A place called the Cemetery of the Babies is bound to be filled with some exceptionally heartbreaking and spooky stuff. But when excavations of this 1,500-year-old children’s necropolis in the Italian commune of Lugnano in Teverina turned up a “vampire burial”—in which a rock had been shoved into a dead child’s mouth—even the professionals were creeped out.
"I've never seen anything like it. It's extremely eerie and weird," excavation team member David Soren, an archeologist at the University of Arizona, said in a statement last week. "Locally, they're calling it the 'Vampire of Lugnano.'"
The “vampire” belonged to a 10-year-old kid (whose sex is unknown) who probably fell victim to a malaria outbreak that devastated the Umbrian community in the 5th century, said excavation director David Pickel. Analysis of the bones and DNA of local infants laid to rest in the ruins of this cemetery, which is located inside an abandoned 1st century Roman villa, support the hypothesis of a malaria epidemic. The vampire’s skull includes an abscessed tooth, which could have been caused by the illness.
Burials are significant because they “provide a window into ancient minds,” Jordan Wilson, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Arizona who examined the child’s bones, said in a statement.
“We have a saying in bioarchaeology: 'The dead don’t bury themselves.' We can tell a lot about people's beliefs and hopes and by the way they treat the dead," Wilson added.
The decision to insert a large rock into the dead child’s mouth was likely motivated by panic and superstition in the community. According to Pickel’s team, this type of burial is associated with a fear of reanimated corpses escaping their graves to spread maladies to the living.
Other examples of the ritual include the “Vampire of Venice,” a 16th century woman who was buried with a brick in her mouth, and the 1,700-year-old remains of a man found in England whose tongue was replaced with a stone.
The vampire child is also special because of his or her age. Since excavations at the Cemetery of the Babies began in the 1980s, all of the 50-odd children discovered there were under three years old, leading experts to assume that the necropolis was intended exclusively for babies and toddlers. The older Vampire of Lugnano challenges that theory.
Other children in the necropolis were buried with items like raven talons, toad bones, and the severed heads of puppies, which suggest that Lugano practised ritual sacrifice and feared the dead, according to Soren. The body of a three-year-old girl was found with stones placed on her hands and feet, perhaps to encourage her to stay put in her grave.
"It's a very human thing to have complicated feelings about the dead and wonder if that's really the end," Wilson said.
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