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Leszek Gardełaa - Kamil Kajkowskib: Vampires, criminals or slaves? Reinterpreting ‘deviant burials’ in early medieval Poland Vampires, criminals or slaves? Reinterpreting ‘deviant burials’ in early medieval Poland

Leszek Gardełaa - Kamil Kajkowskib, Vampires, criminals or slaves? Reinterpreting ‘deviant burials’ in early medieval Poland Vampires, criminals or slaves? Reinterpreting ‘deviant burials’ in early medieval Poland, World Archaeology Volume 45, Issue 5, 2013, p. 780-796.


Unusual funerary behaviour is now an exciting area of research in Central and Western European archaeology. In Poland, since the first half of the twentieth century, finds of atypical or deviant burials have been almost exclusively interpreted as evidence for so-called ‘anti-vampire’ practices, intended to prevent the dead from rising, haunting and hurting the living. In the last decade or so, new attempts have been made, especially in the UK, to develop more sophisticated understandings of deviant burials, and to perceive them not only in the context of popular superstition, but also with regard to judicial practices. Inspired by these new developments, this paper offers a range of new interpretations of deviant burials from early medieval Poland with a focus on burials where people were buried in a prone position, decapitated or covered with stones.


In 1957 Bonifacy Zielonka published an article that described a range of puzzling burials which he had found in the region of Kuyavia, Poland. Among them was the grave of a female in a prone position and that of a decapitated man whose head was placed between his legs. While discussing the latter grave, Zielonka mentions that one of the workers on the excavation thought it to be the burial of a ‘witch’ (in Polish strzyga) – a rather sensationalist interpretation, but one with which Zielonka (1957, 21–3) appears to have agreed. The works of Zielonka (1957, 1958) are among the first academic studies of ‘deviant burials’ in Polish archaeological literature and today, from the perspective of more than fifty years of study, it is clear that they had a significant impact on this fascinating, yet problematic field of research.
In subsequent years, evidence for early medieval funerary practices that deviate from the norm has been noted in different parts of Poland and at cemeteries that range in date between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. In the majority of excavation reports, articles and monographs, however, interpretations are rather limited and until recently scholars almost always argued that unusual graves contained people who, it was feared, would become revenants or ‘vampires’ (e.g. Falis 2008; Porzeziński 2008; Stanaszek 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001; Zoll-Adamikowa 1971: 47–54 contra Żydok 2004). The ‘vampiric’ interpretation of unusual burials from Poland has become dogma and remains largely unchallenged.
In the last few years, however, a new branch of ‘judicial archaeology’ has developed in Poland (e.g. Duma 2010; Grabaczyk 2008; Wojtucki 2009; but see also articles published in the journal Pomniki Dawnego Prawa devoted to the study of early-modern legal culture in Poland and beyond). With a particular focus on the archaeology of law and legal culture in all of its aspects – from the study of execution sites and their specific penitential devices (e.g. gallows, stocks, etc.), through analyses of burials of criminals, to an acknowledgement of the wider social context of judicial practices in the Middle Ages or the early-modern period – this new field of research has filled a significant niche in our understandings of Poland’s past. In our view, these new studies have also had a significant impact on the perception of early medieval ‘deviant burials’ and on refining traditional interpretations.

Our aim in this article, therefore, is to provide a brief overview of so-called ‘atypical’ or ‘deviant’ burial practices in early medieval Poland and to attempt to set these burials into a wider social and especially judicial context. In our discussion we seek to verify the validity of previous views that promote the apparently ‘anti-vampire/apotropaic’ nature of deviant mortuary behaviour and to propose new ways of perceiving these intriguing phenomena.

