Nowadays vampires and zombies are the stuff of movies, but for many ancient cultures they were seen as a very real threat. Archaeologists excavating a children's cemetery in Italy have uncovered a grisly reminder of that belief – the skeleton of a child with a large stone jammed into its mouth, a measure long thought to prevent the body from returning from the dead.

The discovery was made at La Necropoli dei Bambini (the Cemetery of the Babies) in Lugnano in Teverina, a 5th century CE grave site for children. In a makeshift tomb created by propping two large roof tiles up against a wall, the archaeologists found the skeleton lying on its left side, with the rock placed inside its mouth. Judging by the development of its teeth, the archaeologists estimate the child was about 10 years old at the time of death, although they can't yet tell if it was a boy or a girl.

Its discoverers say the rock didn't just roll in there some time in the last 1,500 years, either. The way the jaw is open couldn't have happened during the normal process of decomposition, and there are teeth marks on the stone that indicate it was pushed in there with some force.

So why was this rock deliberately crammed into the child's mouth between death and burial? In many ancient civilizations, it was believed that after death the soul escaped the body through the mouth, so blocking that exit could prevent the dead from rising again.

"I've never seen anything like it," says David Soren, an archaeologist from the University of Arizona, who has overseen excavations at the site since the 1980s. "It's extremely eerie and weird. Locally, they're calling it the 'Vampire of Lugnano'."

Although this skeleton is the most striking discovery made in the cemetery so far, it fits in well with the story that its neighbors tell. Earlier, a three-year old girl was found buried with large stones on her hands and feet, in an apparent attempt to keep her from returning from the dead. Other excavations in the area have also found witchcraft-related items like raven talons, toad bones, bronze cauldrons full of ash, and even puppies that seem to have been sacrificed.

"We know that the Romans were very much concerned with this and would even go to the extent of employing witchcraft to keep the evil — whatever is contaminating the body — from coming out," says Soren.

Contrary to what the ancient Romans believed though, the cause of the panic was probably something much more natural than supernatural – malaria. DNA testing of several of the children interred there have found evidence of malaria infection. The disease seems to have hit epidemic proportions in the area in the 5th century, hence the need for a cemetery dedicated to children. While the 10-year old's bones haven't been DNA tested for signs of the disease yet, the child did have an abscessed tooth, which is a symptom.

Of course, 1,500 years ago the outbreak was more likely to be attributed to revenants. In the centuries before the rise of the vampire and zombie mythos we know today, revenants were thought to be reanimated corpses that rose from the dead to spread disease to the living – and the continued deaths were likely all the evidence these people needed.

Clues for similar beliefs have been found in other parts of the world. Last year, bones found in an 11th century burial pit in England showed signs of the bodies having been decapitated, dismembered and burned, in an apparent attempt to fend off revenants.

"This is a very unusual mortuary treatment that you see in various forms in different cultures, especially in the Roman world, that could indicate there was a fear that this person might come back from the dead and try to spread disease to the living," says Jordan Wilson, the bioarchaeologist who examined the remains. "It's a very human thing to have complicated feelings about the dead and wonder if that's really the end. Anytime you can look at burials, they're significant because they provide a window into ancient minds. We have a saying in bioarchaeology: 'The dead don't bury themselves.' We can tell a lot about people's beliefs and hopes and by the way they treat the dead."

Further excavations are due to take place at La Necropoli dei Bambini next summer.

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