Ancient child’s ‘vampire burial’ suggests Romans feared the walking dead
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.
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archaeology (also archeology) The study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. Those remains can range from housing materials and cooking vessels to clothing and footprints. People who work in this field are known as archaeologists.
culture (n. in social science) The sum total of typical behaviors and social practices of a related group of people (such as a tribe or nation). Their culture includes their beliefs, values and the symbols that they accept and/or use. Culture is passed on from generation to generation through learning. Scientists once thought culture to be exclusive to humans. Now they recognize some other animals show signs of culture as well, including dolphins and primates.
DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.
excavation A site where someone has systematically removed earth or rock to uncover buried materials of value, such as bones or artifacts.
malaria A disease caused by a parasite that invades the red blood cells. The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes, largely in tropical and subtropical regions.
outbreak The sudden emergence of disease in a population of people or animals. The term may also be applied to the sudden emergence of devastating natural phenomena, such as earthquakes or tornadoes.
parasite An organism that gets benefits from another species, called a host, but doesn’t provide that host any benefits. Classic examples of parasites include ticks, fleas and tapeworms.
talon The curved toenail-like claw on the foot of a bird, lizard or other predatory animal that uses these claws to snag prey and tear into its tissues.
toddlers Children between 9-months and 2-years old. The term refers to the fact that these youngsters only recently learned to walk and are not yet totally steady on their feet.