Monday 21 May 2012

Lively Debate over 'Vampire' Skeleton

'We all know about archaeological finds that get sensationalized and distorted by the media. What kind of obligation do archaeologists have to try to correct such stories? Should we ignore them? Perhaps they are not important in the larger scheme of scholarship. Perhaps we think that trying to correct them would be futile. Or should we try to correct the record? I occasionally try to address media errors when its a topic I know well and can speak with authority, although my success rate (with letters to the editor, etc.) has not been very high.'

So wrote archaeologist Michael E. Smith on his blog, Publishing Archaeology, in 2009 when he published an e-mail from bioarchaeologist Anastasia Tsaliki expressing a sceptical attitude towards the 'vampire' find in Venice. Tsaliki herself is author of Vampires Beyond Legend: A Bioarchaeological Approach. In M. La Verghetta and L. Capasso (eds.), Proceedings of the XIII European Meeting of the Paleopathology Association, Chieti, Italy, 18-23 Sept. 2000, Edigrafital S.p.A: Teramo- Italy, 295-300.

I have myself expressed some concern, cf. also this post, about the popular presentation of the archaeological find of a 'vampire' by Borrini and his colleagues, but have so far not written about their original paper on the subject, Forensic Approach to an Archaeological Casework of "Vampire" Skeletal Remains in Venice: Odontological and Anthropological Prospectus by Emilio Nuzzolese and Matteo Borrini, published in November 2010 in The Journal of Forensic Sciences (Vol. 55, No. 6, p. 1634-7). In it the deceased individual in question, i.e. the old woman, is referred to as 'ID 6'. The authors find that 'the insertion of the brick into the dead woman's mouth must be considered intentional,' and that 'this practice probably had a symbolic and ritual value, that the sextons working in the graveyard during the plague handled the corpse this way, despite the danger of infection.'

In conclusion, Nuzzolese and Borrini: 'assume that during the digging of a hole in the ground for a person who had just died of the plague, the gravediggers cut off the ID 6 deposition. They noticed the shroud (its presence is suggested by the verticalization of the clavicle) and a hole, which corresponded with the mouth. As the body appeared as quite intact, they probably recognized in that body the so-called vampire, responsible for plague by chewing her shroud. As a consequence, they inserted a brick in her mouth. The sequence of those events (time since death) can be deduced by the lack of alteration on the skeleton joints, so that we can suppose that the gravediggers dealt with the corpse when it was not disjointed yet. The insertion of the brick into the mouth at the time of the primary deposition can be ruled out because we have no reference, even folkloric, for such a practice in that historical and cultural context.

It is not strange that superstitions concerning vampires were widespread in the 16th to 17th centuries even in a "cosmopolitan" and evolved city like Venice. It is surprising, however, that this exorcism ritual has been clearly recognized in an archaeological context: the ID 6 grave could well be the first "vampire" burial archaeologically attested and studied by a forensic odontological and anthropological approach.'

From Minozzi, Fornaciari and Fornaciari (J Forensic Sci, May 2012, Vol. 57, No. 3, p. 843-4)
This May, however, a commentary was published by The Journal of Forensic Sciences with an answer by Nuzzolose and Borrini (Vol. 57, No. 3, p. 843-8). The authors of the commentary, Simona Minozzi, Antonio Fornaciari and Gino Fornaciari from the Universities in Pisa and Siena, have responded because 'in Italy the story of the "Vampire of Venice" is receiving extraordinary emphasis in the mass media', while it is still only supported by the one article by Nuzzolese and Borrini, and in the opinion of Minozzi and co., 'the argumentation presented in this paper suffers from many drawbacks and seems to lack adequate scientific evidence, not only in the conclusions, but also in its initial assumptions.'

Minozzi and co. discuss the photographs available to them, which in their opinion support the theory that the woman was interred in a coffin. They also find that the assumption that there was a shroud is based on 'weak evidence', and stress that the Nachzehrer belief 'is not attested in Italy during the Modern Age, but appears to be tightly confined to the East German world.' Furthermore, they point to other examples of skeletons found with stones or other objects in their mouth, that bear no relation to e.g. revenant beliefs:

'During archaeological excavations of medieval and postmedieval cemeteries, the opened jaw with preserved connection of the themporo-mandibular joints is frequently observed as an effect of decomposition in empty space. This condition can be followed by a secondary oral cavity filling, even with stones or bricks, if these are present in the surrounding sediment. We report an example from the medieval cemetery of Vecchiano, Pisa. Therefore the same event might have occurred in the Nuovo Lazzaretto burials; to support our more simple theory, we show an "eater of bones", a skeleton found in the cemetery of Vecchio Lazzaretto in Venice with a similar archaeological context.' (see the figure above)

Consequently, they find that the intentionality of of the action of a 'Vampire Slayer' inserting a brick into the woman's mouth is insufficiently documented, and 'therefore, we cannot draw any conclusions about the intentionality of the action, even less about the symbolic burial ritual.'

In their response, Nuzzolese and Borrini present more information on the find and their theory. They note that 'the intentional deposition of the brick in the mouth is strictly linked with the contextual analysis'. Analysing the position of various skeletons intercepting the ID 6 remains, that at the time of the deposition of one of the other corpses (ID 1), 'the body of ID6 was uncovered during its decomposition: the gravediggers encountered that cadaverous phenomena which was interpreted, at the time, as evidence of vampirism.' If the woman was not skeletonized, Nuzzolese and Borrini find it possible to 'hypothesize the presence of a shroud because of the verticalization of the left clavicle associated with medial rotation of humeri. It is certainly true that this phenomenon might be attributable to a wall effect originated from possible barriers in the ground (not present in this case) or a coffin, but no evidence of wooden containers for ID6 or any other skeletons in the site were attested during the excavation.' They also note that they have found pins to hold the bandages and shrouds on other individuals at the site, and go on to comment:

'The shroud question seemed to tax the Italian colleagues, to the point that they finished the sentence about the hypothesis shroud mastication with an exclamation mark. It is possible that because of the brevity of the case report the authors have not clearly emphasized the nature of those cliams: it is a reconstructive hypothesis based on ancient stories related to the "mastication" by the dead, or the fact that some of them were found apparently with chewed clothes or shrouds. This sort of postmortem bulimia (as already mentioned and published originated from the difference between the timing of fabric and body decomposition) was at the basis of the belief of a particular species of vampire, the nachzehrer.

