A "vampire burial" found at a Roman site in Italy is a testament to ancient burial practices to stop bodies that rose from the dead, according to archaeologists.
The body of a ten-year-old child was ritualistly buried with a stone in his mouth, possibly out of fear that it would return again to spread the community.
Known locally as the "Vampire of Lugnano", evidence collected from the bones suggests that the child was infected with malaria at the time it died.
"I've never seen anything like it, it's extremely frightening and weird," said Professor David Soren, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona who has been carrying out excavations in the region for more than three decades.
The remains are the newest unusual discovery that comes from the cemetery of children, a site with dozens of bodies of children and evidence of witchcraft with mushrooms, ravens and bronze cauldrons.
Dated at a time in the fifth century, when a lethal outbreak of malaria flew through Central Italy, archaeologists thought that the cemetery was specially reserved for babies and young children who were most vulnerable to the disease.
The "vampire skeleton", whose gender is unknown, is the oldest child to be found on the site up to now.
It was one of the five new cemeteries discovered in the summer and found under a makeshift grave constructed from roof tiles.
"Knowing that two large roof tiles were used for this funeral, I expected that something unique was to be found inside, perhaps a" double inhumation "- not uncommon for this cemetery – where a single funeral contains two individuals, & # 39, said David Pickel, a PhD student a Stanford who directed the excavation.
"After removing the roof tiles, however, it immediately became clear to us that we were dealing with an older person."
The open jaws and teeth on the surface of the stone were proof that it had been deliberately placed in the mouth.
Similar funerals have been documented from Venice to Northamptonshire, and along with the disintegration of bodies and the enforcement of stakes through the heart, it is thought to be methods to prevent these "vampires" returning to haunt the living.
"This is a very unusual mortuary treatment that you see in different forms in different cultures, especially in the Roman world, which could indicate that there was a fear that this person would come back from the dead and try to spread disease among the living. " explained bioarchaeologist Jordan Wilson, another doctoral candidate who examined the body.
Professoer Soren added: "We know that the Romans were very concerned about this and would even go so far as to use witchcraft to prevent evil – whatever the body pollutes – from coming out."
An abscessed tooth, which can be a side effect of malaria, provided evidence that the child was killed in the epidemic that affected so many inhabitants of the cemetery.
Elsewhere on the site, a three-year-old girl was buried with stones that weighed her arms and feet – an exercise that was also considered to prevent bodies from coming back to life.
The researchers said that these practices provide a fascinating insight into the thinking processes of the ancient Romans and their fears about life after death.
"It is very human to have complicated feelings about the dead and to wonder if that is really the end," Wilson said.
"Every time you can look at funerals, they are important because they offer a window on the old brain."
Because many of the cemeteries are still unexplored, archaeologists plan to return to the site next summer to complete their excavations.