According to contemporary myth, it takes a specific set of tools to successfully battle a vampire: amongst other items, a wooden stake ideal for driving through the undead creature’s chest, a clove of garlic designed to repel evil, and sacred relics ranging from crosses to crucifixes.
But the recent discovery of a malaria-stricken 10-year-old buried in a 5th-century Roman graveyard suggests that vampire-fighting strategies weren’t always so complex. As Josh Gabbatiss reports for The Independent, the child was laid to rest with a stone inserted into its mouth, marking the grave a so-called “vampire burial” site likely intended to prevent the deceased from returning to life and infecting others with a deadly disease.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” University of Arizona archaeologist David Soren said in a statement. “It’s extremely eerie and weird.”
Science Alert’s Michelle Starr writes that researchers unearthed the skeleton at the ominously named La Necropoli dei Bambini, or the Cemetery of the Babies, earlier this year. The graveyard, which is situated atop the foundations of an abandoned 1st-century villa in Lugnano, Italy, has previously yielded the bones of dozens of children buried during the mid-5th century—a period when malaria devastated central Italy and its vulnerable population of infants and toddlers.
The “vampire” skeleton was one of five sets of remains identified during the latest round of excavations. According to Gabbatiss, its sex remains unclear, but an abscessed tooth points to malaria as the cause of death, and inspection of the remaining molars places the child’s age at 10 years old. 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.
This isn’t the first time researchers have documented unusual burial practices at the Cemetery of the Babies. Suman Varandani of The International Business Times notes that previous excavations have revealed raven talons, toad bones and even bronze cauldrons filled with the body parts of ritually sacrificed puppies. As Soren wrote in a 1996 report, the jumbled remains of at least 12 puppies and a solitary 1-year-old dog, some with their heads or mandibles missing, were interred alongside the bones of the malaria victims.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the 10-year-old isn’t the first cemetery resident to reflect the living’s fear of the return of the dead. A 3-year-old girl found at the site was buried with stones weighing down her hands and feet—a practice that Starr notes has long been employed as a preventative measure by cultures across the globe.
Prior to the discovery of the 10-year-old, who was found lying on their left side in a makeshift tomb covered by two roof tiles, the 3-year-old was the graveyard’s oldest known inhabitant, leaving scientists to conclude that the site was reserved for infants and toddlers. Now, they suspect otherwise, though they’ll have to wait for next summer’s round of excavations to confirm this hypothesis.
According to a statement by University of Arizona archaeologist Jordan Wilson, the practice of burying individuals with rocks or similarly heavy objects in their mouths is evident “in various forms in different cultures,” but especially in ancient Rome.
Back in 2009, an elderly 16th-century woman dubbed the “Vampire of Venice” was found buried in a plague pit with a brick in her mouth. And just last year, a 3rd- or 4th-century adult male was found in Northamptonshire, England, with his tongue cut out and replaced by a stone. As Science Alert’s Starr writes, these “vampire burials” don’t quite match up with modern-day conceptions of Dracula and other popular bloodsuckers. Instead, they represent a fear of the diseases that wiped out communities and threatened to return with a vengeance.
"It's a very human thing to have complicated feelings about the dead and wonder if that's really the end," Wilson concludes. "Anytime you can look at burials, they're significant because they provide a window into ancient minds. 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."