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)|
'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)|
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.