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Evidence of “anti-demonic” funerary practices, with sickles placed around the throats of the deceased possibly to ward off demons, has been found in a 400-year-old cemetery in Poland. Researchers examined more than 250 human skeletons which were excavated since 2008 from a post Medieval cemetery in Drawsko, a rural settlement site in northwestern Poland.
Dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, the remains represented individuals of all ages and both sexes and included five unique interments with sickles.
“In four of these burials the sickles were placed on the bodies of the dead with the cutting edge tightly against the throat, while the fifth was located on the pelvis,” Marek Polcyn, a visiting scholar at Lakehead University in Canada, and Elzbieta Gajda, of the Muzeum Ziemi Czarnkowskiej, wrote in the current issue of the journal Antiquity.
The skeletons with the sickles around the throat were those of an adult male who died between 35–44 years of age, two adult females who died around 30–39 years of age, and an adolescent female who at around 14–19 years old.
There was also an adult female aged 50–60 years interred with a large, arch-curved sickle placed across her hips. A stone was placed directly on top of the throat, while a coin was found in her toothless mouth.
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Previously, it was suggested these people were buried as “vampires.” In this view, the sickle placed across the throat was intended to remove the head, should the vampire attempt to rise from the grave.
But Polcyn and Gajda argue these burials should be rather interpreted as “anti-demonic.” They noted the sickle burials have none of the characteristics of so-called anti-vampiric practices.
They were interred in sacred ground following conventional Christian burial patterns, with the head placed towards the west, and their graves did not appear to have been desecrated.
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“Confining the deceased in the grave by means of a sickle may have been a measure to prevent the demonized soul threatening the living, or could have been a reference to biblical symbolism in an attempt to prevent the soul from becoming demonized,” Polcyn and Gajda wrote.
Vampires were not the only mythical creatures feared in Poland in the 17th century. As wars, hunger, pestilence, and poverty devastated the country, Slavic pagan faiths resurrected.
“The development of the Counter-Reformation was a significant turning point as it brought cultural and intellectual regression, religious fanaticism and a growing climate of terror, deliberately stoked by Catholic clergy spreading fear of the devil and witchcraft,” the researchers wrote.
Folk beliefs record at least 14 demons into which the soul of the deceased person could be transformed after suffering a bad death.
Among the Drawsko skeletons, the teenage girl is the most probable candidate to have died such a death.
“It is possible that she drowned, committed suicide, was murdered or died another kind of violent and untimely death,” the researchers said.
They believe the 50-60-year-old woman that was buried with a sickle on her hips was also considered demonic.
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“The presence of a sickle on her hips, the coin in her toothless mouth and the stone on her neck indicate that she was thought to have demonic features as well,” Polcyn and Gajda said.
The other sickle burials belong to people who died in the prime of life. According to the researchers, they were likely considered strangers, non-farmers or religious dissenters.
“We are unable to say which of the criteria of strangeness is indicated here: one or perhaps all three of them,” they said.
Certainly they were not foreigners or migrants. A study led by Lesley Gregoricka from University of South Alabama tested molars from 60 individuals, including those buried with sickles, using radiogenic strontium isotopes from archaeological dental enamel.
The tests revealed these people lived their whole life either in Drawsko or in the nearby villages.
“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,” Polcyn and Gajda concluded.
According to Elena Dellù, an archaeo-anthropologist at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, these individuals were likely seen in a very negative way as they stood out from the norm.
“They did not conform to social rules, suffered from inexplicable diseases or were seen as demonically possessed,” Dellù told Discovery News.
“Those who did not reach certain ‘stages,’ such as stillborn children, individuals who died just before their wedding, or women who died in labor, were also candidates for deviant burials,” she added.
Dellù, who is investigating in Italy two deviant burials of teenage girls, believes the sickle, coin and stone package points to a community strongly fearing the dead.
“Coins were placed in the mouth to favor the deceased’s passage into the afterlife. The sickle and the stone would have prevent the dead from returning,” Dellù said.
Source : journal Antiquity.