Vampire tales are normally associated with Transylvania. This mysterious Romanian locale was the mythical home of Count Dracula and the actual home of the merciless 15th century prince Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Impaler , whose evil deeds inspired the Dracula legend. But as a fascinating new discovery demonstrates, medieval vampires, whether real or imagined, were not confined to Romanian borders, as the discovery and excavation of vampire graves proves.
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Vampires were feared and loathed throughout Central and Eastern Europe during those times, and among the true believers were the residents of a small village in southeastern Poland known as Pień. This surprising fact has been revealed by archaeologists from Nicholas Copernicus University in Torun, Poland, who during recent excavations near Pień unearthed the skeletal remains of a 17th century woman who was apparently judged and found guilty of being a vampire.
But, how were the archaeologists able to draw such an astonishing conclusion? By the characteristics found within the woman’s burial, consistent with ancient vampire lore and with other medieval vampire burials found in Polish territory.
The female discovered in the Polish vampire grave had a padlock attached to the big toe of her left foot, in an attempt to prevent her returning from the dead. (Mirosław Blicharski / Aleksander Poznań)
Features of the Vampire Grave Discovered in Poland
After being placed on her back in her grave, the woman’s body was pinned to the earth by a sickle placed over its neck. Folk legends from the area recommended this burial style within vampire graves. When the deceased was, or is, believed to be a vampire, folklore held that these customs would prevent these voracious demons from returning to life.
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“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,” said archaeologist and excavation team leader Professor Dariusz Poliński, in a media interview reported on by the Daily Mail .
In addition to the sickle, the woman discovered within this vampire burial also had a padlock attached to the big toe of her left foot. According to Professor Poliński, this was supposed to guarantee “the closing of a stage and the impossibility of returning.”
Archaeologists during excavations of the vampire grave discovered in Pien, Poland. (Mirosław Blicharski / Aleksander Poznań)
Even the Wealthy Could Join the Ranks of the Undead
Within the vampire grave, the sickle covering her neck revealed the 17th century woman’s status as a suspected vampire. But despite being identified as a blood-sucking monster , the woman was still buried with a surprising amount of care. For example, she was entombed wearing a cap made of silk, which would have been expensive and hard to obtain in the 17th century. This strongly implies she enjoyed high social status in her medieval community.
Earlier excavations at another nearby site in Pień uncovered many medieval graves that contained valuable burial items, such as silver jewelry, silk clothing, semi-precious stones from a necklace, or even a bronze bowl. While the cemetery where these artifacts were found was separate from the 17th-century site where the newly discovered vampire skeleton was entombed, it would seem the area in general was reserved for the burials of elite individuals.
One of the woman’s physical features may provide a clue as to why she was thought to be a vampire. She had protruding front teeth that stuck out far enough that it would have been quite noticeable. This may have been interpreted by some as evidence of her vampiric tendencies, although there was probably more to the story.
The Medieval Science of Vampire Resistance
The archaeologists who discovered the vampire burial at Pień highlighted the unusual nature of their discovery. But while unusual it is far from unprecedented. Hundreds of vampire burials have been discovered throughout Eastern Europe. In 2015, archaeologists digging in the Polish village of Drawsko in northwestern Poland found five skeletons that had been pinned to the ground in a similar or identical manner.
Four of the skeletons, which included two women in their thirties, a man in his thirties or forties, and an adolescent girl, were buried with sickles tightly anchored across their throats, just like the skeleton at Pień. An older woman of at least 50 was pinned by a sickle placed across her hips, and she also had a stone lain over her throat and a coin put inside her mouth. Each of these steps was presumably deemed necessary to prevent her from returning as a vampire.
Marek Polcyn, a Canadian anthropology professor and an expert on the Drawsko excavation, told Smithsonian Magazine in 2017 that medieval folklore from the region frequently included terrifying tales of creatures that rose from the dead to attack, curse, or otherwise violate the living. For reasons that remain obscure, objects made from forged metal were often used to protect against such a contingency. “Throughout the world, people believe that sharp tools, iron—anything that was created by fire, by hammering, had anti-demonic properties,” Polcyn stated.
Local folklore held that using a metal sickle could keep vampires confined to their graves. (Mirosław Blicharski / Aleksander Poznań)
Preventing Vampires Rising from the Dead
The use of metal sickles as shackles was not the only method medieval people used to keep vampires confined to their graves. “Ways to protect against the return of the dead include cutting off the head or legs, placing the deceased face down to bite into the ground, burning them, and smashing them with a stone,” Professor Poliński explained.
In 2013, archaeologists performing excavations in the southern Polish town of Gliwice found evidence of the first of these practices. The archaeologists unearthed several supposed vampire graves, belonging to people whose heads had been severed and placed on their legs, following ritual executions of a style reserved exclusively for alleged vampires.
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Belief in vampires was apparently just as common in medieval Polish cities as it was in more isolated villages. In 2008 several more graves that contained decapitated skeletons were discovered during an excavation in an older section of Krakow, the city that was Poland’s capital during medieval times.
As for the latest vampire burial to be discovered on Polish soil, her remains will now be taken to Nicholas Copernicus University in Torun, where archaeologists and technicians will subject them to a more thorough examination.