The dead were buried with sharp sickles across their throats meant to sever their heads if they tried to rise as vampires to prey on the living. Rocks were propped beneath their chins to keep them from biting.
This was the fate of at least six people buried sometime in the 17th and 18th centuries outside a farming village in northwestern Poland, according to a study published Wednesday in the online journal PLOS One.
Researchers have been methodically excavating unmarked graves at the mysterious cemetery, on a farm outside the village of Drawsko, for about six years, although the first bones were plowed up by farmers as far back as 1929. So far, experts have examined 285 human skeletons, finding only these six odd burials.
The "deviant" burial practices match historical records of vampire mythologies, which date at least to the 11th century, including written instructions about how to bury one, according to the study.
Why these half-dozen unfortunate dead were labeled vampires, however, is lost to history.
"Certain individuals were considered to be of increased risk of turning into a vampire, and so were targeted as they were buried," said Lesley Gregoricka, a bioarchaeologist at the University of South Alabama, in Mobile, who examined the skeletons.
"If you had maybe been accused of practicing witchcraft during your life, if you were unbaptized or didn't have a Christian burial, if you suffered a violent death — there were multiple reasons why you might have been targeted," she said.
Researchers used dental chemistry to rule out the possibility that the six were ostracized in part because they were outsiders. The researchers measured a balance of isotopes of strontium, a natural element found in plants and animals that is processed and stored like calcium in tooth enamel. Those ratios suggest that the vampire suspects ate the same diet as the rest of those buried at the cemetery, and thus probably lived in the village or nearby, the study found.
What made the six social "outsiders" and suspected vectors of evil was probably disease, the researchers believe.
There is no church associated with the site, which dates to a time when Catholicism dominated the belief system (with some obvious tolerance of vampire beliefs). Some coffins also seem ill-fitting, as if they were hastily assembled in response to an urgent need, the researchers found.
But other aspects of mass graveyards are absent — the ages when people were buried don't match the usual demographics of disease victims, which are skewed toward the very young and very old. So researchers have nuanced their interpretation of the cemetery as a general burial zone that perhaps experienced waves of cholera deaths.
Long before the advent of the germ theory of disease, a mysterious and deadly epidemic probably was attributed to evil spirits operating through its earliest victims, according to the new hypothesis.
"The idea was that the first person to die of an epidemic was becoming a vampire, rising from the grave, attacking the living and spreading the disease," Gregoricka said. "They believed that's how cholera was spread — through vampires."
Researchers found coins among those buried with the sickles or scythes, but such coins, along with St. Benedict medallions, were common in many other burials there. Visible dates — 1661 on one of them — offer at least a lower limit to the burial timeline. In addition, historical records show that cholera epidemics swept through the area about the same time.
The six deviant burials involved four females (one late adolescent and three adult), an adult male and a younger person whose gender was not determined, according to the report. That's not enough to establish any pattern based on age or sex, the researchers noted.
There were no obvious signs of other causes of death, such as trauma or congenital deformation, the study said.
In fact, the residents were quite healthy, Gregoricka said. At least, that is, until they shuffled off their mortal coil.