The archaeology of some Polish vampires

Apotropaic magic is designed to ward off or control evil. In vampire fiction, as well as in real life in cultures that include a belief in vampires, apotropaic objects might be crucifixes, cloves of garlic, etc. Apotropaic methods are known to have been used in burials. In the photograph above, a sickle blade has been placed across a person’s neck at burial time, probably to keep them from reanimating and becoming all vampiry (Individual 49/2012 (30–39 year old female) with a sickle placed across the neck, from the paper cited below.) Some people have believed that a regularly occurring disease can be transmitted from those who died of that disease, after death, even after burial. In these cases, apotrapaic methods would be used to ensure that the corpse remains inactive. One might speculate that the idea of a corpse reanimating comes from the infrequent occurrence of a person not really being dead when everyone is sure they are. Such events are like huge snow storms. That happens once, nobody can stop talking about it.

How the dead are treated is the bread and butter for a lot of archaeology. Death is important, and (usually) it is an unambiguous event. Explaining death is often found to be an important, often formalized or ritualized feature of a culture. For example, among the Efe Pygmies and Lese Villagers I worked with for many years, it was generally thought that a death caused by anything other than an obvious act of violence or accident (and thus, the vast majority of deaths) was caused by some sort of intentional bad magic. In other words, all “natural” deaths are homicides. The response to a death in that culture is typically to determine guilt. Ideally, the perpetrator is identified as a hypothetical individual who carried out magic from a very far away and uncertain location, or at least, that is what I observed and that is how people seemed to regard the process. That way everyone can walk away from the death without having to start a feud with a known neighbor.

Abigail Tucker, writing in the Smithsonian, talks about “The Great New England Vampire Panic” in Connecticut, a mainly 19th century phenomenon which involved special treatment of individuals we think may have died of tuberculosis. Tucker talks about the Brown Family, which had suffered a number of deaths.

As Lena was on her deathbed, her brother was, after a brief remission, taking a turn for the worse. Edwin had returned to Exeter from the Colorado resorts “in a dying condition,” according to one account. “If the good wishes and prayers of his many friends could be realized, friend Eddie would speedily be restored to perfect health,” another newspaper wrote.

But some neighbors, likely fearful for their own health, weren’t content with prayers. Several approached George Brown, the children’s father, and offered an alternative take on the recent tragedies: Perhaps an unseen diabolical force was preying on his family. It could be that one of the three Brown women wasn’t dead after all, instead secretly feasting “on the living tissue and blood of Edwin,” as the Providence Journal later summarized. If the offending corpse—the Journal uses the term “vampire” in some stories but the locals seemed not to—was discovered and destroyed, then Edwin would recover. The neighbors asked to exhume the bodies, in order to check for fresh blood in their hearts.

…On the morning of March 17, 1892, a party of men dug up the bodies, as the family doctor and a Journal correspondent looked on. …

After nearly a decade, Lena’s sister and mother were barely more than bones. Lena, though, had been dead only a few months, and it was wintertime. “The body was in a fairly well-preserved state,” the correspondent later wrote. “The heart and liver were removed, and in cutting open the heart, clotted and decomposed blood was found.” During this impromptu autopsy, the doctor again emphasized that Lena’s lungs “showed diffuse tuberculous germs.”

Undeterred, the villagers burned her heart and liver on a nearby rock, feeding Edwin the ashes. He died less than two months later.

That was in 1892.

As a general rule, a rule that is broken enough to make it interesting, a given people at a given time have a way they normally treat their dead. The ingredients of the typical mortuary practice for a culture might include whether or not the corpse is buried, burned, left out to become a skeleton, “entombed” above ground or in a crypt, put in a coffin or not, buried with a shroud or not, if buried, buried in a particular position, buried in a particular orientation, buried with specific objects, etc. When you see a pattern of mortuary practice in a graveyard, and one or a few of the burials are different, there may be something interesting going on. I had the pleasure of supervising a PhD thesis by my friend and colleague Emily Weglian looking at burial traditions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Supervising a thesis is a great way to learn numerous esoteric details. One of the issues that came up for Emily was how to interpret burials that were backwards in an oriented cemetery. In parts of Europe it was the practice to bury the dead with the head facing west so when the individual later reanimated and stood, they would be facing Jerusalem, or in the direction one might walk if one was going to walk to Jerusalem (there are a lot of versions of this, I oversimplify here). Individuals who had a life (or a death) that marked them as different, which might mean unholy, criminal, etc., might be posthumously dissed by burring them in the opposite direction, which would not necessarily stop their zombified form from walking (or tunneling underground) to Jerusalem, but it would certainly annoy them when they found out they were going in the wrong direction. But, another possibility was raised for certain corpses buried at 180 degrees; they may have been the pastor of the flock, who would obviously face his own people and presumably know enough to turn around before heading to the Holy Land when the time came for everyone to do that.

