Ancient child’s ‘vampire burial’ suggests Romans feared the walking dead

The 10-year-old’s skeleton had a stone placed in the mouth to prevent the child from rising again

A child buried in a fifth century Roman cemetery had a stone placed in his or her mouth. The stone was part of a funeral ritual to keep the body from coming back to life, scientists say.

D. PICKEL/STANFORD UNIV.

Excavations in an ancient Roman cemetery turned eerie last summer. The remains of a roughly 10-year-old child lay in one grave. This youngster may have been the victim of malaria. But the odd part was that, as part of a funeral ritual, someone had inserted a stone into the child’s mouth. Such a ritual was meant to prevent the body from rising like a zombie and spreading disease to the living, researchers say.

The discovery of this “vampire burial” occurred at the Cemetery of the Babies. It’s a mid-fifth-century site in central Italy. Archaeologist David Pickel of Stanford University in California led the excavation.

A malaria outbreak in the region killed many babies and young children around the time of the child’s burial. There were more than 50 previously excavated graves at the cemetery. Of those, the oldest remains were those of a 3-year-old child. Bones of several kids buried there have yielded DNA of malaria parasites.

Several other vampire burials had been found before this one. These included a 16th century woman from Venice, Italy. She had been buried with a brick in her mouth. And a man from third or fourth century England was found with his tongue cut out and replaced with a stone. Vampire burials display signs of a belief that the dead could come back to life, archaeologists say.

Many infants and toddlers at the Italian site were buried with objects linked with beliefs in witchcraft and magic. These include raven talons and toad bones. And stones had been placed on the hands and feet of the 3-year-old. This was another practice used by various cultures to hold the dead down in their graves.

Such rituals attempted to keep the bodies from getting out and spreading whatever evil had led to their deaths, says David Soren. He is an archaeologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He participated in the new dig.

The results were announced in an October 11 statement. They will be presented in January at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in San Diego, Calif.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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