Belief in the ability of the dead to rise up and vex the living as vampires came to us from Eastern Europe. An archeological excavation of a cemetery in Drawsko, Poland, reveals some of the lengths that the villagers went to to make sure the dead stayed dead when they were buried. Anthropology professor Marek Polcyn from the Lakehead University in Canada tells us about the beliefs that lay behind some of these burial rituals.
Polcyn’s work describes one female body discovered with a sickle across her pelvis, a rock on her neck and a coin in her mouth. Four other bodies were found with sickles strewn across their throats. While Polcyn said in one study that sickles have been discovered in excavations in other countries like Slovakia before, burials with sickles across the throat are rare during this period. He says the practice could corroborate with historical knowledge of folk tales and beliefs about creatures that rise from the dead to commit evil deeds and bring misfortune to the living.
“Throughout the world, people believe that sharp tools, iron—anything that was created by fire, by hammering, had anti-demonic properties,” Polcyn says.
Some of the earliest beliefs surrounding vampires came on the heels of the conversion of Slavic people to Christianity sometime between the 7th and 9th centuries, says Christopher Caes, a lecturer in Polish at Columbia University who has taught classes on Slavic vampires. Before Christianity, Slavs predominantly cremated their dead, in the belief that a person’s soul would only be released with the burning of their body. When missionaries converted them, the new practice of burying the dead would have horrified some.
So then the burial practices had to be adapted to accommodate some of those older beliefs. Not everyone had the potential to rise again as a vampire, and there were some clues in the living to indicate who might. Read more about the excavation and what we've learned from it at Smithsonian.
(Image credit: Slavia Field School in Archaeology)