VampiresDontExistButSo, what about Polish Vampires? I’m going to keep this simple because a) the research is available in an open access journal so you can read it yourself and b) there is an excellent blog post on the research by Katy Meyers (see links below). From the Abstract of the paper:

Apotropaic observances-traditional practices intended to prevent evil-were not uncommon in post-medieval Poland, and included specific treatment of the dead for those considered at risk for becoming vampires. Excavations at the Drawsko 1 cemetery (17th–18th c. AD) have revealed multiple examples (n = 6) of such deviant burials amidst hundreds of normative interments. While historic records describe the many potential reasons why some were more susceptible to vampirism than others, no study has attempted to discern differences in social identity between individuals within standard and deviant burials using biogeochemical analyses of human skeletal remains. The hypothesis that the individuals selected for apotropaic burial rites were non-local immigrants whose geographic origins differed from the local community was tested using radiogenic strontium isotope ratios from archaeological dental enamel. 87Sr/86Sr ratios ( = 0.7112±0.0006, 1σ) from the permanent molars of 60 individuals reflect a predominantly local population, with all individuals interred as potential vampires exhibiting local strontium isotope ratios. These data indicate that those targeted for apotropaic practices were not migrants to the region, but instead, represented local individuals whose social identity or manner of death marked them with suspicion in some other way. Cholera epidemics that swept across much of Eastern Europe during the 17th century may provide one alternate explanation as to the reason behind these apotropaic mortuary customs, as the first person to die from an infectious disease outbreak was presumed more likely to return from the dead as a vampire.

Katy’s post summarizes the results, but also critiques the media attention to this project, which as usual includes some abysmal reporting. She summarizes:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Just so you know, non-normative treatment of the dead is pretty common. If a body is buried at a funny angle or has some other minor variation, it may not mean much. But if a body is nailed to the ground with several spikes like a burial known in Celakovice, you’ve got to figure something is going on. Unusual treatments like this are not found in the thousands or (probably) even the hundreds, but they are found widely. Also, it isn’t all about vampires. Vampire concern is only one problem. It seems that some individuals are being punished after death by receiving a non-normative mortuary treatment (perhaps they committed suicide or carried out some other act viewed as worthy of eternal damnation). That’s a very different situation than treatment arising from fear of reanimation or posthumous shenanigans.

And, as subtly indicated above, these beliefs are not confined to far away ancient cultures. There are people alive today that are the first generation offspring of those who lived in Griswold, Connecticut, the town with the TB vampirism. Griswald itself is and always has been very small, but the surrounding area is the birthplace of John McCain,Eugen O’Neil, Nathan Hale, Watergate Lawyer L. Patrick Gray, and as far as I know most of these individuals and other notables from the region are not vampires.

Here is your followup reading:

Gregoricka LA, Betsinger TK, Scott AB, Polcyn M (2014) Apotropaic Practices and the Undead: A Biogeochemical Assessment of Deviant Burials in Post-Medieval Poland. PLoS ONE 9(11): e113564. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113564

Where do vampires come from? by Katy Meyers.


  1. #1 daedalus2u
    December 5, 2014

    The paper talks about the head size being atypical, but doesn’t say in which direction. Large head size is a well replicated feature of autism. Large head size at birth can also cause cephalopelvic disproportion and maternal demise.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 5, 2014

    I don’t think it is a size, or head size, thing. Usually “cranial morphometrics” comes down to a bunch of lengths (often size adjusted) and angles crunched into principle components or eigenvalues of some kind, typically with three PC’s or EV’s being used to make a three dimensional space. In this case 3D scans were used, but I’m not sure how the scans were converted into morphometrics.

    Being “outside the range of normal values” just means being outside the cluster of highly derived variables. I would guess that an actual large or small head would get a more specific mention.

    Here’s the abstract for that research:

    3D Drawsko: The possibilities and problems with digitizing post-medieval crania in Poland

    Blackburn, A.1, Scott, A.1, and T. Betsinger2
    1, 2 Department of Anthropology, University of Manitoba, 3Department of Anthropology, SUNY College at Oneonta

    The recent development and use of three-dimensional skeletal scans in archaeological populations has become an important analytical tool in biological anthropology. In situations of poor preservation, limited resources, and time constraints, the use of three-dimensional scanning provides an opportunity to capture detailed images of the human skeleton indefinitely for study. The goal of this research is to establish a three-dimensional database of the Drawsko, Poland material to assess various aspects of this unique post-medieval sample (17th-18th centuries). The pilot study for this database project focuses on population affiliation and the deviant “vampire” burials at this site. Cranial measurements were taken on 10 adult individuals (5 males, 5 females) and 1 late adolescent female to assess the cranial variability between individuals in this population and whether the two deviant individuals fell within normal or expected population parameters. It is hypothesized that the two deviant individuals would show cranial disparity when compared to the reminder of the sample, possibly explaining why they were afforded deviant status after death. However, results show a large amount of overall cranial variation within this population, and not just between the two deviant individuals. This overall variation is unexpected, suggesting that Drawsko may have had more genetic admixture than previously assumed, or that this variability is highly influenced by inherent imaging biases. While this study is preliminary in nature, it provides an important theoretical and methodological foundation for the digitization of the Drawsko skeletal sample.