Written by: Katy Meyers Emery
Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie
Vampires have continued to be a hot topic in studies of deviant burial practices, and the popular news is more than happy to share these types of archaeological finds. Of course, the problem with the popular media is that they don’t really understand the evidence at hand, and they don’t accurately share the findings of the bioarchaeologists. Here’s a good rule- always go to the primary source- find the journal article, find the book, find the archaeologist, and you will learn what they actually said about the site. For example, LiveScience says that the vampire mystery has been solved and we now know what caused people to think there were vampires and where they came from. That is partially true, but it doesn’t note that this is just a hypothesis and there are many factors still to consider- it is in no way ‘solved’. Other articles has titles like “The Truth About Poland’s “Vampire” Burials“, “Polish ‘vampire’ burials weren’t just for outsiders“, and “Mystery of ‘Vampire’ Burials in Poland Is Solved” give the public the illusion that we’ve figured out everything about these deviant burials- we haven’t. So let’s go back to the source of these articles and discuss what they really have discovered.
Gregoricka et al. (2014) examine the deviant burials found at the Polish archaeological site of Drawsko, a post-medieval site dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Eastern Europe has a long history of folklore and literary works that refer to the presence of vampires, revenants, or the undead having an impact on the health and well-being of the living. To make this clear from the beginning, these aren’t the vampires that Anne Rice or Twilight are dealing with- these are angry evil spirits who inhabit the bodies of the deceased and could cause the body to reanimate. To prevent harm from occurring, the living would include apotropaics in the grave. Apotropaics are grave goods that prevent evil or barricade an individual within the grave like including a sickle in the grave, turning the body face down or placing stones over the body.
The cemetery at Drawsko includes 285 human skeletons representing all age categories and are of both sexes. The remains in general were well preserved, and most burials included wooden coffins. Six of these were classified as deviant due to the inclusion of apotropaic grave goods and unusual burial methods. This includes one adult male, one late adolescent females, three adult females, and one subadult. Five of these were buried with a sickle placed against the neck or chest- which would prevent the corpse from being reanimated, and two had large stones beneath their chins possibly to prevent the mouth opening. Despite being ‘deviant’ and potential dangerous, they were not segregated from the rest of the burial population. Some other non-deviant burials contained coins and charms meant to prevent evil, showing that the fear of vampires or some other type of evil affecting the deceased was widespread in this community.
Previous analysis of these deviant burials showed that the measurements of their skulls were slightly outside of the normal measurements within the cemetery, suggesting that they may have been outsiders or migrants. During this period, there was widespread immigration across the country, and negative changes in community health may have been attributed to these outsiders. To test this, Gregoricka et al. (2014) examine the strontium isotope ratios in the deviant burials. Strontium isotope analysis of archaeological human dental enamel allows us to investigate patterns of mobility, in particular it will determine the geographic origins of the suspected vampires. 60 individuals from the Drawsko cemetery were analyzed, including all six suspected vampires. There was no statistically significant difference between the strontium isotope ratios of the general population and the deviant burials. Only three individuals had ratios suggesting that they were migrants or non-local, and none of them had apotropaic burial measures.
This means that the individuals who were buried with measures to prevent vampirism, the six deviant burials, were all locals, and the cause of their suspected vampirism was not due to being an ‘outsider’. The question then becomes, why were they buried this way? Gregoricka et al. (2014) state “Individuals ostracized during life for their strange physical features, those born out of wedlock or who remained unbaptized, and anyone whose death was unusual in some way – untimely, violent, the result of suicide, or even as the first to die in an infectious disease outbreak – all were considered vulnerable to reanimation after death.” One possible reason is cholera. Multiple cholera epidemics swept through Poland in this period, killing thousands of people and there was no known cause or cure for it at this point. The first individual to come down with a new disease was often suspected to have negative effects on the living after death and cause the disease to continue until apotropaic measures were taken. But this is just a hypothesis that needs to be tested- it isn’t an answer to a mystery or the ‘truth’. They also note that texts from this period argue that witchcraft or lack of baptism could lead to vampirism after death.
Now that we’ve looked at the full article, here are the important facts to remember:
- Death by cholera is just an alternative hypothesis, not necessarily the truth. The authors mention that it is an alternative many times, they never say (unlike popular news) that cholera is definitely the cause.
- If cholera was the reason, you would be performing the apotropaic rites on the first couple individuals who died from the disease, so this doesn’t mean ALL died from cholera, but perhaps some did.
- They were not real life vampires, they were only vulnerable to being turned into vampires by evil spirits. REAL VAMPIRES DON’T EXIST. These were people who died under unfortunate conditions and were thought to be vulnerable to evil spirits in the afterlife.
If you have the time, I suggest reading Gregoricka et al. (2014) yourself. It is well written and has a great discussion about vampires in this region and period. What isn’t good is the popular news interpretation of the article. Go back to the source if you want the truth. Also, the journal article is open access, so anyone anywhere can read it! Yay for open access!
Gregoricka, L., Betsinger, T., Scott, A., & Polcyn, M. (2014). Apotropaic Practices and the Undead: A Biogeochemical Assessment of Deviant Burials in Post-Medieval Poland PLoS ONE, 9 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113564