Deviant burials in early medieval Poland: The Current State of Research

Over the last decade or so there has been an increased interest in the notion of deviant burials in Europe and beyond (e.g. Dzieduszycki and Wrzesiński 2012; Gardeła and Kajkowski 2013; Murphy 2008; Reynolds 2009; Skóra and Kurasiński 2010). With a growing literature concerning this phenomenon, unusual mortuary practices are now being considered in a much wider theoretical, chronological and geographical perspective than ever before. This situation offers an opportunity to challenge and refine previous, often mono-thematic interpretations. Before we attempt such in the Polish context, a few remarks need to be made on the history of research into this subject in that region.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the dominant view in European archaeology was that atypical graves evidenced either clumsy mortuary practices or funerals that involved special rituals intended to protect the living from the dead (see a summary of these debates in the German and Anglophone world in Aspöck 2008). In Polish archaeological publications from the 1950s onwards, ‘atypical burials’ (in Polish pochówki atypowe) – a term synonymous with ‘deviant burials’, but used more commonly in Poland – were almost exclusively interpreted as apotropaic practices intended to prevent the dead from rising. The most common atypical graves in early medieval cemeteries in Poland are: 1) prone burials, 2) decapitated corpses and 3) bodies covered with stones. Very occasionally bodies were interred with sharp metal objects or wooden stakes piercing/holding them down (see, for example, grave 3 from Złota Pińczowska where a man was buried on his side and had a knife stuck in his spine [Miśkiewicz 1967, 96, 98] or grave 110 from Stary Zamek where a female was buried prone and pinned down with stakes [Wachowski 1992, 19, 90–1]) (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 Selected ‘deviant burials’ from early medieval Poland: 1) Grave 3 from Złota Pińczowska: a man buried on the side with an iron knife stuck in his spine (redrawn after Miśkiewicz 1967, 98); 2) Grave 110 from Stary Zamek: a woman buried in a prone position and probably held down with wooden stakes (redrawn after Wachowski 1992, 90); 3) Grave 146 from Cedynia: a decapitated man with the head placed between the feet; notice the three stones in the head area (redrawn after Porzeziński 2008, 28); 4) Grave 47 from Radom: a man buried on the side and covered with large stones (redrawn after Gąssowski 1950, table 76).

In Polish archaeology the word ‘vampire’ (in Polish wampir) was probably first used in the 1950s to describe an early medieval grave (47) from Radom where a man buried on his side had his corpse covered with large stones (Gąssowski 1950, 321–2) (Fig. 1). The problematic term ‘anti-vampire burial’, introduced in the 1970s, was not extensively theorized or elaborated, but used as a ‘throwaway comment’ in discussion of unusual inhumation graves in Helena Zoll-Adamikowa’s influential publication on Slavic mortuary practices (1971, 47–54). In our view, the term ‘anti-vampire burial’ became widely used as Zoll-Adamikowa’s authoritative work became a cornerstone for research on Slavic burial practices.
Perceiving non-normative burials as vampires, however, is highly problematic with regard to the early medieval period and the area of Poland specifically. This is not the place to discuss terminological notions in detail, but there is no evidence that early medieval Western Slavs referred to revenants or living dead as ‘vampires’. In all probability they did not know this term at that time (e.g. Barber 2010; Petoia 2004).
From the late 1990s onwards, articles by Łukasz Maurycy Stanaszek (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001) and Przemysław Żydok (2004) collated the growing corpus of unusual burials in early medieval Poland. While both scholars were very successful in gathering empirical data, their interpretations were limited, with practically no attempt made to place the material in broader theoretical and cross-cultural contexts. Nevertheless, the publications of Stanaszek and Żydok are today regarded as ‘classic’ works in Poland and are frequently referenced when new finds of atypical burials are made (e.g. in Lubień - see Kurasiński and Skóra 2012, 37–41).
Originally, the Western Slavs who inhabited this area of Europe tended to cremate their dead (Kostrzewski 1960). By the late tenth century, after the adoption of Christianity in Poland, the most common burial rite was inhumation in a supine position (e.g. Miśkiewicz 1969; Rębkowski 2007). The majority of burials were orientated W-E and occasionally accompanied by grave goods (e.g. jewellery, vessels or weapons). In this context any ‘deviation’ – such as prone burial, decapitation, the placement of stones on the cadaver, etc. – is obscure. In a key article on atypical burial practices, Żydok (2004, 44) provided a list of categories perceived as ‘deviant’ from normative funerary behaviour in early medieval Poland including:
Decapitated burials (sometimes with the skull placed between the legs)
Perforated/pierced skulls (with a sharp instrument, perhaps an iron nail)
Knives, stakes or other sharp objects stuck in the body
Stones, clay or coins in the mouth of the deceased
Prone burials
Stoned burials (large stones placed directly on the body)
Flexed burials
Burials of individuals with cut off or broken limbs
Burials in marginal areas
Lack of grave goods
Unusual orientation of the grave
Partial cremation of the deceased
Reopened burials.

