According to recent research published by forensic anthropologist Matteo Borrini, the remains of a woman who died during a 16th-century plague in Venice, Italy, might be the earliest known vampire burial yet found. The woman was apparently buried with a brick wedged in her mouth — which was one method popular in the Middle Ages of preventing suspected vampires from returning to prey on the living.

It's not clear whether the skeleton was in fact believed to have been a vampire; other Italian anthropologists have expressed skepticism, suggesting instead that the brick, one of many in the area, may have simply been recovered near the jawbone. Whether this particular woman was suspected of being a vampire remains in dispute, but belief in vampires was widespread throughout Europe and everyday people took steps to address that threat.

Relatively modern fictional vampires such as Dracula have little in common with the vampires that Europeans believed in — and protected themselves against — centuries ago. According to anthropologist Paul Barber, author of "Vampires, Burial, and Death," (1988, Yale University Press) stories from nearly every culture have some localized version of the vampire, and "bear a surprising resemblance to the European vampire." [Mythical Creatures that Might Exist]

Villagers combined fear of the dead with their belief that something had cursed them and concluded that perhaps someone who had been recently buried might be responsible for their bad fortune, having come back from the grave with evil intent. Folkloric beliefs offer many different protections against vampires, but there are two basic variations on vampire protection, depending on the circumstance.

The first is a prophylactic measure, preventing a dead person from becoming a vampire in the first place. This would sometimes be done when a person died, though it was not uncommon for bodies to be exhumed days, weeks, or months later. People would look for evidence that the body had been recently active, or tried to escape its coffin. Sometimes ordinary decomposition processes were mistaken for unusual or supernatural phenomenon.

For example, if a coffin is airtight, putrefaction might be delayed by weeks or months. Intestinal decomposition creates bloating, which can force blood up into the mouth, making it look like a dead body has recently sucked blood. Such signs were sometimes mistaken for proof of vampires. 

One of the most widespread beliefs involved staking the vampire in its grave. The idea was to physically pin the vampire to the earth, and the chest was chosen because it's the trunk of the body, not because of any particular symbolic connection to the heart. Nor was there any significance to using a wooden stake; vampires, like djinn (genies) and many other magical creatures, were believed to fear the metal iron, so a piercing bar made of iron would be even more effective. (This was quite common; in fact, earlier this week archaeologists in Bulgaria found two skeletons found with iron rods through their chests.)

Other traditional methods of preventing vampires included burying (or re-burying) the bodies face-down and decapitation, which often included stuffing the severed head's mouth with garlic or bricks.

To ward off a vampire that has risen, people would carry garlic, amulets or holy water. In some traditions, the best way to stop a vampire is to carry a small bag of salt with you. If you are being chased, you need only to spill the salt on the ground behind you, at which point the vampire is obligated to stop and count each and every grain before continuing the pursuit. Some believers say that any small granules will do, including birdseed and sand. Salt was often placed above and around doorways for the same reason.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.