History Stories

Since 2008, archaeologists have been excavating a 400-year-old cemetery on a sandy hill in northwest Poland near the rural village of Drawsko. More than 250 bodies have been unearthed so far, and they have been unremarkable with one noticeable exception—five skeletons buried with the cutting edges of iron sickles placed tightly across their throats and hips.

The sickles were discovered around the necks of two adult females who died in their thirties, an adult male who died between the ages of 35 and 44 and an adolescent female 14 to 19 years old. An adult female aged 50 to 60 years old was also found buried with a large sickle around her pelvis. Some researchers have theorized that the curved knives were placed around the skeletons out of a fear of vampirism, but a new study in the latest issue of the British journal Antiquity rejects the idea. The authors—Marek Polcyn of Canada’s Lakehead University and Elzbieta Gajda of the Muzeum Ziemi Czarnkowskiej—suggest the unusual burials are “clear evidence of anti-demonic funerary practice” and could have been done to protect the dead, as much as the living, from evil spirits.

Iron sickles were commonly used to harvest grasses and crops, and the study notes that the tradition of burying them with the dead originated in the early Middle Ages. According to the authors, the reasons for the funerary symbolism “have not yet been clearly explained,” but one theory holds that they are connected to magic rituals and superstitions, particularly the fear of vampires. The sickles could ensure the dead remained in their graves by preventing reanimated corpses from rising with the threat of cutting their throats.

Polcyn and Gajda note, however, that the graves found in Drawsko lack the typical characteristics of anti-vampire interments since they had not been reopened and the bodies found inside were not mutilated. To the contrary, evidence shows they were intermingled with other members of the community in hallowed ground and given proper Christian burials with heads pointing toward the west. In addition, the bodies demonstrate very little evidence of traumatic injuries, and the imprinted outlines of wooden coffins are preserved in their burial plots along with copper staining that suggests they were buried with coins placed in their mouths.

Another female skeleton, this one with a stone placed on her throat (Credit: Amy Scott/Gregoricka)

Another female skeleton, this one with a stone placed on her throat. (Credit: Amy Scott/Gregoricka)

Female skeleton with sickle placed across her neck[/caption]

While the authors agree that “the magical and ritual meaning of this gesture seems beyond doubt,” they speculate that the placement of the curved knives was not necessarily done for the protection of the living, but the dead. “When placed in burials they were a guarantee that the deceased remained in their graves and therefore could not harm the living,” they write, “but they may also have served to protect the dead from evil forces.”

At the time of the burials in the 1600s, Poland was enduring a tumultuous century marked by numerous devastating wars, hunger, pestilence and poverty. Although Poland remained devoutly Christian, the study notes that the uncertain times brought with them a resurgence of pagan folk beliefs and superstitions, including demonology, stoked by Catholic clergy spreading fear of the devil and witchcraft.

Those who passed away abruptly without receiving ritual rites to smooth a transition from life to death as well as those who suffered a violent demise—what was considered a “bad death”—were also viewed at particular risk to demonization. “In the public perception, they were beyond any particular state, detained between the worlds of the living and the dead; they became demons,” the authors wrote. The teenaged girl found with a sickle around her neck may have been one of those who suffered a “bad death,” perhaps by drowning, suicide or murder the authors speculate.

The authors note that, according to folk wisdom, sickles could ward off evil spirits in women in labor and children—as well as the dead. In addition, they argue that the metal tool “might symbolize a passage from earthly life to the afterlife,” since iron, which transforms in fire, has been a traditional symbol of transition.

The authors say further testing will be necessary to unlock the mystery as to why the five corpses were buried with sickles. “It is now for archaeological science, particularly biomolecular analyses, to narrow down the question of what lay behind the decision to bury the dead in Drawsko with sickles: cultural and behavioral factors; social stigmatization due to physical appearance; or different geographical origins.”

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