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The “anomalous” burial of a child in a 5th century Umbrian cemetery

Lugnano in Teverina is a small village, located in the region of central Italy Umbria, surrounded by green hills that descend towards the valley of the Tiber river. At the beginning of the first century AD, on one of these hills, an unknown man, probably a wealthy Roman, built his villa (a complex of over 1800 square meters), which however was already in ruins around the third century.
For some unknown reason, around the middle of the 15th century, when the western Roman empire was very close to its end, the inhabitants of the area transformed some rooms of the residence into a cemetery reserved for children of a few years old, and also for fetuses of never born babies.
During some excavations in 2017, a team of Italian archaeologists and two universities in the United States (Stanford University and University of Arizona) found themselves faced with a macabre surprise: the skeleton of a little boy (or a little girl) about 10 years old who was buried in an unusual position, similar to the subsequent “vampire burials”. A stone had been intentionally placed in the mouth of the little victim, probably to stick to a funeral ritual that was to prevent the dead to come back to life, and spread the disease (probably malaria) that had been the cause of death.

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

The “Children’s Necropolis” of Lugnano seemed to be destined for infants, fetuses, and very young children. Among the about 50 burials so far found, the remains of the oldest victim belonged to a deceased about three years old.
The discovery of a skeleton belonging to a victim of about 10 years (estimated age based on the teeth) represents an anomaly inside an already anomalous cemetery.
However, according to the scholars, the Lugnano children’s cemetery is truly unique, but not only: it could be very useful for the studies on the terrible malaria epidemic that struck all Umbria (and central Italy) approximately 1500 years ago, remembered in his Epistulae by a bishop who descended from Ravenna to Rome in the summer of 467.
A few years earlier, in 452, the unstoppable king of the Huns, Attila, renounced marching towards Rome probably also due to an unknown plague that plagued the air along the roads leading from the north to the eternal city.
According to archaeologists who study the Necropolis of Lugnano, that plague was nothing but malaria, responsible for the death of all children buried in the Roman villa.

This is the rock that was inserted into the child’s mouth in this so-called “vampire burial.”

In the five rooms converted into a cemetery, archaeologists found the bones of children and babies with objects and remains of animals next to them, expecially dog puppies. Despite the spread of Christianity, ancient pagan beliefs were slow to die: according to popular belief dogs, and in particular puppies, were usually sacrificed to the goddess Hecate, who had the task of accompanying the dead, especially children, into the underworld.
Another detail that makes the cemetery “anomalous” is that all the children were buried within a few weeks, or perhaps even a few days, during a long summer which brought a terrible epidemic, one of the possible causes of the decline of the ancient world.

All photos are courtesy of David Pickel/Stanford University.

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