Why did this 5th-century child get a ‘vampire burial’?

(Credit: Getty Images)

The discovery of a 10-year-old’s body at an ancient site in Italy suggests people took measures to prevent the child from rising from the dead and spreading malaria to the living.

The skeletal remains included a skull with a rock intentionally inserted into the mouth. Researchers believe it may have been placed there as part of a funeral ritual designed to contain disease—and the body itself.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s extremely eerie and weird,” says David Soren, a professor in the University of Arizona School of Anthropology and the university’s religious studies and classics department. “Locally, they’re calling it the ‘Vampire of Lugnano.'”

vampire burial skull
Archaeologists found a rock in the mouth of a deceased 10-year-old which they believe people inserted to keep the child from rising from the grave and spreading malaria. (Credit: David Pickel/Stanford University)

‘Cemetery of the Babies’

Researchers made the discovery at La Necropoli dei Bambini, or the Cemetery of the Babies, which dates to the mid-fifth century when a deadly malaria outbreak swept the area, killing many vulnerable babies and small children. People buried the bodies of the young victims at the site of an abandoned Roman villa that was originally constructed at the end of the first century BC.

Until now, archaeologists believed the cemetery was designated specifically for infants, toddlers, and unborn fetuses; in previous excavations of more than 50 burials, a 3-year-old girl was the oldest child found.

The discovery of the 10-year-old, whose age researchers determined based on dental development but whose sex is unknown, suggests that the cemetery may have been used for older children as well, says bioarcheologist Jordan Wilson, a doctoral student in anthropology who analyzed the skeletal remains in Italy.

“There are still sections of the cemetery that we haven’t excavated yet, so we don’t know if we’ll find other older kids,” Wilson says.

Puppies and toad bones

The discovery has the potential to tell researchers much more about the devastating malaria epidemic that hit Umbria nearly 1,500 years ago, as well as the community’s response to it, says excavation director David Pickel, who has a master’s degree in classical archaeology from the University of Arizona and is now a doctoral student at Stanford University.

“Given the age of this child and its unique deposition, with the stone placed within his or her mouth, it represents, at the moment, an anomaly within an already abnormal cemetery. This just further highlights how unique the infant—or now, rather, child—cemetery at Lugnano is.”

“Romans… would even go to the extent of employing witchcraft to keep the evil—whatever is contaminating the body—from coming out.”

In previous excavations at the Cemetery of the Babies, archaeologists found infant and toddler bones alongside items like raven talons, toad bones, bronze cauldrons filled with ash, and the remains of puppies that appear to have been sacrificed—all objects commonly associated with witchcraft and magic.

In addition, the body of the 3-year-old girl had stones weighing down her hands and feet—a practice different cultures throughout history used to keep the deceased in their graves.

“We know that the Romans were very much concerned with this and would even go to the extent of employing witchcraft to keep the evil—whatever is contaminating the body—from coming out,” Soren says.

‘Evil’ malaria

The “evil,” in the case of the babies and toddlers that researchers uncovered in Lugnano, was malaria, Soren believes. DNA testing of several of the excavated bones supported his theory.

Although the 10-year-old’s remains have not yet undergone DNA testing, the child had an abscessed tooth—a side effect of malaria—that suggests he or she may also have fallen victim to the disease, Wilson says.

“‘The dead don’t bury themselves.’ We can tell a lot about people’s beliefs and hopes and by the way they treat the dead.”

The child was one of five new burials uncovered at the cemetery over the summer. The body was found lying on its left side in a makeshift tomb created by two large roof tiles propped against a wall—an alla cappuccina-style burial typical of Roman Italy.

“Knowing that two large roof tiles were used for this burial, I was expecting something unique to be found inside, perhaps a ‘double-inhumation’—not uncommon for this cemetery—where a single burial contains two individuals,” Pickel says. “After removing the roof tiles, however, it became immediately clear to us that we were dealing with an older individual.”

‘Vampire of Venice’

The open position of the child’s jaw, which would not have opened naturally during decomposition with the body positioned on its side, suggests that the rock was intentionally inserted in the mouth after death, Wilson says. Researchers found teeth marks in cement on the stone, providing further evidence that it was placed purposefully.

The 10-year old was the first at the cemetery researchers found with a stone in its mouth. Researchers have documented similar burials in other locations, including in Venice, where archaeologists found an elderly 16th-century woman dubbed the “Vampire of Venice” with a brick in her mouth in 2009. In Northamptonshire, England, in 2017, they found an adult male from the third or fourth century buried facedown with his tongue removed and replaced with a stone.

These types of burials are often referred to as vampire burials, since they are associated with a belief that the dead could rise again. Other examples of vampire burials throughout history include people staking bodies to the ground through the heart or dismembering bodies prior to interment.

“This is a very unusual mortuary treatment that you see in various forms in different cultures, especially in the Roman world, that could indicate there was a fear that this person might come back from the dead and try to spread disease to the living,” Wilson says.

Archaeologists will return to Lugnano next summer to complete excavations of the cemetery and learn more about a dark time in history.

“It’s a very human thing to have complicated feelings about the dead and wonder if that’s really the end,” Wilson says. “Anytime you can look at burials, they’re significant because they provide a window into ancient minds. We have a saying in bioarchaeology: ‘The dead don’t bury themselves.’ We can tell a lot about people’s beliefs and hopes and by the way they treat the dead.”

Source: University of Arizona