Archaeologists have discovered the skeleton of a 10-year-old child at an ancient Roman site in Italy with a rock carefully placed in its mouth.
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.
"I've never seen anything like it. It's extremely eerie and weird", said David Soren, an anthropology professor at the University of Arizona, who has overseen archaeological excavations at the cemetery since 1987. Locals in the Italian town of Lugnano in Teverina call it the "Vampire of Lugnano".
A team of archaeologists from the University of Arizona and Stanford University made the discovery over the summer while excavating a site known as La Necropoli dei Bambini ("Cemetery of the Babies"), since it was believed to be exclusively for the burial of infants and toddlers who died from an outbreak of malaria.
The grave dates back to around 500 AD and inside is a child of around 10 years old who had been subjected to a gruesome end.
Near the child's grave was the body of a 3-year-old girl, archaeologists say.
The remains of yet another child, a girl of about 3 years of age, were found with heavy stones on the hands and feet - a practice employed by many cultures around the world to keep the dead from rising.
Excavation director David Pickel, said the discovery has the potential to tell researchers much more about the devastating malaria epidemic that hit Umbria almost 1,500 years ago - and how locals "used witchcraft" in response.
Archeologists have unearthed a skeleton of a ten-year-old child in the so-called Cemetery of Children in central Italy, which is a Roman earth-house for toddlers and babies as well as artifacts presumably used in witchcraft, including toad bones, raven talons, and bronze cauldrons.
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"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.
David Soren says that the vampire child was suffering from malaria at the time of his or her death, as excavators found an abscessed tooth, a sign of the disease, according to the university. Similar burials have been documented in other locations, including in Venice, where an elderly 16th-century woman dubbed the "Vampire of Venice" was found with a brick in her mouth in 2009. As with previously discovered sites, these unusual burials include features that indicate the living feared the dead may come back to life and took preventative steps to keep that from happening. While that may not seem like just like an odd funerary token, that small rock, with imprinted teeth marks in its surface, could mean a whole worldview of fear of the dead-and their potential return. In Northamptonshire in England about 75 miles north of London, a man from the third or fourth century was found previous year, a stone sat where his tongue had been.
"We can tell a lot about people's beliefs and hopes and by the way they treat the dead". Wilson added, "Anytime you look at burials, they're significant because they provide a window into ancient minds".
"It's a very human thing to have complicated feelings about the dead and wonder if that's really the end", Wilson said.