Archaeologists have made a baffling discovery in an ancient Roman cemetery located in Umbria, Italy. Earlier this year, scientists stumbled upon the tomb of a 10-year-old child which contained evidence of what is known as a “vampire burial.”
According to Science Daily, the child’s skull was found with a stone inserted into the mouth, pointing at a funeral ritual meant to prevent the occupant of the tomb from returning from the grave.
The puzzling sepulcher dates back to the fifth century, a time when Umbria was devastated by a malaria epidemic. While the skeleton has yet to undergo DNA testing, archaeologists are fairly convinced that the child may have been one of the many victims of this terrible disease. The scientists base their assumption on the fact that the skeleton had an abscessed tooth — a known side effect of malaria.
“Researchers believe the stone may have been placed there as part of a funeral ritual designed to contain disease — and the body itself,” stated officials from the University of Arizona, which participated in the discovery together with Stanford University in California and archaeologists from Italy.
One piece of evidence that suggests that the stone was placed there purposefully by the people who interred the child is the open position of the jaw. Since the skeleton was found lying on its side, the jaw would have remained shut under normal circumstances during the body’s natural process of decay.
'Vampire Burial' An Effort to Prevent a Child's Infectious Return From the Grave https://t.co/iKNUnS56Rf #archeology #anthropology #history #archaeologist #archeologysite #archeologymuseum #archeologylovers #archeologylovers pic.twitter.com/JU8Gnbinna
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Additionally, the archaeologists found teeth marks on the surface of the stone — another hint that it was deliberately inserted into the dead child’s mouth.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s extremely eerie and weird,” said University of Arizona archaeologist David Soren, who has been working at this particular site since 1987.
The child, whose sex has not yet been determined, was put to rest at a burial ground known as La Necropoli dei Bambini, or the Cemetery of the Babies. Located in Umbria’s Lugnano in Teverina commune, this cemetery was built at the site of an abandoned Roman villa erected in the first century. The site was originally thought to be reserved for infants, toddlers, and unborn fetuses — considering that the oldest skeleton unearthed until now belonged to a 3-year-old girl.
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This newly excavated grave shows that older children also found a final resting place there. Locally known as the “Vampire of Lugnano,” this was the only child to have been discovered with a stone in the mouth.
“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,” said excavation director David Pickel, who studied classical archaeology at UA and is currently affiliated with Stanford. “This just further highlights how unique the infant — or now, rather, child — cemetery at Lugnano is.”
Since the ancient cemetery still has unexplored sections, the team plans to return to the site next summer to complete the excavations — and to find out whether other older children are buried there.
Witchcraft Practices At The Cemetery Of The Babies
While this particular “vampire burial” is unsettling by any standard, Soren has unearthed even stranger things at the Cemetery of the Babies in the 30 years he’s been investigating this site.
This summer, his team excavated five tombs — including the one belonging to the “Vampire of Lugnano.” But more bone-chilling discoveries were made during previous archaeological digs.
To date, the researcher has opened more than 50 tombs located in the ancient Roman cemetery, including some containing evidence of witchcraft.
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Among the most disturbing finds were infant and toddler skeletons being buried with items commonly associated with magic and witchcraft — such as “raven talons, toad bones, bronze cauldrons filled with ash and the remains of puppies that appear to have been sacrificed,” notes Science Daily.
The body of the 3-year-old girl previously known as the cemetery’s oldest resident was another perplexing discovery, since her skeleton was found with stones weighing down her hands and feet. Just like the newfound “vampire burial,” this was also a common practice used by different cultures to make sure that the dead don’t leave their grave.
“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,” said Soren, who is a Regents’ Professor in the University of Arizona School of Anthropology as well as the Department of Religious Studies and Classics.
In the case of the children buried in Lugnano, the “evil” so feared by their community seems to have been malaria, as shown by DNA tests performed on several of the bodies.
This unusual funeral ritual stems from the belief that the dead could rise again and spread maladies to the living. In order to protect the community from such a disastrous outcome, many cultures resorted to specific rituals to make that sure the dead stayed dead.
The “vampire burial” discovered at the Cemetery of the Babies is not a singular case. In 2009, archaeologists uncovered the body of an elderly 16th-century woman buried with a brick in her mouth; she has been since known as the “Vampire of Venice.”
In 2017, a dig in Northamptonshire, England, yielded an even gorier discovery — the remains of a third- or forth-century adult male buried face down, his tongue removed and replaced with a stone.
The practices associated with “vampire burials” vary throughout history. In some cases, the bodies were dismembered before being laid to rest — and people would even drive a stake through the heart of the deceased to nail the body to the ground.
University of Arizona bioarchaeologist Jordan Wilson — who analyzed the remains of the “Vampire of Lugnano” in Italy — chimed in on the meaning of the disconcerting rituals behind “vampire burials.”
“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.”