Medieval "Vampire" Skull

Among the many medieval plague victims recently unearthed near Venice, Italy, one reportedly had never-before-seen evidence of an unusual affliction: being "undead." The partial body and skull of the woman showed her jaw forced open by a brick —an exorcism technique used on suspected vampires. Suspecting that she might be a vampire, a common folk belief at the time, gravediggers shoved a rock into her skull to prevent her from chewing through her shroud and infecting others with the plague, said anthropologist Matteo Borrini of the University of Florence. It's the first time that archaeological remains have been interpreted as belonging to a suspected vampire.

In the absence of medical science, vampires were just one of many possible contemporary explanations for the spread of the Venetian plague in 1576, which ran rampant through the city and ultimately killed up to 50,000 people, some officials estimate. Since tombs were often reopened during plagues so other victims could be added, Italian gravediggers saw these decomposing bodies with partially "eaten" shrouds, Borrini said.

Vampires were thought by some to be causes of plagues, so the superstition took root that shroud-chewing was the "magical way" that vampires spread pestilence, he said. Inserting objects—such as bricks and stones—into the mouths of alleged vampires was thought to halt the disease.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, little was known about what happens to the body after death. They knew about immediate postmortem changes, such as cooling of the body (algor mortis) and temporary stiffening of the muscles (rigor mortis), but these changes don't really alter the appearance of the deceased. The ensuing decay and decay and putrefaction--which reduce a corpse to a skeleton--were poorly understood because they happen in the grave. When graves were reopened, it was usually after years, when the body had completely turned into a skeleton. So they associated death with a cold and stiff corpse or blanched skeleton, and allegorical paintings from the time confirm this.


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