“Vampire” woman buried with sickle over her neck

A unique 17th century vampire burial has been unearthed in the village of Pień, northern Poland. The woman was buried with a sickle over her neck and a padlock on her toe, devices used to prevent a strzyga, a vampire-like female demon in Polish folklore, from rising from her grave to suck the blood of the living.

Separating the head from the body in burial was essential to subduing a strzyga. The sickle embedded in an arc over the neck performed this function without anyone having to take on the gruesome task of decapitating a corpse. Should the revenant attempt to rise, the sickle would sever the head. It has been described by folklorists but this is the first archaeological example of the practice found in Poland.

Another object in the grave was a closed padlock on the left foot’s big toe. According to Professor Poliński, “This symbolizes the closing of a stage and the impossibility of returning.”

Archaeologists noted that the woman was buried in an unusual manner and with great care, which is surprising given traditional anti-vampiric customs. She had a silk cap on her head, which was very pricey in the 17th century and, according to archaeologists, indicates high social status.

The woman’s protruding front tooth is another eye-catching feature. This has led to speculation that her unusual appearance led superstitious locals in the 17th century to label her a witch or vampire.

Previous vampire burials unearthed in Poland deployed other methods of suppressing the undead, as in the case of 11 individuals unearthed in Gliwice in 2013 buried with their heads between their knees. This group also had unusual physical features — large eye sockets and narrow nose/upper jaw that would have given them a feline appearance — that may have made them targets of their community’s fears and suspicions.

The stryga burial was discovered in the historic cemetery of Pień, in use from the 10th century through the 17th. It was first excavated between 2006 and 2009 by archaeologists from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, and they unearthed 68 graves, 57 of them from the 17th century. Nicolaus Copernicus University archaeologists returned this year to the 17th century section of the cemetery to salvage graves endangered by agricultural work and sand and gravel mining. During the rescue works, the vampire burial was discovered.

The remains have been recovered for study and conservation, and the team plans to return to Pień next year to continue their fieldwork in the cemetery.