Another “Vampire” Burial Discovered in Poland

This type burial was not unusual for the time and place.

The grief of losing a loved one is hard enough to deal with. But, factor in superstitions and it can make burial an even more arduous occasion. A recently discovered grave in Poland has been found with a very particular local burial accessory: a sickle placed over the throat of the dead. In an interview with the Daily Mail Polish researcher Professor Dariusz Poliński (of Nicolaus Copernicus University) speculated that this burial practice was intended to keep a deceased person from rising from the dead. It is being referred to a “vampire” burial, but what that means can be interpreted in different ways.

Poliński told the newspaper that the woman was buried along with a silk cap in the 17th century, and the cap may have indicated high social status. The woman was buried in the town of Pien and she had a protruding front tooth.

The skeleton was found with a sickle facing downwards against her throat. According to Poliński this type of burial was intended to keep the dead from returning to life as vampires. Poliński is quoted as saying, “The sickle was not laid flat but placed on the neck in such a way that if the deceased had tried to get up most likely the head would have been cut off or injured.”

The remains of two other women were found buried there, also with sickles over their throats. Between the 11th and 17th centuries in Poland there was a great fear of vampires. It’s hard to know if the people around this woman thought of her as dangerous or supernatural during her lifetime, but research conducted by Marek Polcyn and Elizbieta Gajda into unusual Polish burials has yielded a number of theories as to why some people were buried this way.

depiction of a vampire feeding 1854
Via: British Library/Flickr

Polcyn and Gajda (not affiliated with this archaeology) noted in a 2015 paper published in Antiquity Publications, that people with powerful knowledge could have been respected in life, but feared in death. Healers, midwives, fortune tellers, and herbalists were among those who would have had positions in the community, but could have become demonic in death.

Outsiders and people who died during crucial turning points in their lives, such as at their weddings, in childbirth, or by suicide, and without rituals to help them cross into the afterlife properly, were also at risk of coming back to life as demonic figures. The sickle was also used as a symbol to protect women and children and could have also offered the dead protection against evil spirits.

During the Medieval period and into the early modern era many people living in Eastern Europe followed a dualistic system of belief wherein old Slavic pagan customs were followed at the same time as Christian ones. The scythes in graves is but one of many burial customs used to ensure the dead make it to the other side and don’t come back.

18th century woodcut depicting a witch
Via: Wellcome Collection

The woman with the silk cap at Pien had another preventative item in place: a padlock around her toe. This ritual has been used by various groups over time, including by Ashkenazi jews living in Poland. These customs are known as apotropaic traditions intended to stop the spread of evil in its many forms through folk rituals.

Another ritual that was often used to prevent a return from death was to decapitate a corpse and place the head between the legs. Other times the postmortem rise of a corpse was prevented by crushing the skull before burial.

Sometimes a net was placed on the dead person in the grave to keep them from attacking the living. In keeping with vampire lore, seeds could be dispersed over the grave so that if a vampire were to crawl out they would be at least slowed down by the many grains to count. These rituals are part of a larger set of Slavic death superstitions intended to reduce the risk of further deaths and to ease the fear of the death that dominates many funerary customs.

In 2015 a similar discovery was made only 130 miles from Pien in Drewsko. This most recent find at Pien will now be examined by researchers at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun for more clues about how the women lived and died.