If you find a sickle buried with a skeleton in a grave, you might think the deceased was a farmer. (We might think, “What are you doing digging around in graves, Igor?") If the sickle was found around the skeleton’s neck, you might think the person was believed to have been a vampire … a common belief in 17th century Poland. However, a new study suggest that the sickle was put there not to keep the dead from rising but to keep demons away from them. What’s going on in Poland?
The study, reported in the journal Antiquity, was led by archaeologist Marek Polcyn and conducted at Drawsko cemetery in the ancient farm village of Drawsko in northwestern Poland. This cemetery has received extensive study – over 250 graves have been opened since 2008 – because of some of the unusual burial practices found there.
Some of the skeletons from 17th and 18th century burials had large rocks placed under their chins due to the belief that it would keep them from rising from the grave and feasting on the blood of the living. Researchers point out that this was also a period of widespread and (at that time) misunderstood plagues that caused mysterious deaths and equally mysterious changes in corpses (blood in the mouth is one example) that stoked fears of vampires.
Five bodies in the graveyard were buried with sickles around their necks or, in once case, around their waist. This was at first believed to also be a vampire deterrent – the blade would cut the throat or body of the rising vampire. Marek Polcyn’s research suggests another scary reason for this practice … demons.
Polcyn points out that the bodies were buried in the main grounds, not in an isolated area like most vampire graves. Analysis of the bones showed that they were local residents, not outsiders, and were found with corpses buried with coins, a common demon deterrent.
Based on that, Polycn believes a sickle around the neck was actually another way to ward off evil spirits. In addition to being used as weapon (with great skill, since the locals were farmers), the sickles were made from iron which had been forged by fire, a symbol of the change from life to death.
Poland was and still is dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. These odd burials to ward off demons and protect the living from vampires, show how old pagan practices melded with new Christian beliefs.