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Tales From the Crypt: Mystery of 'Vampire' Burials in Poland Is Solved

Just who were the corpses who were buried with sickles around their necks, or rocks at their jaws?
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/ Source: Live Science

The mystery behind several "vampire" burials in Poland has been solved.

People who were buried with sickles (curved, sharp farming knives) around their necks, or rocks at their jaws, to prevent their corpses from reanimating were natives to the area in which they were buried, according to a new study.

The fact that all the people buried as vampires were local suggests they may have been felled by a cholera epidemic that swept through the region, said study co-author Lesley Gregoricka, a bioarchaeologist at the University of South Alabama. [ 7 Strange Ways Humans Act Like Vampires ]

Image: The skull of the "Vampire of Venice"
The skull of the "Vampire of Venice" was found in a mass grave with a brick stuck in its jaw.Matteo Borrini

Tales of the dead coming back to life have truly ancient roots, going back to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians and beyond, said study co-author Tracy Betsinger, a bioarchaeologist at the State University of New York at Oneonta.

For all these stories of the dead coming back to life, "the word collectively used is a 'revenance,'" Betsinger told Live Science.

Gregoricka and her colleagues analyzed bone fragments from the Drawsko cemetery, a Polish site where vampire burials were found. The cemetery dates from the 17th to the 18th century, the researchers said. Some people at the site were buried with sickles under their necks or rocks under their jaws, to prevent them from reanimating. (The sickles were intended to decapitate the people if they tried to rise from the grave, while the rocks pinned their jaws shut so they weren't able to feed on the living, Gregoricka said.)

The researchers then took a closer look at 60 of the 333 burials from the site, six of which were "vampire" burials intended to prevent a corpse from reanimating. The team analyzed the ratio of strontium isotopes (versions of the atom with different numbers of neutrons) in the skeletons. Because each location has a unique ratio of these isotopes, and people's bodies naturally take the elements up from the environment, analyzing strontium isotope ratios can reveal where a person is from.

Contrary to the initial hypothesis that the "vampires" were immigrants, the team actually discovered that all of the vampires were locals.

The findings were published Wednesday (Nov. 26) in the journal PLOS ONE.

— Tia Ghose, Live Science

This is a condensed version of a eport from Live Science. Read the full report. Follow Tia Ghose on Twitter and Google+. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+.