombies rising up as a result of some kind of deadly virus, ancient Greeks were actually more fearful the dead would return out of vengeance. At the time, it was thought that a person's soul stayed with the body in a transitory state until full decomposition. Professor Maria Spelleri, writing on the phenomenon of Greek revenants, said that belief was strong that during this period the dead could return to inflict harm if proper respect to either their legacy or surviving family members was not given.

"Not to honor the wishes of the deceased, or to somehow cheat him or his family after his departure risks his vengeful return," she wrote.


Weaver says that while studying the ancient Greek cemeteries, the archaeologists discovered that death wasn't just feared, but also used as a weapon. Hundreds of tablets called "katadesmoi" have been found containing inscriptions meant to "recruit" the dead to perform some various task –– either good or evil –– for the living.

katadesmoi curse tabletAn example of a 'katadesmoi' or curse tablet that have been discovered throughout grave sites in ancient Greece. (Photo: Public Domain)

"Usually, the petitioners wanted to gain an advantage in love or business, and it was understood that the deities would direct the spirits of the dead to fulfill the requests of the living," Weaver told LiveScience. "To ensure that the tablets reached the underworld, they would be placed in or near the graves of the recently deceased during secret nighttime ceremonies."

Weaver and her colleagues have unlocked tremendous insight into ancient Greeks beliefs towards the after-life –– and in the process, have also likely encouraged some executive at the History Channel to pursue their own original zombie drama. I can see it now: crowds in togas and sandals running through cobblestone streets as zombies from a nearby cemetery rise to seek vengeance. Just as one of the undead is about to munch down on its first victim, the screen fades to black and all we see is: "The Revenants."

You're welcome, History Channel.

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