Żydok (2004, 44–5) encouraged caution in interpreting all of these categories as evidence for ‘anti-vampire’ practices. He argued that, although they differed from Christian funerary norms, not all could be related to popular beliefs in revenants or reflect intentional apotropaic practices. In contrast to previous interpretations, which tended to identify potential burials of revenants according to the number of ‘atypical rites’ employed within the grave (e.g. Stanaszek 1998, 21; Zoll-Adamikowa 1971, 52), Żydok emphasized the ‘quality’ of such rites, rather than the quantity. For example, for Żydok, decapitated burials were a more explicit indicator of ‘revenant’ status than burial in a marginal area of a cemetery.
In our view, the ‘quantitative criterion’ proposed by Stanaszek (1998) and Zoll-Adamikowa (1971) and the ‘qualitative criterion’ proposed by Żydok (2004) are both too simplistic or reductionist to be followed, because they ignore the individuality and uniqueness of each burial and pay no regard to broader social, spatial and chronological contexts. Such views are characteristic of culture-historical approaches in archaeology and adhere to the conviction that graves and their contents directly ‘mirror’ the deceased person’s status in life. Similarly anachronistic approaches have been heavily criticized in recent studies of mortuary practices (e.g. Sayer and Williams 2009; Williams and Sayer 2009; Williams 2006) and we agree that they should also be abandoned in investigations of deviant burials.
Changes in the perception of atypical burials in Poland appeared following Daniel Wojtucki’s (2009) monograph on late medieval and early-modern execution sites in Lower Silesia. Wojtucki focused on textual evidence and archaeological materials of the fourteenth century and later, when public execution sites began to appear in Poland. He included a brief discussion of the notion of so-called ‘vampire burials’ (Wojtucki 2009, 211–13) where he argued – on the basis of sixteenth-century and later archives from Silesia and Lusatia – that the dead who were believed to have turned into malevolent revenants or phantoms were often removed from graves at ‘normal’ cemeteries and interred at gallows sites. Wojtucki also noted that, if this act proved unsuccessful and hauntings still continued, cadavers might be again dug up and then cremated with the ashes thrown into a river.
Wojtucki notes that interpreting atypical graves requires considerable caution. He observed that, while the majority of such graves have been seen as those of vampires or Wiedergängers, textual accounts of early-modern anti-vampire practices from Silesia and Lusatia indicate that the majority of cases were cremated instead of being interred in a deviant way. This may imply that decapitations or bodies lying prone should rather be considered in the context of judicial practices or other social deviancy (for example, suicides).
Another important work on atypical burials in Poland is Paweł Duma’s (2010) archaeological study of late medieval and early-modern funerary practices associated with criminals, suicides and newborn children. Similarly to Wojtucki, Duma also postulated the necessity of considering deviant burials in a judicial context and advised a wider acknowledgement of folkloristic and archival historical sources (e.g. legal records).
In addition to the articles and monographs cited above, it is worth adding that the notion of unusual funerary practices has been the subject of several interdisciplinary conferences organized in Poland over the last decade or so (Dzieduszycki and Wrzesiński 2012; Gardeła and Kajkowski 2013; Skóra and Kurasiński 2010; Wrzesiński 2000, 2008).

The genesis of deviant burials in early medieval Poland

 Although much has been written about deviant burials in early medieval Poland, their genesis is difficult to unravel and remains a matter of intense debate (see summary in Żydok 2004, 57–63). Some scholars suggest that they emerged after the adoption of Christianity in the mid-tenth century, others propose that they could be associated with deeply rooted and prevailing pagan practices (Żydok 2004, 57). A further view sees deviant burials as the result of an ideological clash between local Slavic customs and Christian ones (e.g. Zoll-Adamikowa 1995, 125) and the popular fear that had the body not been cremated the dead would become restless and harm the living.
No Slavic deviant graves have been noted from the area of Poland from before the tenth century. This is probably because the funerary practices of the early Slavs in this area involved only cremation (Kostrzewski 1960; Zoll-Adamikowa 1975, 1979) and it is extremely difficult (or practically impossible) to trace evidence for unusual treatment of the dying or the dead (for example, involving mutilation of the body) from cremated bones. The question of whether atypical burial practices were conducted among the Slavs before the introduction of Christianity in Poland must, at least for now, remain open.
While the majority of scholars associate inhumation graves with Christianization, a range of new interpretations have appeared in recent years. According to these latest studies (e.g. Rębkowski 2007, 57, 156) both cremation and inhumation may have been practised in some areas even before Christianity was introduced. Similar arguments inspired Kajkowski (2012) who examined atypical Polish inhumation burials with regard to their landscape context and their spatial location. Kajkowski observed that some of these graves were found in marginal areas or in the very centres of cemeteries. He suggested that the people interred in these places in a deviant way were purposefully executed to ‘sanctify’ the newly established burial ground or perhaps ritually murdered and sacrificed in times of social crisis.
Having briefly examined the history of changing interpretations of atypical burials in Poland, we now take a closer look at selected categories and offer some alternative views. We focus our attention on only a few ‘types’ of deviant burials (including prone burials, decapitations and stoned burials), but offer brief remarks on other variants.

