Vampire Burials in Medieval Poland: An Overview of Past Controversies and Recent Reevaluations
By Leszek Gardeła
Lund Archaeological Review, Vol.21 (2015)
Abstract: This paper examines the history of research on medieval deviant burials discovered in the area of Poland. The problem of unusual funerary practices (e.g. decapitations, prone burials or covering the corpses with stones) was acknowledged by Polish archaeologists already in the early decades of the 20th century, but for a long time it remained on the fringes of mainstream academic debates. Considerable changes occurred in the 1970s when deviant burials started to be treated as a separate group and interpreted as representing “anti-vampire practices”. Over the next few years the tendency to perceive the dead buried in deviant graves as “vampires” dominated the academic discourse, with very few attempts at offering alternative explanations. Recently, the sensationalist interpretations of deviant burials have also permeated into (inter)national media, leading the general public to misinformation about Poland’s past and the mentalities of its medieval societies. The main objective of this paper is to critically explore the inspirations and contexts in which the “vampiric” interpretations first came to light. An attempt will also be made to propose alternative ways of understanding deviant burial phenomena in Polish medieval archaeology.
Introduction: Deviant burials from various cultural milieus continue to attract increased attention from historians, archaeologists and folklorists worldwide. Depending on the region, cultural context or chronological period they acquire different forms and are variously defined, but as Edeltraud Aspöck has recently observed:
[…] the minimal definition of “deviant burials” that most archaeologists would agree to is that they are burials different from the normative burial ritual of the respective period, region and/or cemetery. These differences may occur in body position or treatment, location or construction of the grave or types of grave goods.