“Vampire” Unearthed

April 8, 2009

An archaeological dig not far from Venice resulted in an Associated Press story by Ariel David, “Remains found in Italy of female ‘vampire’” (   Buffalo News , March 14, 2009). The skeletonized remains were those of a woman who had a brick jammed between her jaws—apparent evidence of an exorcism intended to starve the supposed vampire.

The skeleton was unearthed in 2006 on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, north of Venice. It was found in a mass grave dating from 1576—at which time Venice was struck by an epidemic of plague (claiming, among many others, the celebrated Renaissance artist Titian). Venice used the island as a quarantine area during the epidemic.

From the Middle Ages, belief in vampires was augmented by the appearance of decomposing corpses, encountered when the mass graves were reopened for the interment of the newly dead. The older corpses were typically bloated and had blood seeping from the mouth; often there was an unexplained hole in the shroud covering the corpse’s face. These were held to be evidence of a vampire’s drinking of others’ blood and consuming his own shroud.

Forensic science now shows that the bloating and blood were due to the effects of decomposition. The bloating resulted from a buildup of gasses, while the bloody fluid in the mouth had been forced upward by decomposing organs. Also, the hole in the shroud was caused by bacteria from the mouth area, according to forensic archaeologist and anthropologist Matteo Borrini.

As I discovered in my investigation of reputed vampire graves in New England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (see   Skeptical Inquirer , March/April 2009), epidemics were invariably behind vampire scares there as well. A stricken person’s lethargy, pale appearance, coughing of blood, and contagiousness, although actually due to consumption, were attributed to parasitic vampires. And blood found at the mouth of a suspected vampire’s corpse that had been exhumed was considered evidence of vampiric feeding. Now, as scientific knowledge advances, we can expect that belief in vampires—a belief still ghoulishly present in certain superstitious cultures—will eventually pass.