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While conducting research at a 17th-century cemetery in the village of Pien in Poland, a team of archaeologists discovered the remains of a woman chained to the ground with her neck blocked by a sickle. According to Professor Dariusz Polinsky, who led the excavations, this strange ritual was supposed to prevent him from returning from the dead.
According to the expert, this form of burial is relatively unusual. Not only was the neck shackled with a sickle, but one of the toes of the deceased was blocked. Archaeologists also found the remains of a silk cap on his head, which would indicate that he belonged to a rather high social status. The unknown also had a protruding tooth in his upper jaw. The discovery is somewhat strange, but, according to Polinsky, that era was marked by other chilling funeral rites.
“The means of protection against the return of the deceased was to cut off the head or legs, put the deceased face down so that he bit into the ground, burn him and beat him with a stone,” he explains. told the Daily Mail. The sickle was placed in such a way that the head of the deceased would be cut off if he tried to stand up. The locked toe, which according to Polinski symbolizes “closing the stage”, was another way to ensure that the deceased could not return to attack the living.
The myth of the vampire is deeply rooted in this region.
If zombies and other undead are legion in modern movies and TV shows, you should know that the myth was created in the 11th century in Eastern Europe. At that time, people feared that some of the dead would rise to the surface in the form of bloodthirsty creatures, which they called vrykolak – undead, very similar to the mythical vampire in the way they kill their victims; both were treated equally at the time of burial. The myth of the vampire originated much earlier and was already known to the ancient Romans, Egyptians and Greeks.
The sickle across the throat was a guarantee that the deceased would not rise from the dead. © Miroslav Bliharski/Alexander Poznan
In Polish folklore, sacrilege, witchcraft, or simply an unusual appearance could make a deceased person undead. People who died prematurely, such as by suicide, were also often suspected of vampirism. As a result, many remains were found in the region with a metal rod through the skull – a sure way for people of that time to ensure that a person does not return to life – or any other form of apotropaic inclusions (objects designed to ward off bad luck).
In 2014, archaeologists reported the discovery of similar buried skeletons in a cemetery in Drawsko, a 400-year-old village 130 kilometers from Pien. Of the approximately 285 skeletons found, five were classified as “abnormal burials” – interestingly, they were not laid out separately in the cemetery, but were buried among other dead. This discovery was the subject of an article in PLOS One in 2014.
The sickles were found pressed to the throat of a man and woman in their forties. Two other tombs contained two skeletons of women who suffered the same fate: according to the analysis, one of them was between 14 and 19 years old. An elderly woman (between 50 and 60 years old) was found buried with a sickle attached to her thighs and a large stone pressed to her throat.
The first victims of the cholera epidemic
The team that made the discovery pointed out at the time that these eerie rites were not only meant to keep the dead from harming the living, but also to help protect the dead from evil forces. Indeed, according to popular wisdom, the sickle protected women in childbirth, children and the dead from evil spirits.
These burial customs became relatively common in Poland, as in other Slavic countries, in the 17th and 18th centuries after a sudden and massive belief in these myths. This collective hysteria even led to the execution of people who were considered vampires. Researchers believed that those wrongfully executed and mutilated were mostly foreigners, newcomers to the area. But analyzes carried out on the remains of Drawsko showed that the so-called vampires were indeed local residents.
Several factors were associated with vampirism at the time: strange physical characteristics, being born out of wedlock, a failed baptism, or any death considered unusual were considered signs of potential resuscitation after death.
Thus, the authors of the study believe that these people were in fact the first victims of cholera epidemics that raged through much of Eastern Europe in the 17th century. “People in the post-medieval period did not understand how diseases spread, and instead of a scientific explanation for these epidemics, cholera and the deaths it caused were explained by the supernatural,” explained Leslie Gregoricka, the first author of the study.
The body, recently discovered in Pien, was sent to Torun, where archaeologists will conduct further research.