Sickle burial
A skeleton of an adult female with a sickle on the throat at Drawsko cemetery in PolandAntiquity

Several skeletons in a cemetery in north-west Poland have been discovered with sickles at their throats. The placement of the curved knives is thought to be a burial practice believed to ward off demons.

Four of the skeletons were found with the knives buried by their necks in Drawsko cemetery, a burial site dating back to the 17th to 18th centuries. A fifth skeleton was found with a sickle placed over its hips. According to archaeologists, the practice is evidence of a fear of demonic activity in a period when entrenched folk belief systems still existed.

Archaeologists have been exploring the cemetery since 2008. Previously, the skeletons were described as "vampire" burials, with the sickles interpreted as a way to prevent the dead from rising from the grave. The latest study in the journal Antiquity disputes this theory, suggesting the sickle burials were "anti-demonic", as vampires were not the only mythical creatures feared.

Furthermore, the sickle graves were afforded funerary privileges that were not usually given to skeletons described as "vampires" buried elsewhere in Poland and eastern Europe. The skeletons unearthed at Drawsko were buried in sacred ground among other members of the community and do not appear to have been desecrated in any way, unlike others unearthed in the region.

Vampire burials

In 2013, "vampire" skeletons discovered in burial sites near Gliwice, southern Poland, were found with their heads severed and placed on their legs in a ritual designed to ensure the dead stay dead.

"The magical and ritual meaning of this gesture seems beyond doubt," researchers of the Muzeum Ziemi Czarnkowskiej wrote in the latest study. "They are clear evidence of anti-demonic funerary practice."

"We deliberately dismiss the interpretation of a revenant (i.e. vampire). As noted above, there are a variety of demons into which the soul of the deceased may be transformed according to folk wisdom, with upiór (often referred to as a vampire) being just one of those."

The authors of the study, Marek Polcyn and Elżbieta Gajda, suggest the sickles may have multiple ritualistic meanings. The knives may have been used to prevent evil from disturbing the souls of the deceased as a form of protection, but they may also have been intended to stop the dead from rising under the threat of cutting their throats. Archaeologists suggest such beliefs are examples of enduring traditions from Slavic pagan faiths, even though Christianity was the dominant religion in Poland at the time of the burials.

The researchers also suggest the people buried may have had a traumatic or "bad death", meaning there was no time for the traditional rites for an ordinary spiritual transition into death.

Iron sickles with semi-circular and elliptical blades were common agricultural tools used to harvest grasses and cereals in central Europe.