Scythes and sickles have a very clear symbolic association for modern populations. The personification of death is traditionally pictured with a scythe (full size version pictured to the right) or sickle (the handheld version), a metaphorical link between the reaping of the crops and the taking of lives. Death also goes by the name of the Grim Reaper, shower an even closer connection to his role in harvesting lives for the afterlife. My personal favorite interpretation of Death is Terry Pratchett’s version, a sympathetic and not quite so omnipotent version of the character who has a family and a horse named Binky. Throughout Pratchett’s stories of Death, the scythe plays an important role not just in the daily duties that Death must fulfill, where the scythe is used to sever the soul from the physical body, but it also plays an important symbolic role in the perceptions of death within Discworld- when a New Death comes to replace the old Death, this newer version wields a scalpel like instrument instead of a scythe, perhaps hinting at the increased medicalization of death today and loss of understanding it as a natural phenomenon.
But why would you find a scythe or sickle used in a burial? Is it evidence that the Grim Reaper claimed this individual? A method of preventing vampires from rising from the grave? Or is there some symbolic meaning relating to farming?
A new article by Polcyn and Gajda (2015) examines the presence of sickles in early modern burials in Poland. Sickles were common for farming in this region from the 10th to 13th centuries CE, and were found in archaeological contexts relating to farming, or symbolic deposition near waterways and bridges. However, these tools decreased in usage and were not found as frequently into the Middle Ages. However, five burials from the Drawsko cemetery in Poland have sickles placed at the necks of the human remains. Traditionally, these graves have been interpreted as evidence of fear- potentially of vampiric like behavior from the deceased, with the sickles used to keep the dead from rising. However, Polcyn and Gajda (2015) argue that we need to independently assess the identities of these individuals in comparison to the other burials at the cemetery and determine alternative meanings of these sickle burials.
The cemetery of Drawsko was used around the 17th century, and is organized in the Christian tradition of east to west aligned burials. Of the over 250 individuals buried there, only five had evidence of sickles placed in their graves. These five unique burials were located in different areas of the cemetery and aligned in the same manner as the other burials. None of the five individuals showed evidence of traumatic injuries, bone deformation, disease or dietary deficiencies, and overall appear to be in fairly good health. All five were buried in wooden coffins. The individuals include a male aged 30-39 years, a female aged 14-19 years, a male aged 35-44, a female aged 35-39 and a female aged 50-60 years.
Sickles are found in other cemeteries- 72 sickles were uncovered in burials dating to the seventh to tenth centuries CE in south-west Slovakia, although these were found at different locations on the body, and there have been several graves from medieval Poland and Germany where sickles were found somewhere in the burial. The reason why this was done is not clear. There are four major interpretations of sickle burials: 1) evidence that the individual was a farmer, 2) symbol of wealth and higher status, 3) used as a weapon and symbolic of individual’s role as warrior, or 4) an anti-demonic magical item that protected the dead and living.
There is little evidence for the first three interpretations at Drawsko based on the other artifacts found in the graves and the individuals themselves. However, Polcyn and Gajda (2015) argue that “The placing of the sickle’s cutting blade across the throat of the deceased in the Drawsko burials clearly indicates a gesture of confinement of the deceased in the grave under the threat of slitting their throat. The magical and ritual meaning of this gesture seems beyond doubt.” They propose that it may have been used to hold the dead in the ground, but also aid in their transition to the afterlife. Despite the fact that they were buried in a Christian cemetery, from ethnographic evidence we know that parallel beliefs and superstitions persisted in rural areas. During periods of instability like famine, war and pestilence, these more ‘pagan’ beliefs would become increasingly apparent. Those buried with sickles may have died a ‘bad death’ during a period of instability, and the sickles were used to protect the dead and the living from demons or other negative forces.
As a clarification,Polcyn and Gajda (2015) emphasize that these are not like the ‘vampire’ burials found at this site and others in Poland. Unlike the ‘vampire’ burials, these were not re-opened, the bodies were not physically changed. Instead, these were acts done at the time of burial to aid in safe transition of the deceased into the afterlife and prevent negative forces, rather than the anti-vampire behavior which often took place after burial and in reaction to negative forces, not as a preventative.
Polcyn, M., & Gajda, E. (2015). Buried with sickles: early modern interments from Drawsko, Poland Antiquity, 89 (348), 1373-1387 DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2015.129