Why did this 5th-century child get a 'vampire burial'?

A 10-year-old was discovered lying on its side in a fifth-century Italian cemetery previously believed to be designated for babies toddlers and unborn fetuses. Credit David Pickel  Stanford University

A group of archaeologists from Italy and the United States of America found at an ancient cemetery in the Italian region of Tuscany, the remains of the child supposedly died from malaria, and buried with a stone in his mouth in a special ritual "burial of the vampires", reported on the website of the University of Arizona.

According to researchers, the stone was intentionally inserted as part of a funeral ritual created to stopper disease and the body from rising after being buried.

Archaeologist David Soren of the University of Arizona (UA) said: "I've never seen anything like it".

The so-called vampire child is not the only sign of mysterious superstitious practices uncovered at the site.

A rock was inserted into the mouth of a 10-year-old to keep the deceased child from rising from the grave as a vampire and spreading malaria, researchers believe.

"This is a very unusual mortuary treatment that you see in various forms in different cultures, especially in the Roman world", says Jordan Wilson, a graduate student in bio-archaeology at the University of Arizona who studied the remains.

Previously, the team had also found a 3-year-old girl with stones weighing down her hands and feet, another practice meant to prevent her from rising as an undead.

The researchers will continue excavations at Lugnano next summer.

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Soren said he first found out about the burial site in 1987, when he was working on a different project on the island of Cyprus and was invited to visit Lugnano in Italy's Umbria region - the center of witchcraft during the Roman Empire.

A large rock appeared to have been placed inside the child's mouth - which is evidence of a "vampire burial". 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. Other children buried in the cemetery are known to have died of malaria, and this child has an abscessed tooth, which is a side effect of malaria, the researchers said.

"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", said Excavation director David Pickel.

The presence of the older child, however, suggests that the cemetery wasn't just used to inter the youngest dead - and that the burial rituals used were broader than we knew.

A press release about the find says that the child was around 10 years old and lived around the fifth century. However, there have been similar burials in other locations in Italy, such as the elderly 16th-century woman, unearthed in 2009, who was buried with a brick in her mouth.

Archaeologists call these "deviant burials", or the ancient way of burying people who were feared to have supernatural abilities like coming back from death, or those who have violated society's rules, Wilson said. In Northamptonshire, England, in 2017, they found an adult male from the third or fourth century buried facedown with his tongue removed and replaced with a stone.

'Anytime you can look at burials, they're significant because they provide a window into ancient minds.

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