In an ancient cemetery in western Poland, a team of archaeologists was hard at work excavating Medieval graves. But as they uncovered the remains of humans buried centuries before, they realized that something was amiss. After all, someone had damaged some of the bodies in strange and sinister ways. Perhaps, then, dark and mysterious forces had been at work.
In December 2016 reached the world’s press, and it involved archaeologists from Poland’s Museum of Fortress Kostrzyn. Yes, the team had been in the village of Górzyca carrying out some excavation work on a 13th-century.
The cemetery had been associated with the Bishopric of Lebus, a Roman Catholic administration and one-time territory of the Roman Empire. At one point, in fact, a Gothic cathedral had overlooked the graves.
During the excavation, then, the archaeologists uncovered dozens of graves from the 13th and 14th centuries. Of course, the majority of them contained bones arranged in a typical fashion. That is, undertakers had presented the skeletons anatomically correct and placed the hands either on the chests or alongside the bodies.
Typically, locals had oriented these ancient burials from east to west, as custom dictated. Strangely, however, the archaeologists uncovered three burials near the edge of the cemetery that did not adhere to this pattern.
It was also clear that the undertakers had not arranged three skeletons anatomically. For example, in one burial the right leg and the left leg had switched places. This suggested that someone had disinterred and relocated the remains at some point in time.
More shockingly, someone had removed two of the three individuals’ heads from their bodies. In fact, the undertakers had buried one woman with her face toward the ground and her knees broken.
Moreover, locals had buried another skeleton, a man in his 30s, with his head between two stones. Plus, all three of the skeletons showed signs of having been pierced with a sharp object.
Amazingly, it was these puncture holes that held the key to these mysterious burials. Yes, experts concluded that somebody had staked the skeletons to the ground. During the 13th century, locals believed this practice would prevent the bodies from coming back from the grave.
The decision to bury one skeleton face-down and another with its head trapped between stones also suggested a fear that the corpses would return from the dead. By placing physical obstructions in the way, then, those burying the dead followed a practice that was thought to keep restless spirits in their graves.
Such burials are known as vampire burials. Of course, this is in reference to the legendary figures that defy death and feast on human blood. Back in 2014, for instance, vampire burials hit the news when archaeologists excavated six strange skeletons from a cemetery in northwest Poland.
In fact, archaeologists found the 17th- or 18th-century skeletons with sickles around their necks and heavy stones under their chins. Again, experts believed that locals took these precautions to prevent the dead from returning to terrorize the living.
According to bioarchaeologist Lesley Gregoricka from the University of South Alabama, however, there was a much more mundane reason for these people’s deaths. Instead, she explained, those buried this way were likely the victims of a cholera outbreak in the region.
“Cholera was attributed to the supernatural,” she told The New York Times in 2014. “They believed that people would return from the dead, feed on living individuals and cause the disease to spread.”
Similarly, other medical afflictions could be the reason behind Górzyca’s vampire burials. For instance, two of the individuals are thought to have suffered from kyphosis. This is a spinal deformity that may have given them a hunched appearance.
Experts also suspect that these health conditions led the community to stigmatize the individuals and target them as vampires. However, one of the skeletons – the man buried with his head between stones – appeared to show no sign of bone disease.
Still, it’s not the first time that this part of Poland has yielded some incredible archaeological finds. In 2008 excavations at another site in Górzyca revealed evidence of a burial ground thought to date back 3,600 years.
Members of the ancient Tumulus culture likely constructed that cemetery. After all, this culture thrived in Europe during the Middle Bronze Age. What’s more, experts suggested that artifacts found within the graves indicated that those buried were from the military elite.
For example, among the archaeological treasures found at the site were bronze objects, weapons, ornaments and tools. Archaeologists also discovered the oldest sword ever recovered from Polish soil. In fact, it was buried alongside a Bronze Age warrior several millennia ago.
At the vampire burials in Górzyca, though, work goes on to reconstruct the ancient grounds and analyze the bones. Hopefully, then, they will uncover secrets that are just as fascinating as some of history’s most bloodcurdling legends and myths.