Amid the chaos of a mass grave of plague victims, the 2006-2007 summer project team from the Archeoclub of Venice got a surprise. Among the dead they found evidence of belief in the undead, fear of the vampire.
So how do you stop the undead from feasting on the corpses in the mass grave? The sexton’s solution was to insert a brick in the mouth and get on with the rest of the burials. The fear was real. These sextons risked contagion to open the mouth of a decaying corpse in a plague pit to insert the brick (carefully enough not to break any teeth).
On 8 July 1468 the authorities of Venice passed a quarantine decree that sent plague victims to the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo for care and where the bodies were buried along a wall in mass graves. The excavation found two levels of skeletons: an older level with “postmortem fragmentation” and an upper level that was undisturbed. Devotional medals including the 1600 Jubilee medal dated the undisturbed bodies to the 17th century and the older level to the plague of 1576.
The body in question is that of the upper half of an adult female skeleton with a brick wedged in her mouth. Arrangement of the upper skeleton suggests burial in a shroud. The lower skeleton was probably destroyed by later burials. Analysis of the fill of the grave ruled out the brick working its way into the skull as the ground settled. There were no similar bricks or rocks in the grave trench. Forensic, odontogical, and chemical analysis of the skull and teeth indicates that this was an elderly woman of about 61 years old +/- 5 years of European descent (by DNA analysis) with old healed injuries who ate a primarily vegetarian diet indicating a lower social status. If the plague pit is representative of a cross- section of Venetian society, this woman would have been considered quite old. The bones and teeth revealed no signs of childhood disease or malnutrition.
Borrini and Nuzzolese (2010) hypothesize that the sextons revealed the shrouded remains of the old woman when digging a grave for a recent death. They believe that the body was still then shrouded except for the face which seemed to them to be eating the shroud. The sextons concluded that she was (or was becoming) a vampire or revenant (undead flesh eater) and employed the easiest method for preventing her from feasting on the dead by jamming an inedible object into her mouth.
So why did the sextons believe that this old woman was a vampire or more accurately a revenant? My understanding is that anthropologists currently credit the normal processes of decomposition for the traits of the vampire or revenant. Bloated corpses appeared to have feasted after death. Seeping red liquid from the mouth and nose contributed to the belief that they drank blood, though this is actually decomposition fluid. Fluid seeping from the mouth and nose of a decomposing corpse will cause the shroud above the face to decompose exposing the face. The exposed face through the partially decomposed shroud could look like it was trying to gnaw its way out of the shroud. Dehydration of the flesh also made it look like the hair and nails were continuing to grow. Ever-young, handsome, even sexy vampires are a completely modern creation that flow mostly from Bram Stoker’s Dracula published at the turn of the 20th century. Late medieval to early modern vampires/revenants were more like independent-minded, flesh-eating zombies.
In an even further departure from 17th century beliefs, could the discovery and press over this old woman have inspired the 16th century female vampires of Venice in last season’s Doctor Who? The “Vampires of Venice” episode was set during a plague in 1580 Venice. The mother vampire, the secular authority in Venice, uses the quarantine law and fear of the plague to keep people in Venice so that they can be prayed upon by her children.
Nuzzolese E, & Borrini M (2010). Forensic Approach to an Archaeological Casework of “Vampire” Skeletal Remains in Venice: Odontological and Anthropological Prospectus* Journal of forensic sciences PMID: 20707834
Interviews with Matteo Borrini on National Geographic Explorer: “Vampire Forensics” originally aired 2/23/2010.
Christine Dell’Amore, “Vampire of Venice” Unmasked: Plague Victim or Witch? National Geographic Daily News, February 26, 2010.
Daniel Flynn. March 12, 2009. “Vampire” unearthed in Venice plague grave. Reuters.