Stephenie Meyer’s landmark book series Twilight revolutionized the way we think of vampires. Rather than the flesh-eating monsters depicted in films such as 30 Days of Night, now when we hear the word ‘vampire’ we think of hot guys with glistening skin, flowy hair, and six pack abs who are married to Kristen Stewart. A recent discovery by researchers at an excavation site in Italy might start to reassert some of the old tropes associated with vampires and the genuine fears people in the ancient world had.
While exploring a site in the Umbrian region of Italy, archaeologists from Stanford University of the University of Arizona discovered the skeletal remains of a 10-year old child. What’s notable about the discovery is the way the child was buried. Found wedged in the mouth was a rock the size of a large egg.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s extremely eerie and weird,” said David Soren, a UA archaeologist who has been leading excavations on the site for thirty years. The remains of this child were found in a burial space called “Necropoli dei Bambini,” or ‘cemetery of the babies’ and are said to date back to the 5th century CE.
At the same location, archaeologists have found other strange burial practices alluding to the presence of witchcraft in the area. Babies buried alongside raven talons, toad bones, sacrificed puppies, and cauldrons filled with ash––all items that are linked closely to sorcery––have been identified at the cemetery.
The child in question died of malaria disease according to the researchers. The placing of a rock in the mouth of the deceased is an old burial technique used to prevent the deceased from returning from the dead. It is a practice heavily associated with those accused of being vampires. Much like how ‘witches’ were blamed for bringing famine, disease, and other undesirable phenomena that can now be thoroughly explained by science, monsters in the ancient world were the scapegoat for similar occurrences.
It’s notable that the discovered corpse is said to have died of malaria. While more commonly associated with sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South America, during the classical period malaria broke out all over southern Europe. Hippocrates wrote extensively over “fevers” that plagued Greece in the 4th century. During the 5th century, a vicious outbreak of malaria spread through the Roman empire. Some have theorized that it played a role in the fall of the empire.
Burying the child using vampire burial techniques suggests many in the community the child of being a vampire and did so to prevent the child from returning from the grave to spread the disease.
In 2013, a group of archaeologists discovered what turned out to be a series of vampire graves. The skeletons they found had all had their heads cut off and placed between their legs. According to Marc Lallanilla, an assistant editor at Live Science, “according to ancient superstition,” separating the head from the body insured that, “the “undead” wouldn’t be able to rise from the grave to terrorize the living.”
In 2009, University of Florence anthropologist, Matteo Borrini, discovered remains of a woman from the 16th century buried in the Venice lagoon. The woman was laid to rest with a brick shoved in her jaw which according to experts was another common practice in the middle ages to prevent vampires from coming back from the dead.
Elsewhere in Bulgaria, remains have been found with iron rods driven through the chest of the body. In an interview with The Telegraph, archaeologist Nikolai Ovcharov asserted, “We have no doubts that once again we’re seeing an anti-vampire ritual being carried out.”
What all these findings, including this discovery, indicate is how widespread belief in and paranoia over vampires was from antiquity well into the middle ages. The recent remains found in Italy attest to how popular belief in vampires was.