Prone burials

Prone burials are known from various cultural milieus and areas around the world. In early medieval Europe they are known, for example, among the Anglo-Saxons (e.g. Hirst 1985; Reynolds 2009), Scandinavians (e.g. Gardeła 2011, 47–50, 2012a, 2013a, 114–17, 2013b, 111–13) and Slavs (for a new comprehensive analysis, see Gardeła 2011, 2012b). They are among the most debated types of deviant burials and, in contrast to other unusual funerary practices, they are found in a broad range of textual and folkloristic sources from the early Middle Ages (e.g. Reynolds 2009, 69) up to the twentieth century.
Prone burials in Poland are found between the tenth and thirteenth centuries at both churchyard and non-churchyard cemeteries. They are almost all single graves, mostly adult men, with occasional females (e.g. Wachowski 1992, 90–1). By contrast to early medieval England or Viking-Age Scandinavia (e.g. Andersen 1995; Gardeła 2013b, 111–13) no examples of superimposed prone burials are known in Poland. The majority of prone burials from early medieval Poland do not contain grave goods, although two female prone burials were furnished with artefacts (grave 2 from Gwiazdowo and grave 110 from Stary Zamek: Rajewski 1937, 33, 54, 68–9; Wachowski 1992, 90–1). A few individuals buried prone were also subject to decapitation, although none of these was then covered with stones. No prone burials have been found in coffins, although some individuals buried face-down – for example Poznań Śródka – may have been wrapped in shrouds (e.g. Gardeła 2012b, 35; Paweł Pawlak personal communication).
Among the most intriguing and exceptional of Polish prone burials is grave 2 from Gwiazdowo, belonging to a young woman (Gardeła 2011, 41; Rajewski 1937, 33, 54, 68–9). She had her head to the south and her face towards the west, and three temple rings (a typical Slavic head-ornament) of lead were found with her: two by her left temple and one by the right scapula. An iron knife in a leather scabbard decorated with bronze foil lay in the grave, while a bronze finger-ring of bronze and a small silver ring lay below the woman’s ribs. It is puzzling that, despite being accompanied by such a broad range of objects, the woman was buried in a non-normative way. If such a grave was found in an Anglo-Saxon context, it would probably be regarded as a ‘cunning-woman’ (e.g. Hirst 1985, 40–3). This interpretation is difficult to support in a Slavic context as textual evidence for female ‘ritual specialists’ is scarce in early medieval Poland and we know nothing about how these individuals (if they existed at all) were treated at death.
Prone burials are not recorded in medieval texts from Poland, but there is a considerable body of folklore from later periods that describes such practice in detail and which offers some ideas about meanings (Gardeła 2011:, 51–3; Wojtucki 2009). The most famous Polish account, Casus de strigis, describes an event in 1674 (Zielonka 1957, 21–2), when a local community was haunted by a man who after his death became a strzyga and who apparently drank human blood. A priest ordered his people to reopen the man’s grave and turn his body face-down. Unfortunately this action was ineffective, since the notorious revenant rose up from his grave again and on the very night of his reburial he beat his son to death. Afterwards, it was decided that the strzyga’s grave should be dug up again and his head cut off. The act of decapitation finally restored peace to the local community.
While many of the written accounts imply that prone burials were associated with individuals whose return from the world of the dead was particularly feared, there is also textual evidence which suggests that laying the body ‘face down’ could have signalled notions of shame or that it reflected an act of post-mortem atonement (e.g. Koperkiewicz 2010; Reynolds 2009, 69, mentions the prone burial of Pepin the Short). Laying the body face down (and also carrying it like this to the cemetery) may also have reflected the widespread fear of the deceased person’s ‘evil eye’ (Hocart 1938; Lykiardopoulos 1981) – a fatal gaze that could even invoke someone’s death. Furthermore, taking into consideration evidence from late medieval and early-modern execution sites (for Polish examples, see Duma 2010; Wojtucki 2009), where prone burials are often encountered, it could be argued that certain burials need not reflect popular superstition, but instead result from quick and perhaps clumsy funerary procedures and the executioners’ and undertakers’ contempt for the criminal.
In conclusion, we suggest that labelling all early medieval prone burials from Poland as revenants is unwise and that a more individual and contextual approach is necessary.


