Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!

Matteo Borrini (Courtesy Matteo Borrini)

Picture a 16th-century plague victim, wrapped in a cloth shroud and buried. Now picture a gravedigger, assigned to the terrible work of opening a mass grave to put more bodies in. He scrapes the dirt away from the face and finds, to his horror, that the corpse is trying to eat its way out. Where the shroud covers the mouth there is a dark, bilious stain and the cloth has been worn through. As if it wasn't already difficult enough to dig graves for plague victims, he now has to deal with the undead--a malicious, pestilent vampire. The solution, a sort of vampire exorcism, would have been to cram a brick in the corpse's mouth to prevent it from eating its way out of the grave and spreading the plague. It is the stuff of legend, but there's something to it--a good scientific reason why it would appear a corpse was trying to eat its way out of the grave, and clear archaeological evidence for exorcism by brick. Senior Editor Samir S. Patel spoke with University of Florence forensic anthropologist and archaeologist Matteo Borrini after the meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Science in Denver, where he presented an "exorcised" skull from a plague grave on the Venetian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo.

Where and how was this skull discovered?
From 2006 to 2007, the Veneto Department of National Heritage and Cultural Activities supported research on Lazzaretto Nuovo, where the corpses of plague victims were buried in the 16th and 17th centuries. As a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist, I was the director of the excavation when we found the skull of a mature female with a brick placed in her mouth. We conducted the excavation using the latest forensic archaeology and anthropology techniques, including methods used by modern police for crime scenes.


(Courtesy Matteo Borrini)

Why would they have done that to the corpse?
This was an ancient folkloric tradition. We have determined that this superstition resulted from a misinterpretation of thanatological (death-related) data. 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.

Reports of vampires in graves actually describe a corpse during decomposition. The rigor mortis would have disappeared. A phenomenon called epidermolysis would be visible, in which the epidermis loosens from the underlying dermis and the nails fall off, exposing the nail beds and giving the impression of new growth. At the same time, the corpse would be going through the putrefaction stage in which the abdomen gets bloated from the build-up of gases. The decay of the gastrointestinal tract contents and lining create a dark fluid called "purge fluid" that might flow freely from the nose and mouth and could easily be confused with the blood sucked by the vampire. And if a corpse was wrapped in a shroud, putrid gases and purge fluid flowing from the mouth would moisten the cloth so that it would sink into the mouth (which would open as the muscles relaxed after rigor mortis), where the fluids would break it down. So the legend that corpse could eat through its shroud is a real observation that was interpreted without the proper medical knowledge.

One can see why such legends spread, especially during plagues. During pandemics, it was common to reopen tombs and mass graves to bury other victims. This exposed people to bodies that were not completely decomposed, thus increasing dread and superstition among people who were already suffering pestilence and massive deaths.


(Courtesy Matteo Borrini)

How do we know about what the people believed when they saw what appeared to be corpses gnawing through their shrouds? Are there textual sources?
Yes. The vampires thought to be chewing through their shrouds were sometimes referred to as the nachtzehrer (a German term meaning "night-waster"). The superstition was born among the Kashubes of north-central Poland and goes back to the 13th century in Bohemia and Moravia. It then spread around all Europe during the seventeenth century. The nachtzehrer is a dead body kept in a kind of liminal life by supernatural forces or Satan. A "scientific" overview of them was offered by Protestant theologian Philippus Rohr at the University of Lipsia in 1679, under the title Dissertatio historico-philosophica de masticatione mortuorum. The text describes some distinctive habits of this revenant: the nachtzehrer usually eats the cloth or funerary shroud in which it is wrapped, and its chewing causes noises similar to a pig while it is eating. As it chews through the shroud, it is just in a larval stage. When it becomes stronger, it can even leave its grave to become a real, "traditional" vampire.

Epidemic diseases, generally plague, were believed to be a result of the nachtzehrer's chewing. In a sort of inverse food chain, plague both decimated the population and supported the growth of vampires.

How did you connect the nachtzehrer legend with the particular burial you found?
In our excavations, the burial is linked with the nachtzehrer superstition not only because the skeleton is in a plague grave, but also because of the brick in the mouth. Actually, the "cure" to kill this revenant--suggested by traditions and also reported by Rohr--was to exhume the body, remove the shroud from its mouth, and replace it with a handful of soil, or better a stone or brick, so the undead would be prevented from chewing and would eventually die of starvation.

Were any other remains like this found there, or at other related plague sites?
Not in the Lazzaretto Nuovo, but the belief was widespread in Europe at the time, so there are probably others. But this is the first "vampire grave" studied from all angles--archaeological, forensic, and folkloric.

What is it like to work with such macabre or spooky subjects?
I don't think this is a macabre story, but I admit that was a very unusual subject. In forensic cases, people in the media often use words like "monster" or "vampire" to describe particularly violent offenders--but in this case I was researching a "real" legend. When I started to work on it, I didn't have any ideas about vampires, or why this skeleton had a brick in its mouth, but it was clear that there had to be a reason that someone in the 16th century decided to manipulate an infectious corpse like this. So I started researching the plague and folkloric traditions, and was astonished when I realized that this individual was considered a vampire and had been exorcised. Archeologists and anthropologists often study and try to reconstruct ancient religions, superstitions, and rituals, but it's a terrific feeling when you have some kind of clear evidence. In this case, I was confronted by evidence of belief in one of the most famous (and infamous) mythological characters . . . absolutely incredible. I must admit that in the beginning I was a bit afraid to present this to the scientific community--I didn't want my colleagues to think that I was looking for media attention, or, even worse, that I believed in vampires. But then I realized that I had to present it. It represents very useful evidence of past beliefs and traditions, and clearly illustrates how, in the absence of scientific knowledge, the human mind can misinterpret the reality to create "monsters." So working on this skeleton, reconstructing its history, and trying to explain how a certain vampire belief was born wasn't a macabre job, but a really great intellectual and scientific experience.