An ancient child’s ‘vampire burial’ included steps to prevent resurrection

The 10-year-old’s skeleton had a stone placed in the mouth

skull from Roman cemetery

STAY DEAD  A child buried in a fifth century Roman cemetery had a stone placed in his or her mouth as part of a funeral ritual to keep the body from coming back to life, scientists say.

D. Pickel/Stanford Univ.

Excavations in an ancient Roman cemetery turned poignantly eerie last summer.

In one grave lay a roughly 10-year-old child, possibly the victim of malaria, with a stone inserted in his or her mouth. That practice was part of a funeral ritual intended to prevent the youngster from rising zombielike and spreading disease to the living, researchers say. Such “vampire burials” indicate signs of a belief among people of the time that the dead could come back to life.

The discovery of this vampire burial occurred at the Cemetery of the Babies, a mid-fifth century site in central Italy. Classical archaeologist David Pickel of Stanford University led the excavation. The results, announced in an Oct. 11 statement, will be presented in January at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in San Diego.

A malaria outbreak in the region killed many babies and young children around the time of the child’s burial. Of more than 50 previously excavated graves at the cemetery, 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 have been found previously, including a 16th century Venetian woman buried with a brick in her mouth and a man from third or fourth century England whose tongue had been cut out and replaced with a stone. 

Many infants and toddlers interred at the Italian site were accompanied by objects associated with beliefs in witchcraft and magic, such as raven talons and toad bones. Stones had been placed on the hands and feet of the 3-year-old child, another practice used by various cultures to keep the dead in their graves.

Such rituals attempted to keep whatever evil people thought had fatally contaminated bodies from getting out, says classical archaeologist David Soren of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who participated in the new dig.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Archaeology