Evidence for decapitation occurs relatively frequently among deviant burials from early medieval Poland. Generally, three variants can be distinguished: 1) burials without skulls (i.e. where the skull of the deceased is missing, but the rest of the postcranial skeleton is present), 2) burials of skulls only (i.e. with no traces of postcranial skeleton), 3) burials where skulls have been removed from a particular grave and later reburied elsewhere or within the same grave structure. The majority of decapitation burials are single burials, but there is evidence for decapitation in double graves (e.g. grave 256/01 from Kałdus – see below). In virtually all cases of decapitation the heads were removed prior to burial and in only one case, grave 1 from Dębczyno (see below), is there the possibility of a grave having been reopened to remove the skull.
It is impossible to scrutinize the entire corpus of decapitation burials in this brief article, but we present below some of the most intriguing examples (for more detailed discussions, see Kajkowski 2012, 2013). Many decapitation graves were excavated a long time ago and poorly documented, in many cases without plans or photographs. Such graves are usually of marginal importance in cemetery publications, with skeletal materials rarely subject to detailed anthropological analyses. All of these features limit interpretations.
The cemetery of Jabłończ Wielki (site 1) in Eastern Pomerania is characteristic of sites where evidence for decapitation has been observed. In the fill of one of its burial mounds (no. 3) two circles formed from pebbles were found. The southern circle contained human limbs and a skull, with the skeletal material deposited in a disorderly manner in a ‘chest-like structure’ formed of stones. To the east lay two other stone chambers, one including a human skull. A further human skull was found between these chambers. A similar situation was observed in burial mound no. 4, where, in its southern part, a small stone structure was found which included a human skull (Zoll-Adamikowa 1975, 96–9).
Equally puzzling practices have been noted at the cemetery of Dębczyno (site 53). Grave 1, in the southern part of the cemetery, contained a female aged 45–50 and stratigraphic evidence showed that, after the body was interred and covered with soil, the grave was then reopened and as many as three pits dug. The first pit was located in the head area, the second in the area of the feet and the third in the area of the chest. The woman’s skull was removed and placed face down in the third pit (Sikorski 2000, 129–30).
A peculiar double grave (grave 256/01) of a male and a female was discovered at the early medieval cemetery of Kałdus (site 4). The man was decapitated, as implied by cut-marks on his vertebrae and the dislocation of his skull. Anthropological analyses revealed numerous breaks and cuts on his skull and mandible. The woman buried with him was not decapitated, but one of her collarbones was broken (Kozłowski 2010, 53). While this grave is unique in early medieval Poland, examples of decapitation in double graves have been noted at several sites in Viking-Age Denmark (e.g. grave FII from Stengade in Langeland, Denmark: Skaarup 1976, 56–8). It is often argued that the decapitated individuals in Viking-Age double graves were slaves ritually murdered and buried with their masters (Gardeła 2013b). Perhaps the grave from Kałdus reflects a similar situation in a Slavic context.
Earlier in this paper, we noted decapitation as a measure to ensure that the dead would not rise from their graves. While this is indeed plausible, other explanations can be explored, especially judicial decapitation. The most explicit examples that may be linked to the notion of capital punishment are finds of decapitated skulls with pierced holes (probably made with a sharp instrument, most likely an iron nail). The presence of holes suggest that the skulls/heads may have originally been attached to buildings, posts or other structures – perhaps as a form of punishment and serving as a warning for others against committing crimes.
A probable example of the above situation may be found in a grave from Wolin in Western Pomerania, which contained a decapitated man, who lay in a pit just long enough to contain the headless body (Cnotliwy 1961, 186–90), implying that the man’s head was cut off before he was interred. Additionally, at the foot-end of the grave, between the legs of the deceased, remains of a wooden post were identified. On the basis of the grave’s stratigraphy, it has been argued that the post originally stood above ground and would have been visible on the top of the hill where the cemetery was located (Cnotliwy 1961, 289–90). Perhaps the man’s missing head was nailed to that post to warn others from committing crimes?
When archaeological evidence for decapitation (from sites interpreted as pagan sanctuaries or temples) is placed alongside textual sources (especially those referring to the area of Polabia), the practice of cutting off human or animal heads is frequently seen in a religious or sacral context (Kajkowski 2013). In fact, certain written accounts suggest that decapitation may have been a punishment for violating rules or social norms among pagan societies. Furthermore, it is important to observe that cutting off the head might represent no more than punishment, but that the severed head may later have played a role in cultic and/or ritual practices. The most representative case for such notions is the martyrdom of Bishop John – described in Adam of Bremen’s Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Tschan 2002) and in Helmold’s Chronica Sclavorum (Strzelczyk 1974). According to these sources, John undertook his mission to convert the pagan Slavs to Christianity and was caught by them in Mechlin (Meklemburg) and later transported to the central cult-place of the Obodrites in Rethra. As a captive on his way to the pagan sanctuary, he was taken from settlement to settlement where he was mocked by the crowds and beaten with cudgels. In the end, the bishop was decapitated in Rethra and his hands and feet also cut off. The pagan reaction towards Bishop John resulted from his attempts at preaching Christian faith, which violated local custom. It is noteworthy that the bishop’s head was stuck on a spear and sacrificed to the local god – Redigast – in token of the Slavs’ victory.
In conclusion, we suggest that decapitation, occasionally combined with mutilation and severing of other body parts, was conducted only in exceptional situations. On the basis of the available sources, we suggest that decapitation may have been conducted in cases of sacrilege – when certain structures, objects or perhaps social values were profaned. Perhaps profanation of the sacred had to be tamed or neutralized through visually striking acts, with decapitation deemed sufficiently powerful for this purpose. Beyond the legal context, decapitation may have been a way of ensuring that the suspicious dead would not rise from their graves.

