Just in time for Halloween, archaeologists working in Piombino have discovered the skeleton of a woman, surrounded by 13 nails, and with 7 others driven into her jaw. The body was buried without coffin or shroud. Theoretically, the jaw nails may have been intended to prevent her from rising from the dead, with the 13 nails piercing her clothing, to attach her body more firmly to the ground, Two years ago, a skull was found in Venice, with a stone forced into the mouth, a way to keep vampires in their graves. Another skeleton was surrounded by 17 dice, the number 17 being associated with death in Italy.
Belief in witches and vampires seems to have been world wide, and here in New England, especially in the 19th century. When an individual died of consumption (tuberculosis), it was common for other members of the family to begin showing symptoms, “wasting away”, and often waking after coughing spells with blood around the mouth. In the days before germ theory was commonly accepted, people suspected that the deceased had returned from the grave to feed upon the living.
The remedy was was a gruesome one. The skeleton of the deceased had to be exhumed, the heart removed and burned to ashes. Often the sick relative would be fed a “tea” containing some of the ashes, in hopes of effecting a cure. Sometimes, the head and long leg bones would be placed in a “skull and crossbones” arrangement, to keep the deceased from rising yet again.
Historians and folklorists think that practices such as those described here may have been more prevalent than we know, mainly because the evidence must be obtained via the examination of long buried bones.