A gruesome discovery in an ancient children’s cemetery has thrown light on the belief held by mid-Empire Romans that the dead could rise.
Excavating grave sites in a fifth century burial ground known as La Necropoli dei Bambini at Lugnano in the Italian region of Umbria, a team led by archaeologist David Soren of the University of Arizona, US, uncovered the skeleton of 10-year-old child with a large rock that had been shoved into its mouth.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Soren. “It’s extremely eerie and weird. Locally, they’re calling it the ‘Vampire of Lugnano.’”
Soren and his colleagues believe the child – who likely died of malaria – had the rock inserted post mortem in order to quell fears that it might come back to life and wreak havoc on the living.
For centuries, the Romans had an uneasy relationship with the dead, and the belief that the departed could affect the fates of the living was widespread.
Since the foundation of Rome itself, one of the major annual festivals was the Lemuria, which was intended to pacify the vengeful spirits of those unjustly slain or left unburied. The poet Ovid recounts some of the solemn rites associated with the event, which was always held in May: they included the closing of the temples, ritual handwashing and the throwing of black beans.
So strong was the tradition of Lemuria that the early Christian Church – under the leadership of early seventh century Pope Boniface IV – started a process of adapting it, resulting in its eventual transformation into All Saints Day.
But if flinging around black beans and washing hands were symbolic gestures to keep the dead at rest, what happened to the Lugano child – its gender is uncertain – was much more direct and practical. The researchers say the insertion of the rock is a strong indication that the locals thought the deceased child might rise again and bring “evil” – in this case, malaria – in its wake.
“This is a very unusual mortuary treatment that you see in various forms in different cultures, especially in the Roman world, that could indicate there was a fear that this person might come back from the dead and try to spread disease to the living,” says team member and bioarchaeologist Jordan Wilson.
It is not, however, without precedent. Previous excavations in the cemetery uncovered a three-year-old girl with stones weighting her hands and feet.
In England in 2017, a fourth century Romano-British skeleton was found with its tongue removed and a stone inserted in its place.
“We know 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,” says Soren.
It was also a surprisingly durable funeral practice – although the definition of evil, and the nature of the threat the corpse presented, tended to vary over time in line with the dominant social group.
In 2017, a team of archaeologists led by Matteo Borrini from the University of Florence in Italy reported the discovery of a sixteenth century female skeleton, which had a brick forced into its mouth.
Borrini and his team suggested that it was likely the woman – who was quite old at the time of death – had been accused of witchcraft and was the victim of a brutal exorcism. Alternatively, the researchers conceded, she may have died from the plague and her subsequent mutilation was an effort by the living to prevent her from coming back and spreading the disease.
Either way, she was quickly dubbed by locals and reporters “the Vampire of Venice”.
Likewise, the 10-year-old uncovered by Soren and his colleagues. An abscessed tooth, they suggest, may well have been caused by malaria – which swept through the Umbria region about 1500 years ago.
La Necropoli dei Bambini, one of very few Roman burial grounds dedicated to children ever found, has been the subject of progressive excavation since the 1990s.
A formal description of the 10-year-old has yet to be published, but Soren, Wilson and colleagues wonder whether they will find any further examples of vampire-proofing as their work continues.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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