An archaeological dig near Venice has unearthed the 16th-century remains of a woman with a brick stuck between her jaws -- evidence, experts say, that she was believed to be a vampire.
The unusual burial is thought to be the result of an ancient vampire-slaying ritual. It suggests that the legend of the mythical bloodsucking creatures was tied to medieval ignorance of how diseases spread and what happens to bodies after death, experts said.
The well-preserved skeleton was found in 2006 on the Lazzaretto Nuovo island, north of Venice, amid other bodies buried in a mass grave during an epidemic of plague that struck the city in 1576.
"Vampires don't exist, but studies show people at the time believed they did," said Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist at Florence University who studied the case over the past two years. "For the first time we have found evidence of an exorcism against a vampire."
Medieval texts show that belief in vampires was fueled by the disturbing appearance of decomposing bodies, Borrini said.
During epidemics, mass graves were often reopened to bury fresh bodies, and diggers would chance upon older bodies that were bloated, with blood seeping out of their mouths and with an inexplicable hole in the shroud used to cover their face.
"These characteristics are all tied to the decomposition of bodies," Borrini said. "But they saw a fat, dead person, full of blood and with a hole in the shroud, so they would say: ‘This guy is alive, he's drinking blood and eating his shroud.'"
Modern forensic science shows that the bloating is caused by a buildup of gases, and that the fluid that seeped from the mouth is pushed up by decomposing organs, Borrini said. The shroud would have been consumed by bacteria found in the mouth area.
At the time however, what passed for scientific texts taught that "shroud-eaters" were vampires who fed on the cloth and cast a spell that would spread the plague in order to increase their ranks.
To kill the undead creatures, the stake-in-the-heart method popularized by later literature was not enough: A stone or brick had to be pushed into the vampire's mouth so that it would starve to death, Borrini said.
That is what is believed to have happened to the woman found on the Lazzaretto island, which was used by Venice as a quarantine zone. She died of the plague during the epidemic that also killed the painter Titian.
Borrini said that the discovery shows that vampires in popular culture were originally quite different from the aristocratic blood-drinker depicted in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula and in countless Hollywood revisitations.