Therefore, the authors found no evidence of a hole in the shroud but assumed the presence of the cloth and the intentional inclusion of a brick for the reasons already explained, they reconstructed, according to ancient tales, the possible scene of the accidental exhumation. During this operation, because of the lack of understanding the process of decomposition, the gravediggers thought they had come face to face with a vampire and then decided to exorcise it to stop the plague that raged in the city.'

Nuzzolese and Borrini then discuss the brick, noting that 'The deep introduction in the oral cavity and the relationship with the jaw bones preclude that the brick was simply loose in the soil after a "secondary infiltration of the sediment" (differently from what we see in Fig. 3 of our Italian colleagues' article), and also the preservation of anatomical joints (which is not present in the "eater of bones" from Lazzaretto Vecchio) "suggests the intentionality of the action" and can exclude that "the brick was accidentally put into the mouth".'

Finally, Nuzzolese and Borrini comment on the plausibility that the Nachzehrer belief travelled from one part of Europe to another: 'As it is known, when goods move, men, ideas, and cultures travel with them.' They take Philip Rohr's words on putting a small stone into the deceased's mouth as evidence 'that the practice to put something inedible in the nachzehrer mouth was attested and diffused: if no other archeological evidence of this ritual has been discovered (or recognized), this does not mean that the author's hypothesis is invalid.'

In conclusion, they quote from Tommaso Braccini's book Prima di Dracula: Archeologia del vampiro (2011): 'compared with many other more uncertain and hypothetical cases, that of the vampire of Venice (a vampire, in fact, only in the broadest sense of the word) is particularly striking and also supported by a rather solid base documentary.'
14th century illustration of gravediggers burying plague victims, according to Meurer: Vampire: Die Engel der Finsternis (2003)
So what are we to think without going into a discussion of details that no doubt require specialized knowledge to pass a verdict on? Nuzzolese and Borrini clearly maintain that their hypothesis is valid: The brick was intentionally stuck into the mouth of the dead person when the gravediggers chanced upon seeing the corpse while burying another deceased individual. The act of putting the brick into a corpse's mouth in their opinion must be understood in terms of the belief in the masticating dead, a belief that is not documented in Italy, but hypothetically may have been known by gravediggers at the Lazaretto Nuovo near Venice. And a belief that was frequently connected to the plague, a circumstance that may have contributed to the use of an otherwise unusual type of apotropaics in the area during an epidemic.

Assuming that Nuzzolese and Borrini are correct, their hypothesis poses intriguing questions concerning the possible migration of 'necrophobic' beliefs and customs, consequently contributing to the fundamental discussion regarding the geographical and cultural background to various European beliefs in what we would today call 'the undead'. To what extent are these diverse forms of 'posthumous magic' manifestations of common concepts concerning the dead and their possible malevolent effects on the living? To what extent are they the result of migrations, cultural influences and synchretism?

My own search for von Schertz's Magia posthuma was sparked by an interest in understanding the relationship between these diverse beliefs that sometime in the 18th century increasingly became understood under the common term of vampirism. Whether the brick placed in the mouth of a skeleton was actually put there to prevent the woman from harming the living or not, these are questions that the literature on vampires and other revenants should address more explicitly than is usually the case.

Furthermore, whatever people think of the find in Venice or of the media's way of telling the story about it, I think that this find has once and for all made archaeological evidence part of the field of vampires and other revenants. Unfortunately, a lot of the finds have only been described in reports and papers in native languages, that is e.g. the case of some of the relevant archaeological finds in the Czech Republic, so it can be difficult to get hold of exact information. Still, here is a subject that has only partially been explored and developed in the literature, so I hope we will see some interesting books and papers on the subject in the future.

I am grateful to Roberto Labanti for notifying me of recent developments in the case.


Anonymous said...

Well, that's pretty much what I thought -

They should certainly have been less definitive about their conclusions.

There are of course various parallels for the stone in the mouth practice, though equally obviously, the stones might well have carried different meanings across different cultures and contexts.

Anonymous said...

A few collected references to the use of stones in and around skulls;

SOMNUS said...

Great article.

Congratulations on your work.

Regards from Spain.

Niels K. Petersen said...

The Daily Mail just published a piece on this: Vampires of Venice: Bricks and bones show how scared the Medieval world was of the undead

Dr A. Tsaliki said...

Thanks for the post.

I would like to draw your attention to the fact that:

1. Respected scientists should / do not plagiarise.
2. Respected publishing houses and editors should not allow the authors to plagiarise and should punish such attitude.
3. Universities and Institutes should never allow their staff to plagiarise, and if found to do so, they should be punished.
4. Peer-reviewers should use the internet to make sure that a paper does not use plagiarism from other online material.

Please find full explanation about how Borrini and Nuzzolese plagiarised the paper by Tsaliki mentioned above, here:

The reluctance on behalf of the Journal of Forensic Sciences and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences to act with a firm hand about this is really shocking and even against professional and academic ethics.

Also, the paper by Borrini and Nuzzolese has scientifics errors, which I had pointed out to the above mentioned committees by email. This paper should have been removed and re-written.

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