In the middle of summer, an astonishing archaeological discovery stirred up the media. A “vampire child” was reportedly found in Poland in a 17th-century cemetery. Le Point wanted to find out more and found the archaeologist who directs the excavation program on behalf of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun. Dariusz Polinski, 59, looks back on this strange affair. Interview.
Le Point: During the summer, you explored the cemetery of the village of Pien, near Bydgoszcz (capital of the Kuyavian-Pomeranian voivodeship). What did you discover there?
Dariusz Poliński: We exhumed an unusual grave on site. That of a child aged 6 to 7 years old. This burial which we designate, for lack of a better term, as “grave 92” contained a body whose face was turned towards the ground. What intrigued us was the fact that he also wore a triangular padlock on his feet. The grave was disturbed on an uncertain date, the remains of the child were mishandled. Only the lower legs and feet could be found. We clearly observed a trench dug towards the burial pit. We don't know what the people who dug it intended to do with the child's remains: burn them, destroy them? Regardless, a short distance from Grave 92 were the mixed remains of three other children (which may have originally come from Grave 92). Until now, no similar graves have been observed among children's burials around the world.
When did you become convinced that this padlock reflected the fact that the people who buried it feared the deceased?
In fact, from the beginning... From the moment of the discovery, it became clear to us that this padlock was a way of immobilizing the deceased at the bottom of his grave. We made the connection with beliefs of the time. In the 17th century, various creatures, demons and vampires, were feared emerging from their tombs to attack the living. It was clearly in order to protect ourselves that we put these shackles on this child’s feet.
Who were the “ghosts” you speak of?
Those who didn’t die a “good death.” » Those who had, for example, died in an accident, by drowning or following a serious illness illustrated by symptoms considered terrifying at the time. For example: seizures or fainting. Epileptics were particularly feared. But we were also very afraid of individuals with psychiatric disorders. People with disabilities, physical defects or irrational behavior were suspect. In the same vein, we had a great fear of suicides.
To hear you say, the child from tomb 92 was considered a monstrous being…
It cannot be said with certainty that this child was perceived as a demon. Nor that he resembled a creature defined later, after the 17th century, as a vampire. Or, for example, like a ghost or a stryge. He could, for example, simply have been seriously ill (the plague was wreaking havoc at this time). He could also have suffered from a mental pathology or died in tragic conditions.
Let's stop for two minutes at this cemetery, which has been excavated since 2005. Around a hundred bodies were exhumed on site, including that of a woman who already showed strange characteristics. Tell us…
Archaeological research began in this area in 2005. It lasted until 2009, with a one-year interruption in 2008. Then it resumed in 2022. In total, we will have carried out six seasons of excavations in this area. Last year we exhumed a burial in which we found a woman with the same triangular padlock on her legs, but also a sickle around her neck. This tool as well as the shackles on her feet (analogous to those in tomb 92) reflected the fact that there was already a fear that this deceased woman, buried in tomb 75, would “come back. » The living wanted to protect themselves against her. It was to prevent his recovery that a sickle was placed on his neck, to end his existence even after death. The padlock was, in the same spirit, to prevent this woman from coming into contact with the world of the living.
How old was the deceased?
Between 17 and 20 years old.
These two discoveries therefore reflect the fact that the contemporaries of this cemetery feared the “ghosts” that came from there. Does this mean that the people who were buried there were “special”?
Maybe. The current working hypothesis that we are exploring is that of a cemetery for excluded people. If they were feared after their death, it is because the individuals buried there were also fearful during their lifetime.
Another surprising discovery was made in this cemetery. Several skulls had strangely colored jaws. The top of the mouth was colored green. How do you explain this peculiarity?
The palace of the young woman in Tomb 75 was indeed stained. The oral cavity was greenish. The analyzes carried out indicate the presence of copper, gold and potassium permanganate. At first we thought it might be the trace of a medicine containing gold. Such potions were used in the 17th century. However, more in-depth analyzes of other parts of the skeleton have refuted this hypothesis. This color could result from the presence of a poor quality copper or silver object (since Antiquity, it has been customary to place a coin in the mouths of the dead to pay for passage to the underworld, Editor's note). We are continuing our analyzes to better understand the coloring of the external parts of the bones, for example in the grave of another woman (grave 76) where the discoloration is localized on the parietal bone.
Back to those “vampire” stories. » In France, they were popularized, from 1746, by a Lorraine priest, Augustin Calmet, who wrote a book entitled A Discourse on the Ghosts and Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. A work where he lists horrible anecdotes of the deceased, emerging from their graves at night, to murder their loved ones... What written sources do you have in Poland?
For the 17th century, we have many accounts and written sources about witch trials, as well as many writings about alleged demonic beings. But the stories of blood-drinking vampires come later. They are found for the first time in Jan Bohomolec (1724-1795) who published several works on the devil, ghosts, witches and fairies, in Warsaw in 1777. The ethnographer Oskar Kolberg (1814-1890) also documented the beliefs and customs surrounding these legends.
In the beliefs of Slavic peoples, the meanings of the terms “striga” and “upiór” partially overlap. It is assumed that the Slavic “striga”, the stryge, came directly from the Roman “strix”, a female demon with bird claws who fed on blood. These beliefs were adapted by the Slavs by partially integrating the figures of the “ghost” and the “vampire” found in local folklore. The “upiór” is a creature whose origin and mode of operation are relatively similar to the myth of the stryge. It is possible that in Polish folk beliefs this is one and the same character known in different regions under several different names.
According to Augustin Calmet, still, in 1725, in Kisolova in Serbia, the authorities attributed the death of nine inhabitants of the town to a certain Peter Plogojovic who had been buried shortly before. Is this where the vampire myth comes from?
The myth of the vampire as we know it comes later. But we find ancient testimonies which reflect the fact that people believed in “ghosts” in Poland. In 1529, for example, the parish priest of Grabownica (Podkarpackie), a certain Michał authorized the parishioners of Lalin to exhume a deceased person so that they could cut off his head and pierce his heart with an iron tooth taken from a harrow. We know this from the minutes of the trial of this same priest who was sentenced, for this, at the request of the dead man's family, to a prison sentence and to a strict diet: bread and water!
Why did these pagan beliefs resurface in 17th-century Poland?
This is a very difficult time for the population. The climate is harsh. The winters are very cold (we speak of the “Little Ice Age”). It was also a time of wars with the Swedish armies, but also against the Cossacks. But also economic crisis and epidemics. Living conditions are difficult. Are poverty and unhappiness the source of these beliefs in demonic beings? Every time times are hard, we look for scapegoats…
One of your colleagues, anthropologist Kalina Skora from the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology in Łodz, notes that the padlocks you found resemble those exhumed at the Jewish cemetery in Lutomiersk. How do you explain these similarities?
The padlocks found in Lutomiersk are triangular. They actually look like ours. However, it is worth noting one notable difference: the Lutomiersk burials are Jewish. This is not the case in Pien where the burials do not follow Hebrew burial practices. We will continue our investigations, in particular through DNA tests to better understand the specificities of the remains.
We want to understand if the immobilization of the deceased responds to the idea of interrupting a sequence of unfavorable events. The fact that the population began to die in an unexplained way (plague, other epidemic). Or if it’s just about protecting yourself from a threatening deceased…