Halloween is a time when ordinarily level-headed people grow wary of the supernatural.
But superstition and fear of the undead is nothing new. Archaeologists excavating in Lugnano, Teverina, have uncovered the remains of a 10 year-old child buried in what is colloquially known as a “vampire burial.” Strangely a rock was stuffed into the mouth of the child after its death. Archaeologists involved in the discovery believe that it offers new, early evidence about how people tried to keep the undead in their graves.
The child’s skeleton was discovered at the Cemetery of the Babies in central Italy, a burial site that dates back to the fifth century A.D. and can be tied to a malaria epidemic that ravaged the region around the same time. The cemetery was constructed on the site of an abandoned first-century B.C. Roman villa. The archaeologists from the University of Arizona and Stanford University who excavated the site found the skeleton on its left side between two large roof tiles leaning against a wall. This style of burial—known as alla cappuccina—is typical of the region. The egg-sized rock, however, is not. John Wilson, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona who worked on the remains, concluded that because the mouth generally does not open when a body is interred on its side, the rock must have been placed there deliberately. The fact that the rock has bite marks on it only supports his theory.
The archaeologists believe that the child’s burial was part of a superstitious burial rite to prevent the child rising from the dead and spreading the disease. David Pickel, excavation director and a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, said he was surprised by ritual elements of the burial. “The community did not simply insert a stone within this child’s mouth,” he said, “they first cut the stone, and then cemented it within the child’s mouth.”
The teams of scientists from the University of Arizona and Stanford still await DNA analysis that they hope will reveal the cause of death. Preliminary examinations on an abscess in the skull’s tooth suggests that the child died from malaria. In the meantime locals are already calling the child the “Vampire of Lugnano.”
Dr. David Soren, professor at the University of Arizona School of Anthropology and Department of Religious Studies and Classics, said in a statement that he had “never seen anything like it.” He added that the burial is a “return to non-Christian practices of earlier times.” If this analysis is correct this would be the earliest example of a "vampire burial" discovered so far.
But this is not the only example of this kind of ritualized burial. In 2014, archaeologists excavating the ruins of Perperikon, an ancient Thracian city in southern Bulgaria, discovered a series of medieval “vampire graves.” Archaeologist Nikolai Ovcharov—a self-styled Indiana Jones figure—discovered a skeleton of a 40- to 50-year-old man who had an iron rod hammered through its chest. The two-pound rod was part of a ploughshare and had been dug into the body into a broken shoulder bone. Ovcharov dated the grave to the early 13th century and said at the time of discovery, “We have no doubts that once again we’re seeing an anti-vampire ritual being carried out.” The ritual was performed, he said, to stop a “bad” person rising from the dead.
Only two years earlier, archaeologists working in Sozopol, on the Black Sea, had uncovered the remains of a 700-year-old “pirate vampire” in a church graveyard. Like the Vampire of Perperikon, a stake had been driven through the chest of the skeleton. Archaeologist Bozhidar Dimitrov told journalists that Balkan people believed that staking the bodies of evil-doers would prevent them from tormenting the living. “A group of brave men would reopen their graves and pierce the corpses with iron or wooden rods,” Dimitrov said “[the] Iron rod was used for the richer vampires.” Dimitrov identified this particular vampire with the Black Sea pirate and local mayor Krivich (“Crooked”).
What’s interesting about these burials is the manner in which they breach the ordinary conventions of human burial. Burial rites often signify respect and care for the deceased. The presence of grave goods (pots, tools, weapons, and jewelry) is a central example of this, but even burials on “hallowed ground” in sacred spaces like cemeteries or tombs are a sign of care for the dead. In the case of these vampire rituals, however, the primary concern has shifted from care for the dead to the protection of the living. Living humans drove stakes through the heart of their deceased neighbors and (apparently) forced a rock into the mouth of the body of a child. Whether they liked these people or not, these behaviors are a break with social conventions and a manifestation of human fears about death and contagious disease.
What all of this shows, then, is that when evil is at your door, ordinary piety gives way to superstition. It’s clear that, whatever Bram Stoker may have thought, Romania does not hold a monopoly on vampires.