Friday, January 28, 2022

‘Vampire Burial’ Reveals Efforts to Prevent Child’s Return From Grave

Archaeologists found the “vampire burial” remains of a 10-year-old child with a stone inserted into his or her mouth at a 5th-century Italian cemetery. The discovery of a 10-year-old’s body at an ancient Roman site in Italy suggests measures were taken to prevent the child, possibly infected with malaria, from rising from the dead and spreading disease to the living.

The skeletal remains, uncovered by archaeologists from the University of Arizona and Stanford University, along with archaeologists from Italy, included a skull with a rock intentionally inserted into the mouth. Researchers believe the stone may have been placed there as part of a funeral ritual designed to contain disease — and the body itself.

The 10-year-old was discovered lying on its side in a fifth-century Italian cemetery previously believed to be designated for babies, toddlers and unborn fetuses. (Photo courtesy of David Pickel/Stanford University)
The 10-year-old was discovered lying on its side in a 5th-century Italian cemetery previously believed to be designated for babies, toddlers, and unborn fetuses. (Image: David Pickel via Stanford University)

Vampire burial

The discovery of this unusual, so-called “vampire burial” was made over the summer in the commune of Lugnano in Teverina in the Italian region of Umbria, where UA archaeologist David Soren has overseen archaeological excavations since 1987. Soren, a Regents’ Professor in the UA School of Anthropology and Department of Religious Studies and Classics, said:

The discovery was made at La Necropoli dei Bambini, or the Cemetery of the Babies, which dates to the mid-5th century when a deadly malaria outbreak swept the area, killing many vulnerable babies and small children. The bodies of the young victims were buried at the site of an abandoned Roman villa that was originally constructed at the end of the 1st century B.C.

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.

This so-called vampire burial had a rock inserted into the child's mouth.
This is the rock that was inserted into the child’s mouth in this so-called ‘vampire burial.’ (Image: David Pickel via Stanford University)

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

Excavation director David Pickel, who has a master’s degree in classical archaeology from the UA and is now a doctoral student at Stanford, said 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. Pickel said:

Witchcraft as disease control

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 used by different cultures throughout history to keep the deceased in their graves. Soren said:

The “evil,” in the case of the babies and toddlers uncovered in Lugnano, was malaria, Soren believed. 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 said.

A rock was inserted into the mouth of a 10-year-old to keep the deceased child from rising from the grave and spreading malaria, researchers believe. (Photo courtesy of David Pickel/Stanford University)
A rock was inserted into the mouth of a 10-year-old to keep the deceased child from rising from the grave and spreading malaria, researchers believe. (Image: David Pickel via Stanford University)

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. Pickel said:

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 said. Teeth marks on the surface of the stone provide further evidence that it was placed purposefully in this vampire burial.

The 10-year old was the first at the cemetery to be found with a stone in its mouth. Similar burials have been documented in other locations, including in Venice, where an elderly 16th-century woman dubbed the “Vampire of Venice” was found in a vampire burial with a brick in her mouth in 2009. In Northamptonshire, England, in 2017, an adult male from the third or fourth century was found buried face down with his tongue removed and replaced with a stone in another vampire burial.

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 bodies being staked to the ground through the heart or dismembered prior to interment. Wilson said:

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

Provided by: University of Arizona [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest

Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

Subscribe to our newsletter


6 Amazing Benefits of Onions

For many people, onions are an easy vegetable to incorporate into a variety of delicious meals, such as sautéed...

More Articles Like This