A 5th-century Italian child who likely perished from malaria was buried with a rock in his or her mouth to prevent evil activity from beyond the grave, according to University of Arizona archaeologists.
The partial skeleton was unearthed in La Necropoli dei Bambini, or the Cemetery of the Babies, a mass burial site in Umbria, Central Italy, that appears to have been dedicated to the young victims of a malaria outbreak that occurred in the region around 450 CE. Past excavations of the site have revealed the remains of more than 50 infants, toddlers, and unborn fetuses, many of which were buried with objects that the Romans associated with magic, such as raven talons, toad bones, bronze cauldrons filled with ash, and sacrificed puppies.
"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," stated David Soren, a professor in the UA School of Anthropology and Department of Religious Studies and Classics, who has been studying the Cemetery of the Babies since 1987.
Yet this new find represents both the oldest child to be found at the cemetery and the first instance of a rock intentionally inserted into the mouth. "I've never seen anything like it. It's extremely eerie and weird," Soren added. "Locally, they're calling it the 'Vampire of Lugnano.'"
Graves whose occupants have been burdened with rocks or restrained in another fashion have been found across Europe; the result of widespread, folklore-based fears of the dead reemerging from the earth and bringing sickness or misfortune to the living. Though vampire mythology as we know it – the classic blood drinking, sunlight-averse immortal who can convert the living with a bite – did not emerge until the 1700s, many cultures throughout Middle Aged Europe believed in the possibility that the recently deceased could wreak havoc as some sort of vampiric or revenant beings.
Several recently discovered examples include a 16th-century woman buried in Venice with a brick in her mouth – the ‘Vampre of Venice’ – and a 3rd or 4th-century male who was buried in Northamptonshire, England, with his tongue removed and a stone put in its place. Taking the anti-vampire tactics up a notch from mouth rocks, numerous graves in Eastern Europe, such as one described in Bulgaria in 2014, contain remains that were staked through the chest and/or had body parts removed in an attempt to prevent them from rising again.
Because a DNA analysis has not yet been performed, the sex and exact cause of death of the newly unearthed 10-year-old remain unconfirmed, yet Soren’s team say that the abscess on one of the skull’s teeth supports the theory that the child was also a victim of the community’s malaria epidemic some 1,500 years ago. DNA analyses of previously exhumed remains have confirmed those children died from the mosquito-borne pathogen.
Further digs at the Cemetery of the Babies are already planned for next summer.
"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,'” said team member Jordan Wilson. “We can tell a lot about people's beliefs and hopes and by the way they treat the dead."