An international team of archaeologists has unearthed the skeletal remains of a child with a rock inserted into its mouth in a 5th century cemetery in the central Italian region of Umbria. Led by University of Arizona archaeologist David Soren who has been excavating the cemetery in the municipality of Lugnano since 1987, archaeologists from Stanford University and Italy discovered the unusual burial this summer. The body was found inhumed in a sort of lean-to grave created by propping two large roof tiles against a wall, a style characteristic of Roman Italy. The articulated skeleton had been placed on its side and its jaw was wide open. It could not have fallen open like that naturally when the body was on its side, and the stone had teeth marks on the surface indicating it was intentionally placed between the jaws during burial.
Stones deliberately the placed in the mouth are believed to be ritual gestures meant to contain the danger posed by a corpse from the spread of infectious disease or from the dead themselves rising from the grave to plague (literally and metaphorically) the living. That’s why they’re known as “vampire burials” even when they bear no specific connection to the vampire legends per se.
A deadly outbreak of malaria swept the area in the mid-5th century. Children and infants were especially hard hit, and the cemetery was likely dedicated to the interral of the young victims. Because of its sadly vulnerable population, it is called “La Necropoli dei Bambini” (the Necropolis of the Children). It was the site of a 1st century B.C. Roman villa, an elite country home that had long since been abandoned by the time malaria struck in the 5th century claiming the lives of so many children. DNA testing of several of the bones unearthed in the cemetery confirms the presence of malaria. The ten-year-old’s bones have not been DNA-tested yet, but he or she did have an abscess in one tooth, a common side-effect of malaria.
Until now, archaeologists believed the cemetery was designated specifically for infants, toddlers and unborn fetuses; in previous excavations of more than 50 burials, a 3-year-old girl was the oldest child found.
The discovery of the 10-year-old, whose age was determined based on dental development but whose sex is unknown, suggests that the cemetery may have been used for older children as well, said bioarcheologist Jordan Wilson, a UA doctoral student in anthropology who analyzed the skeletal remains in Italy.
Excavation director David Pickel, who has a master’s degree in classical archaeology from the UA and is now a doctoral student at Stanford, said the discovery has the potential to tell researchers much more about the devastating malaria epidemic that hit Umbria nearly 1,500 years ago, as well as the community’s response to it.
“Given the age of this child and its unique deposition, with the stone placed within his or her mouth, it represents, at the moment, an anomaly within an already abnormal cemetery,” Pickel said. “This just further highlights how unique the infant — or now, rather, child — cemetery at Lugnano is.”
There is other evidence in the cemetery that the survivors enlisted magical ritual to counter the child-killing epidemic. Infants and toddlers were buried with talismans like raven talons, toad bones and bronze cauldrons containing the burned remains of sacrificed puppies. The three-year-old girl, the oldest child found in the cemetery before the most recent discovery, was buried with stones weighing down her hands and feet, another practice meant to keep the dead from rising.