Stoned burials

A survey of stoned burials from early medieval Poland, dated to between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, identified more than twenty graves where stones of different shapes, types and sizes had been purposefully thrown or placed directly on the bodies of the deceased (Gardeła 2012a, 188–97). This analysis showed that placing stones on cadavers was predominantly associated with male individuals, with only a few early medieval female graves of this kind. During the act of burial, stones were usually placed (or thrown) on the chest, legs and feet of the deceased. At the Cedynia cemetery in Western Pomerania, stones were used as substitutes for the missing heads of the deceased, with the exception of an intriguing grave (146) where the head was laid at the feet and three stones were placed above the neck (Malinowska-Łazarczyk 1982, 38) (Figs 1 and 2). To our knowledge – in contrast to examples noted from Viking-Age Scandinavia and early medieval England – the stoning of bodies in Poland is never combined with prone burial. The spatial location of these ‘stoned burials’ is varied and they may be found in both churchyard and non-churchyard cemeteries.

Figure 2 Artists’ reconstruction of grave 146 from Cedynia (drawing by Mirosław Kuźma. © Leszek Gardeła and Mirosław Kuźma).

Acts of stoning in a Polish context are recorded in a few medieval chronicles (Gołdyn 2006; Grabarczyk 2008,104–5) and, while Viking-Age stoning seems to have been a punishment for malevolent sorcery (Gardeła 2012a, 2013a), none of the sources that refer to stoning in Poland implies that it was directed against magic workers. One example of stoning is recorded in the Kronika polska of Gallus Anonymous, who describes a pagan revolt in Poland in the first half of the eleventh century (Grodecki 2008). The chronicler reports that Slavs who converted back from Christianity to paganism rose against the bishops and priests and killed them with the use of their swords and stones (Kronika polska I, 19, Kostrzewski 1949, 490; Kuczkowski 2009, 14). Gallus also remarks that for the Slavs death by the sword was regarded as honourable, while stoning was quite the contrary. Certain textual sources also suggest that stoning was a punishment directed against traitors (Gołdyn 2006, 128).
In our view, placing/throwing stones on the bodies of the deceased in early medieval Poland may have had several functions and meanings. It is necessary, therefore, to provide more sophisticated interpretations than simply labelling all such graves as those of revenants. While it is likely that in some cases stones were intended to prevent the dead from rising, in other instances they may have served different purposes. For example, placing stones on cadavers may have protected them from the intrusion of robbers or animals. Placing stones around the head might relate to Christian funerary custom according to which the deceased should be buried facing east, towards the rising sun (a symbol of the resurrected Christ). Stones around the head would therefore support it and ensure that the deceased was facing the right way, while awaiting resurrection (Pytlak 2009, 25).
Placing stones on the neck or under the head may have held ambivalent meanings. On the one hand, it could have been intended to prevent the jaw of the deceased from dropping, ensuring that the body would be displayed at the funeral in an aesthetic way. On the other hand, it is likely that some instances of this practice may relate to a belief shared by the Slavs (though known only from very late folkloristic accounts) that corpses with an open mouth are likely to become ‘living dead’ (Barber 2010, 36). In popular beliefs, such ‘living dead’ tend to consume their clothes or bodies (Wyrwa 2008, 56) and therefore the mouths of the deceased must be closed.

