'Vampire' child discovered buried in 5th Century Italian cemetery

Henrietta Strickland
October 15, 2018

"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.

It's not a stake through the heart, but it may have served the same objective - a rock stuffed into the mouth of a 10-year-old stop the child rising from the grave.

Other freakish remains have been discovered at this cemetery, called La Necropoli dei Bambini, or the Cemetery of the Babies, including the skeletons of babies and toddlers found buried beside raven talons, toad bones and bronze cauldrons filled with the remains of sacrificed puppies.

"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. It is on its side, its mouth agape and stuffed with a limestone rock about the size of a big egg.

These so-called "vampire" burials have been found before in Italy and Poland, with a stone placed in the mouth or over the body's throat, sometimes with a stake driven into the torso.

Researchers believe the child, whose gender is still unknown, died after a deadly malaria outbreak afflicted the fifth-century community that once inhabited this tiny medieval town on a hill about 60 miles north of Rome.

Among the infant and toddler bones have been found raven talons, toad bones, bronze cauldrons filled with ash - and sacrificed puppies.

The remains of yet another child, a girl of about 3 years of age, were found with heavy stones on the hands and feet - a practice employed by many cultures around the world to keep the dead from rising. Other children buried in the cemetery are known to have died of malaria, and this child has an abscessed tooth, which is a side effect of malaria, the researchers said.

"Interred near numerous infants were the remains of at least 12 puppies all less than six months old and one dog about a year old, all found with various body parts, usually heads or mandibles, missing", Soren wrote in a 1996 report about the cemetery. Next summer, the archaeologists will return to the site and finish excavations and learn more about this dark time of history. 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.

Similar burials where large stones have been placed in the mouth have been found across Europe, including in Venice.

The Venice find occurred in March 2009 and involved a female from the 16th century who had a brick jammed in her jaws, according to Reuters. He added that this could "indicate a fear that this person might come back from the dead and try to spread disease to the living". Archeologists believe that this was an attempt to prevent her from rising from the dead. 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.

"It's a very human thing to have complicated feelings about the dead and wonder if that's really the end", Mr Wilson said. We have a saying in bioarchaeology: 'The dead don't bury themselves'.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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