Archaeologists uncover 17th-century ‘vampire’ burial in Poland

According to Slavic folklore, sharp instruments such as sickles could be used to decapitate the deceased should it try to leave its grave.

Excavations in northern Poland have revealed the skeletal remains of a young woman buried with a sickle around her neck and a padlock on her foot – artefacts that were perhaps designed to stop her returning after death as a ‘vampire’.

The discovery was made last month by a research team from the Archaeology Institute of Nicolaus Copernicus University (NCU) during excavations of a 17th-century cemetery in the village of Pień, near Bydgoszcz.

The ‘vampire’ burial was unearthed in a 17th-century cemetery in the village of Pień. IMAGE: Łukasz Czyżewski

Anthropological analysis identified the skeletal remains as those of a female aged between 17 and 21 years old.

Dr hab. Dariusz Poliński, professor at NCU and leader of the excavation, said that the iron sickle found placed around her neck and the padlock on the big toe of her left foot are examples of ‘anti-vampire procedures’.

According to Slavic folklore, sharp instruments such as sickles could be used to decapitate the deceased, thus preventing it ascending from its grave and terrorising the living.

The sickle placed around the neck may have been intended to decapitate the corpse should it awaken. IMAGE: Łukasz Czyżewski

These rituals have been identified elsewhere within the archaeological record. In 2014, excavations of a 17th- and 18th-century cemetery in Drawsko, Poland, uncovered five burials containing sickles, as well as two individuals interred with a large stone underneath their chin, possibly intended to break the deceased’s teeth or block their throat.

This new discovery at Pień is, however, the first archaeologically documented case from Poland of a burial containing both a sickle and a padlock.

A padlock on the big toe of her left foot has been interpreted as an anti-vampire ritual. IMAGE: Łukasz Czyżewski

Historic records suggest an individual may have been suspected of being a vampire if they were seen as a social outsider, either because they were foreign, born out of wedlock, accused of practising witchcraft, had abnormal physical features, or died during an epidemic; these may have been reasons for locals to fear that the deceased would return for revenge.

However, the individual unearthed at Pień appears to have been of high-status and have received a respectful burial. Though no wooden remains of a coffin have survived, the team identified contours indicating that the head had rested upon a pillow, and fragments of silk threads and silver and gold weft recovered from around the skull head have also been interpreted as the remains of a bonnet.

Remains of silk threads and weft material around the skull suggest the individual had been buried wearing a bonnet. IMAGE: Łukasz Czyżewski

‘She was neither ritually murdered nor was she one of the convicted in the witchcraft trial. Those individuals were treated in a different way and, usually, they were thrown into provisional graves,’ said professor Poliński.

‘It is possible that in her lifetime the woman experienced a tragedy and was harmed. On the other hand, her appearance or behaviour might have provoked the contemporary residents to be afraid of her.’

It is hoped that further scientific analysis of the individual will shed light on her identity and the circumstances surrounding her death.

This research has been funded by the Provincial Monument Conservator in Toruń, the European Foundation “Memory and Heritage”, the Dąbrowa Chełmińska community, and the Nicolaus Copernicus University.