Evidence for hanging, reopened graves and other deviant burial practices

We have now discussed three types of deviant burials in early medieval Poland (for a map of their locations, see Fig. 3) and suggested possibilities for interpreting them in a judicial context. A few brief remarks should also be made about other variants of unusual funerary practices in addition to the specific ways and devices employed in executing criminals.

   Figure 3 Map of Poland with the locations of archaeological sites including deviant burials mentioned in this article (map by Leszek Gardeła).

According to Witold Maisel (1982, 111) the gallows is the oldest penitentiary device used in the Polish lands and the earliest textual descriptions are known from the tenth century. In addition to the work of the Arabic writer Ibn Rusteh, Polish gallows are mentioned in written accounts by, for example, Gallus Anonymous, Wincenty Kadłubek and Jan Długosz (Maisel 1982, 111). Maisel wrote that in Poland mainly thieves were executed by hanging (1982, 113; similarly Kostrzewski 1949, 488). While gallows from late medieval Poland were often constructed from stone (e.g. Wojtucki 2009), criminals could also have been hanged on gallows comprising wooden pillars or simply trees (Maisel 1982, 112, 114). Among the so-called ‘atypical burials’ from early medieval Poland, it is hard to find examples that may have belonged to individuals who died by hanging. It is much easier to identify examples from later times, since from the late Middle Ages we note the emergence of separate execution sites, which at the same time served as special cemeteries intended for criminals (e.g. Duma 2010; Wojtucki 2009).
Finally, a few comments are offered on graves in which certain body parts are either misplaced or missing. These may bear witness to reopening or ‘grave robbery’ – a theme which has recently been given significant scholarly attention in Western European archaeology (e.g. Aspöck 2011; Klevnäs 2010). A range of graves from early medieval Poland appear to have been reopened or disturbed. So far, these graves have not been subject to academic scrutiny, but they have great potential for the understanding of past funerary practices (an international conference on grave robbery and exhumation is to be held in Poland, organized by the authors of the present paper in 2014, as the second instalment of the International Interdisciplinary Meetings ‘Motifs through the Ages’). From the perspective of ‘the archaeology of legal culture’ it is not unlikely that missing limbs (or sometimes heads) from these graves could have been attached to posts set up within the cemetery to serve as visual statements and warnings against committing crimes (e.g. Maisel 1982, 304). It is also possible that body parts were taken purposefully, being believed to have supernatural qualities.

Conclusions and future research avenues

With the exception of the accounts considered above describing the brutal treatment of Christian clergy by pagan folk, it remains undetermined who, when and under what circumstances held the responsibility for punishing individuals for crimes in early medieval Poland. Perhaps such decisions were made by special authorities at markets (Boroń 1999, 89) and assemblies (e.g. Kostrzewski 1949, 488–90) or it is possible that sometimes (as in Viking-Age Scandinavia, for example) violent executions were a spontaneous act of ungoverned popular justice (e.g. Ström 1942). Unfortunately, written accounts of Slavic assemblies are scarce (e.g. Boroń 1999) and none mentions convicts or their treatment. We do know, however, that assemblies were solemn (even sacral) events that demanded appropriate behaviour from their participants. Textual sources suggest that individuals who misbehaved or disagreed with the decisions of the majority could have been subject to punishment or ostracism (Boroń 1999, 84–5, 101–2). This detail might potentially offer another, previously unexplored, possibility for interpreting deviant burials – they may have belonged to people who disagreed with the decisions of the assembly or who misbehaved during such gatherings.
In this article we hope to have shed new light on unusual mortuary behaviour in early medieval Poland, although the full potential of the material is yet to be explored.


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