Polish “Vampires” Were Probably Cholera Victims

Vampire Burial Poland

This suspected female “vampire” buried with a sickle placed across her neck may actually have died of cholera. Credit: Amy Scott

How do you stop vampirism from taking hold in your community? Well, you could try burying those suspected of carrying the disease with a sickle across their neck so they cut off their own head if they try to rise and return to feast on the living.

Indeed, these so-called “vampire” burials are not uncommon in the cemeteries of post-medieval Poland. And yet, no one really knows what it was that led these communities to suspect these particular bodies might crawl back from the dead. A new study by archaeologists is the first to perform a biogeochemical analysis to find out who was being targeted, and why.

Deviant or “apotropaic” funerary rites were a traditional practice intended to prevent evil taking root among the dead and were not uncommon in northwestern Poland throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Those who were considered at risk for becoming vampires – for reasons as yet unknown – were given specific treatment, such as decapitation, sickles across the chest, or stones placed in the mouth or under their chin.

Investigating these burial practices may provide insight into community cultural and social practices, as well as the social identities of people living in the area at the time. According to Discovery, there is plenty of documentary evidence that post-medieval Poland experienced “waves of immigrants” and initially, historians had wondered whether outsiders were being targeted.

Earlier this month, excavations at Drawsko 1 cemetery in the town of Kamien Pomorski in north western Poland revealed six of these unusual graves amidst hundreds of normal burials. The researchers used radiogenic strontium isotope ratios from the permanent molars of 60 individuals, including the six “special” or deviant burials, to determine whether or not they were local.

As the new study suggests, it turns they were most likely local, even upstanding members of the community. They found that all individuals buried as potential vampires exhibited local strontium isotope ratios, suggesting that those targeted for apotropaic practices were not likely migrants to the region, but instead, local individuals whose social identity or manner of death likely marked them with suspicion in some other way.

So what, then, was the problem? Why were these local individuals targeted when others were not? The authors suggest that it wasn’t just strangers sweeping through the region at the time – cholera epidemics were too. Having ruled out their “outsiderness” as the cause, they conclude that those buried as vampires were probably the victims of cholera.

“People of the post-medieval period did not understand how disease was spread, and rather than a scientific explanation for these epidemics, cholera and the deaths that resulted from it were explained by the supernatural – in this case, vampires,” said Dr. Gregoricka, lead author if the study.

The bodies of some of the dead were found missing upper teeth and with stakes driven through a leg, presumably to keep the undead from biting and walking, aspects that “indicate it is a vampire burial,” leader of the archaeological dig, Slamowir Gorka, told CNN.

Fear of vampires was strong in the 16th and 17th centuries in Eastern Europe, and “vampire” burials are found throughout the region. Four decapitated skeletons with their heads between their knees were found on a construction site excavation in Gilwice, in southern Poland in July.

Read the full report on PLOS ONE here. Citation: Gregoricka LA, Betsinger TK, Scott AB, Polcyn M (2014) Apotropaic Practices and the Undead: A Biogeochemical Assessment of Deviant Burials in Post-Medieval Poland. PLoS ONE 9(11):e113564. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113564

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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