Undying dread: A 400-year-old corpse, locked to its grave

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Undying dread: A 400-year-old corpse, locked to its grave
A handout photo shows Dariusz Poliński, the lead archaeologist with the team from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland. (Institute of Archaeology Toruń via The New York Times)

by Franz Lidz

NEW YORK, NY.- If reports from the time are to be believed, 17th-century Poland was awash in revenants — not vampires, exactly, but proto-zombies who harassed the living by drinking their blood or, less disagreeably, stirring up a ruckus in their homes. In one account, from 1674, a dead man rose from his tomb to assault his relatives; when his grave was opened, the corpse was unnaturally preserved and bore traces of fresh blood.

Such reports were common enough that a wide range of remedies was employed to keep corpses from reanimating: cutting out their hearts, nailing them into their graves, hammering stakes through their legs, jamming their jaws open with bricks (to prevent them from gnawing their way out). In 1746, a Benedictine monk named Antoine Augustin Calmet published a popular treatise that sought, among other things, to distinguish real revenants from frauds.

Four centuries later, archaeologists in Europe have discovered the first physical evidence of a suspected child revenant. While excavating an unmarked mass cemetery at the edge of the village of Pien, near the Polish city of Bydgoszcz, researchers from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland, unearthed the remains of what has been widely described in news reports as a “vampire child.” The corpse, thought to have been about 6 at the time of death, was buried face down, with a triangular iron padlock under its left foot, in a likely effort to bind the child to the grave and keep it from haunting its family and neighbors.

“The padlock would have been locked to the big toe,” Dariusz Polinski, lead archaeologist on the study, said through a translator. Sometime after burial, the grave was desecrated and all the bones removed except those of the lower legs.

“The child was interred in a prone position so that if it returned from the dead and tried to ascend, it would bite into dirt instead,” Polinski said. “To our knowledge, this is the only example of such a child burial in Europe.” The remains of three other children were found in a pit near the child’s grave. In the pit was a fragment of a jaw with a green stain, which Polinski speculated was left by a copper coin placed in the mouth, an ancient and common burial practice.

The necropolis, a makeshift graveyard for the poor and what Polinski called “abandoned souls excluded by society,” was discovered 18 years ago. It was not part of a church or, as far as historical local records show, on consecrated ground. So far, about 100 graves have been uncovered at the site, including one only a few feet from the child’s that harbored the skeleton of a woman with a padlocked toe and an iron sickle over her neck. “The sickle was meant to sever the woman’s head should she attempt to get up,” Polinski said.

A green stain in her mouth was shown by chemical analysis not to have been from a coin, but from something more complicated. The residue bore traces of gold, potassium permanganate and copper, which Polinski thinks may have been left by a potion concocted to treat her ailments. The cause of the woman’s death is unclear.

The woman and child do not qualify as vampires, said Martyn Rady, a historian at University College London. Vampires, he noted, are a specific type of revenant; their characteristics were first defined in the 1720s by Austrian Hapsburg officials, who came across suspected vampires in what is now northern Serbia and wrote reports that ended up in the medical journals of the time.

“They were quite clear that, in popular local legend, the vampire had three characteristics: It was a revenant, feasted on the living and was contagious,” Rady said. The Austrian definition shaped literary vampire mythology.

Polish legends feature two types of revenants. The upior, which was later superseded by “wampir,” is similar to the cinematic Dracula, embodied by Bela Lugosi. The strzyga was more like a witch — “that is, in the old fairy-tale sense, a malevolent female spirit or demon that preys upon humans, may eat them or drink their blood,” said Al Ridenour, a Los Angeles-based folklorist. In Pien, locals sometimes refer to the sickle woman as a strzyga, a wraith typically born with two souls. “The malevolent soul can’t find rest in the grave, so it rises and wreaks havoc,” Ridenour said.

He pointed to the turbulent nature of the Counter-Reformation in Poland for allowing pagan beliefs toward the undead to persist. “In reaction to the Protestants, the Catholic Church turned up the drama and emotion, as you can see in Baroque art, in memento mori paintings and the like,” he said. Sermons became more fiery, and whipped up fear of the devil and demons, which translated into a fear of revenants and reanimation of the dead.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, placing padlocks in graves became something of a tradition in Central Europe, particularly in Poland, where lock-and-key assemblages have been found in the graves of about three dozen necropolises for Ashkenazi Jews. At a 16th-century Jewish cemetery in Lublin, iron locks were laid on shrouds, around the head of the deceased or, in the absence of a coffin, on a plank covering the corpse. So far, the cache from Lutomiersk is the largest: Of the 1,200 graves investigated, almost 400 contained padlocks.

Although the significance of this ritual is now obscure, one Talmudic term for grave is “a lock” or “something locked,” which has led some scholars to conclude that the custom symbolized “locking the tomb forever.” The custom continued in Poland’s Jewish communities at least until World War II. Kalina Skora, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Lodz, said that the aim, according to mid-20th-century practitioners, was “to prevent the dead person from speaking, speaking bad things or rather talking about this world in the other world.”

Polinski doubted that the woman and child buried near Pien were Jewish. “If they were, their bodies would have been buried in a Jewish cemetery,” he said.

So why were they singled out? Perhaps the cause was some social stigma, such as being unbaptized or dying by suicide, exhibiting strange behavior while alive or having the bad luck to be the first to perish in an epidemic, said Lesley Gregoricka, an anthropologist at the University of South Alabama, who was not involved in the excavation. “As Poland was only minimally affected by plagues such as the Black Death, other epidemics such as cholera could have been to blame,” Gregoricka said. “This could explain why children were sometimes targeted as potential revenants in death.”

In the throes of a raging scourge, cemeteries were sometimes searched for a “patient zero.” As many as a dozen corpses might be disinterred, Skora said. Much like the villagers in Shirley Jackson’s spooky short story “The Lottery,” entire communities would participate in the activity. “Some of the local people were involved in finding out who was the cause of the deaths, while others, mostly adult men, sometimes accompanied by a priest, were involved in digging up the deceased and looking for the culprit,” Skora said.

When sniffing out a revenant, lack of decomposition was a dead giveaway. “A few weeks or months after death, the body was still ‘fresh,’” Skora said. “Very often the grave of the first person to die — the alleged perpetrator — was dug up and, to stop it from causing further deaths, was laid face down, beheaded, limbs cut off.” Padlocks, sickles and other objects made of iron, a metal said to possess anti-demonic powers, were stashed in the grave as preventives. If that didn’t do the trick, the body was removed and burned, the ashes scattered or submerged.

As gruesome as the treatment of these supposed revenants sounds, the belief may at least have provided closure to their oftentimes melancholy afterlives. To quote Lugosi in “Dracula”: “To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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