‘Vampire’ found in ancient cemetery in Poland may have just been ill

Archaeologists in Poland found a woman's skull surrounded by items that indicate that she was accused of being a vampire at the time of her death.

The Vampire (1897) by Philip Burne-Jones (photo credit: PHILIP BURNE-JONES/PUBLIC DOMAIN/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The Vampire (1897) by Philip Burne-Jones
(photo credit: PHILIP BURNE-JONES/PUBLIC DOMAIN/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The remains of the body of a "vampire" were discovered by archaeologists in the yard of a 17th-century cemetery in Poland, according to the assessment of a group of researchers from Warsaw's Copernicus University. They were conducting excavations at the site when, suddenly, they discovered the skull of a woman who was buried in the ground with a rusty sickle around her throat.

According to Polish folklore, the sickle was used to restrain the bodies of people suspected of being vampires so they could not return from their death and terrorize people. "The sickle was placed on the neck in such a way as to trap people who tried to rise from their graves. If they tried, their heads would be cut or injured," said Dariusz Polinski, one of the researchers who found the skull.

Polinski also said that the woman's body was found with a padlock around her toes, further strengthening the theory that she was accused of being a vampire at the time of her death. Investigators have not been able to determine the exact age of the body, but they claim that a silk fabric found on the skull indicates that the woman was of high socioeconomic status.

According to Smithsonian magazine, vampires began to be feared throughout Eastern Europe in the 11th century, and people who died were believed to emerge from the grave and become blood-sucking monsters. By the 17th century, unusual burial methods, like the one that has now been revealed, became a tool to fight against "vampires."

To this day, there is still no scholarly consensus among researchers as to what caused people to be accused of being "vampires," but they would have been brutally executed, Polinsky claims. However, even after their death, there was a fear that their bodies could be resurrected, so he explains that in order to prevent resurrection, the heads or legs of the vampires' bodies were often removed, or the heads were placed on the ground and smashed with stones.

800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria stabbed through the chest with an iron rod. (credit: BIN IM GARTEN/CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria stabbed through the chest with an iron rod. (credit: BIN IM GARTEN/CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The scientific facts behind the vampire myth

For hundreds of years, people believed that there were creatures that in their lifetime were bitten by vampires and became vampires themselves, very pale creatures that fed on blood and that would die when exposed to sunlight. Which mysterious diseases are behind the myth that stirs people's imaginations to this day?

Dr. Idan Goren explains everything about the diseases that created one of the oldest myths in the world.

Xeroderma pigmentosum

Humans need sunlight to make vitamin D, but excessive exposure to UV rays can damage the skin. For people who suffer from the rare disease xeroderma pigmentosum, exposure to the sun is fatal, so it is not without reason that the disease is called "vampire syndrome."

People suffering from the disease must be fully protected from sunlight, or they may suffer severe damage. Exposure, even in small amounts, can lead to severe burns, dark spots on the skin, the appearance of many freckles and damage to the eyes. People with the disease have a thousand times greater risk of developing skin cancer than healthy people.

The rare hereditary disease is caused by a mutation in the enzymes that are responsible for repairing the genetic material in skin cells. Since those enzymes do not perform their role properly, the damage caused to the DNA by ultraviolet radiation is not repaired and skin cancer is formed.

Porphyria

One of the most popular theories about the origin of the myth is that it is based on the disease porphyria, which is not a single disease, but a range of defects in the process of producing hemoglobin – the substance that fills the body's red blood cells. The physical symptoms can include neurological ones as well as skin damage.

Late cutaneous porphyria (porphyria cutanea tarda) is the most common of the group of diseases that leads to the formation of blisters mainly on the back and hands after exposure to sunlight, even for a short time. The disease can also lead to damage to the lips and receding gums, which may explain both the vampires' well-known aversion to the sun and their menacing fangs.

Tuberculosis

Pulmonary tuberculosis caused by the tuberculosis bacterium was and still is a deadly threat in many parts of the world. One of the symptoms of active pulmonary tuberculosis is the emission of bloody sputum, occurring at what is considered the most contagious stage of the disease. The myth of the vampire spreading its vampirism by drinking blood may come from the fact that tuberculosis used to spread quickly and easily between people in the stage of active lung disease and bleeding from the mouth.

The natural process of lengthening nails and hair after death

Vampires are described in stories as figures with long hair and terrifying claws that sleep in coffins. A scientific explanation for this can come from observing bodies that have been in a coffin for some time.

As part of the processes that occur after death, secondary dehydration and loss of fluids occurs. The process causes the contraction and withdrawal of various tissues such as the skin, scalp and gums. The retraction can expose hair roots, nails and teeth more prominently and create the illusion that they have "grown" or "lengthened" after death, even though in reality they have not undergone any change.