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Bring Out Your Undead!

Matteo Borrini
Side view of plague victim found with mysterious brick in her mouth


It all starts with a mass grave of 16th Century plague victims that was discovered recently on the Venetian island of Nuovo Lazzaretto, northeast of Venice, where the body of a woman, let’s call her Carmilla, was exhumed with what appears to be a large brick stuffed into her jaw. While some scientists argue that there is a perfectly logical reason to snack on a brick sandwich (a low iron diet, maybe?), others are giddy with speculation that they may have uncovered a medieval exorcism ritual for dispelling vampirism. According to forensic anthropologist Matteo Borrini of the University of Florence in Italy, if this theory were correct, that would make this woman the oldest specimen of vampire burials known to archeology.

Vampire superstitions were common folklore in medieval Europe during the plague as a way to explain why everyone was dying. Borrini assures us that most, if not all, of these tales from the crypt can be attributed to the natural stages of decomposition, and anyone who has ever seen a dead body can tell you that the dead can often seem unnervingly alive. For example, as the skin dries and pulls back, it appears as though nails and hair continue to grow after death.

In the case of Carmilla, Borrini suggests with a slight Sherlockian quality that she had been wrapped in a shroud, based on the position of her collarbone. As the body decomposes and corrosive fluids are dispelled, it could have appeared to gravediggers that she had chewed though the shroud. This would have surprised the gravediggers, no doubt, and perhaps scared them into believing that supernatural powers were afoot.

Vampire myths, and Matt Damon, are inextricably linked with contagions. Venice in 1576 was consumed by plague, all told nearly a third of the city, 50,000 people, perished. The grave digging dead collectors could conceivably have stumbled across this corpse and decided to take out some insurance that she wouldn’t be joining them for dinner.

However, every story, even supernatural ones, have two sides. One man’s vampire exorcism is another man’s accidental brick ball gag.

“Photos of the site where the purported vampire was found show her remains were surrounded by stones, bricks and tiles,” physical anthropologist Simona Minozzi said. Minozzi goes on to note that the jaws of corpses often gape open, allowing any number of items to fall in. At one time a skeleton was found in the cemetery of Vecchio Lazzaretto with a femur bone in its mouth.

There is also no clear evidence of a shroud, as the walls of a coffin might explain the position of the collarbone. They add that the legend of the so-called nachzehrer, or “shroud-eaters,” were tightly confined to the East German region and not Italy. Minozzi and her colleagues detailed their argument in the May issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Minozzi called the vampire idea “nonsense.” “Unfortunately, this is a common practice in the last few years in Italy,” she said. “This is probably due to the strong cutting of funds for research in Italy, so researchers seek to attract attention and money through sensational discoveries that often have little to do with science.”

Borrini and his colleagues strongly rebut the argument over their analysis. They discussed how the physical details of the site supported their interpretation in a response in the May issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences, and that while the legend of the nachzehrer was found in Germanic areas, Venice was a crossroads during the epoch in which such legends from distant lands might have circulated.

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