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Historical Vampire Burials and Social Order in Post-Medieval Poland

Historical Vampire Burials and Social Order in Post-Medieval Poland
© Photograph by Maryna Khomenko

Vampire burials, funerary rites and mortuary treatments are often indicators of the ideas and beliefs surrounding the community and, more importantly, the role of the deceased within that community (Rakita & Buikstra 2005). Furthermore, such practices and treatments can elucidate information related to how the dead continue to be agents in the lives of their still-living family, friends and community members.

Non-normative or deviant burials in the archaeological record are one such practice that is a representation of the bizarre or unusual, as they differ from the normalized burial traditions of a culture (Aspöck 2008; Reynolds 2009).

Typically, these burials are rare and while the term “deviant” generally has a negative connotation, this is not necessarily accurate. Any burial that differs from what is considered typical or “normal” for a particular culture can be classified as deviant. While some deviant burials do, indeed, suggest the interment of social deviants (Reynolds 2009), other such burials can include those treated differently for both positive and negative reasons (Aspöck 2009).

It is important to note that what constitutes a deviant burial is entirely dependent upon the culture from which it originates; in other words, what is considered “normal” and “deviant” will vary from culture to culture (Aspöck 2009; Pader 1982). Ulrike Aspöck (2009, 89) suggests that there are “[t]wo types of different treatment [that] can be distinguished”: those treated differently based on sex/age or social role, and those treated differently who […] ‘lost’ their right [to normative burial] because of some circumstance of their life or death” (2009, 86). More specifically, Reynolds (2009) suggests eight causal factors that result in deviant burials: battle, judicial execution, superstition, suicide, homicide, massacre, plague and sacrifice (Reynolds 2009, 38), and that more than one factor can account for any given non-normative burial. Based on this understanding it can be argued that non-normative burials are driven by two factors: 1) the mode of death and 2) the translation of that death into specific mortuary treatments that are heavily influenced by those burying the deceased (Reynolds 2009). It is based on these two factors that the identification and interpretation of deviant burials can be quite difficult, requiring a comparison of these atypical characteristics to those considered “normal” within a population (Aspöck 2008; 2009). Further, this comparison is not always clearly defined, as any given culture is likely to have multiple ways of treating the dead (Weiss-Krejci 2013); in other words, there are multiple “normal” burial styles that may obscure the means by which to identify those considered non-normative.

Ulrike Aspöck (2009) argues that in addition to this expected mortuary variability, post-depositional practices and modifications must be taken into account as well and their influence on the archaeological presentation of non-normative burials. As the mechanisms that drive the creation of deviant burials continue to evolve culturally and temporally, so too does the study of this unique process. While a social systems approach (see Binford 1972; O’Shea 1984; Saxe 1970; Shay 1985) to non-normative burials contributes to an understanding of the larger social scheme surrounding the burial process, mortuary individualism and agency (see Aspöck 2008; Tsaliki 2008) is the focus of this article. It is with this consideration that we investigate the social agency of “vampires” (or the “undead”) in terms of three broad functions: social order, an explanation for the unknown and economic sacrifice.

The Drawsko site is a cemetery located in the small, rural community of Drawsko in northwestern Poland. The settlement is located along the Noteć river and has been continuously occupied since the medieval period (Wyrwa 2004; 2005).

Initially excavated in 1929, systematic excavations of the seventeenth- to eighteenth-century cemetery did not begin until 2008 (Wyrwa 2004; 2005). A variety of artefacts have been recovered during excavations that aid in the dating of this cemetery, specifically coins. Approximately three hundred and thirty three well-preserved human skeletal remains have been recovered with excavations on-going as part of a mortuary archaeology field school sanctioned by the Slavia Foundation, Poland. The cemetery is located outside of the village settlement and, to date, no remnants of a church have been found in association (Wyrwa 2005). The cemetery is composed of individual interments, often in wooden coffins, the remains of which (coffin nails, portions of wood, etc.) have been recovered in approximately forty percent of the burials. Individuals, for the most part, are buried supine and in an extended position. In general, the graves are placed in an east-west orientation; however, some burials deviate from this Christian alignment (e.g. southwest-northeast, southeast–northwest), which may be a reflection of the seasonal position of the sun and its use for burial positioning (Williams 2008). Additionally, many graves impose onto one another with individual burials overlapping.

The somewhat arbitrary organization of the cemetery, as well as some ill-fitting coffins, has led some to suggest that this may be an epidemic cemetery, as outbreaks of cholera were known to occur during its use (Wyrwa 2004). However, the large number of remains recovered to date makes it less likely that a small community would have such a large epidemic cemetery. It is more likely that victims of cholera or other epidemics were included in this cemetery, but do not constitute its majority. It is unclear, nonetheless, why there appears to be no church or other settlement structures in association with the cemetery, which is the norm for the period and Christian custom (Blair 2006; Koperkiewicz 2010).

Also published on Medium.


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