How the Polish Buried Their Vampires

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Belief in vampires was a global phenomenon. Cultures all over the world once believed that certain humans wander the Earth after their death, engaging in acts of decidedly anti-social behavior. Though most sophisticated scholars know that wooden stakes and sunlight work best, each culture had invented various methods of dispatching those vampires permanently into the afterlife.

For instance, in the 1600s and 1700s in Drawsko Pomorskie, a town in northwestern Poland, a suspected vampire was buried with a sickle across his body and/or a stone in his mouth. If the undead was to attempt a nightly prowl, the sickle would disembowel or decapitate him; if that didn’t work, the stone would prevent him from biting anybody. Problem solved. (See photos below.)

But just who were these suspected vampires? What could one possibly do in life to become such a social outcast that your neighbors just assumed you might return from the grave to do them harm? The prevailing hypothesis is that these unlucky souls were immigrants. As is the case today, Europeans tended to view outsiders unfavorably. Foreigners are strange, and if anyone is going to turn into a vampire, surely it would be one of those oddballs who smelled weird and talked funny.

With this hypothesis in mind, American and Canadian researchers examined skeletons exhumed from a cemetery outside Drawsko Pomorskie in an excavation that began in 2008. Of the 285 inhabitants, six of them were suspected vampires. (Two of them are pictured above. The first photo depicts a skeleton with a sickle around its neck, while the second photo depicts a skull with a stone placed in its mouth.) Interestingly, the potential vampires were not segregated, but buried alongside everybody else.

At that time, northwestern Poland was a region that had a large number of immigrants. Therefore, the authors predicted that the six suspected vampires, due to their “outsider” status, were likely to be immigrants. To test this hypothesis, they examined strontium isotope ratios (Sr-87/Sr-86) in the skeleton’s teeth. Because strontium is a Group II metal with two valence electrons, it chemically behaves like calcium, allowing it to take the place of calcium in bones and teeth. Sr-86 is a stable isotope, but Sr-87 slowly forms from the beta-decay of rubidium-87. (The half-life of rubidium-87 is 49 billion years.) Variations in the strontium isotope ratio generally result from differences in geographic location.

The region around Drawsko Pomorskie has a strontium istope ratio of about 0.710 to 0.711. If the skeletons of the potential vampires were indeed foreigners, the researchers would have found a different ratio in their teeth.

But they did not. This strongly implies that the skeletons were of locals, not foreigners. So, why did they receive postmortem anti-vampire therapy? The authors conclude:

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 possibility the authors entertain is that the suspected vampires were the first victims of a cholera epidemic, but there is little evidence beyond historical speculation to support this.

Unfortunately, it appears for those souls destined to become vampires, death did not bring peace, but rather a continuation of their earthly tribulations.

Source: Gregoricka LA, Betsinger TK, Scott AB, Polcyn M. “Apotropaic Practices and the Undead: A Biogeochemical Assessment of Deviant Burials in Post-Medieval Poland.” PLoS ONE 9(11): e113564. (2004) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113564