Child ‘vampire’ unearthed in Italy with rock stuffed into its mouth

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. Credit David Pickel  Stanford University

It's thought that someone placed the rock in the mouth during the funeral process, this being done as a deliberate way to keep the dead from returning to afflict the living.

"I've never seen anything like it".

The unusual so-called "vampire burial" was described as "extremely eerie and weird" by archaeologist and professor David Soren, who has been excavating the site in Teverina since 1987. According to a press release from the University of Arizona, the child has come to be known as the "Vampire of Lugnano".

Image: The "vampire burial" was of a child from 400AD in Italy.

The discovery was made at La Necropoli dei Bambini, or the Cemetery of the Babies, a fifth-century Roman cemetery for children.

Those who buried the child, who possibly died of malaria, may have used the rock to prevent him or her (the child's sex isn't known) from rising from the grave and spreading disease to other people, said a team of researchers in a statement released October 12 by the University of Arizona.

Near the child's grave was the body of a 3-year-old girl, archaeologists say. Tooth marks found on the surface of the stone and the open position of the jaws support the archaeologists' belief that the rock was intentionally placed in the child's mouth to ensure it remained entrapped in the grave.

The UA and Stanford academic added: "This just further highlights how unique the infant - or now, rather, child - cemetery at Lugnano is".

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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 almost 1,500 years ago, as well as the community's response to it. 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.

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That girl had been buried with heavy stones placed over her hands and feet.

Someone would have stuffed this rock into the mouth of the 10-year-old after death.

It's a ritual similar to other burials found throughout Europe where skeletons have been found with stakes or stones forced down their throats. "We know that the Romans were very much concerned with [the dead rising] and would even go to the extent of employing witchcraft to keep the evil - whatever is contaminating the body - from coming out", Soren said. "Placing the stone in the child's mouth is a literal or symbolic way of incapacitating them", said Jordan Wilson, a bioarchaeologist and a University of Arizona doctoral student who was part of the team that unearthed the remains in the summer. And just a year ago, a 3rd- or 4th-century adult male was found in Northamptonshire, England, with his tongue cut out and replaced by a stone.

"We can tell a lot about people's beliefs and hopes and by the way they treat the dead".

"It seems when humans are faced with the unknown, it's been a very common reaction throughout our entire history to react with fear", Wilson said. We have a saying in bioarchaeology: 'The dead don't bury themselves'.

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