As the Roman Empire spiraled down its inevitable fall to the barbarians in the fifth century, a child died. The 10-year-old may have been ill with malaria, then sweeping what we now call central Italy.
While that is uncertain, something has come to light with the discovery of the child’s burial this summer: the body had a stone placed in his or her mouth. While that may not seem like just like an odd funerary token, that small rock, with imprinted teeth marks in its surface, could mean a whole worldview of fear of the dead—and their potential return.
Such symbolic burials generally indicate an effort by the living to keep the corpse from rising from the dead, according to archaeologists from the University of Arizona, Stanford University and Italy.
“It’s extremely eerie and weird,” said David Soren, a University of Arizona archaeologist who has overseen the local excavations since 1987. “Locally, they’re calling it the ‘Vampire of Lugnano.’”
La Necropoli del Bambini (“the Cemetery of the Babies”) was known to be the final resting place for toddlers and infants. The burials were started on the grounds of an abandoned Roman villa during the 400s, while malaria ravaged the region.
The eldest child over the course of 50 excavated graves was a three year old girl.
But that burial itself showed that something was amiss about the normal funerary rites, according to the experts. Because that body had stones weighing down her hands and feet—something traditionally associated with occult practices believed to keep the dead in the dirt.
“We know that 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 said.
The 10-year-old child had an abscessed tooth—a symptom of many malaria cases. The body lay on its left side within a makeshift tomb created by two large roof tiles propped against a chamber wall, according to the experts.
The child’s jaw was found opened, something that doesn’t naturally occur.
“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 David Pickel, an archaeologist who is now a doctoral student at Stanford. “This just highlights how unique the infant—or now, rather, child—cemetery at Lugnano is.”
Previous burials have shown the stone-in-mouth symbolism. The remains of a 16th-century woman referred to as “the Vampire of Venice” was found in the namesake Italian city in 2009 with a brick in her mouth. Last year, a man from the third or fourth century was dug up from England, buried face down, with tongue removed and a stone inserted in its place