Inside a miniature tomb, in the middle of what used to be a sprawling Roman villa, is the skeleton of a 10-year-old child who died more than 1,500 years ago. As Josh Gabbatiss reports for The Independent, the child was laid to rest with a stone inserted into its mouth, marking the grave a so-called "vampire burial" site likely meant to prevent the deceased from returning to life and infecting others with a deadly disease.
"It's extremely eerie and weird", said David Soren, a University of Arizona archaeologist who has overseen the local excavations since 1987.
"Locally, they're calling it the "Vampire of Lugnano".
"This is a very unusual mortuary treatment that you see in various forms in different cultures, especially in the Roman world", says Jordan Wilson, a graduate student in bio-archaeology at the University of Arizona who studied the remains.
La Necropoli del Bambini ("the Cemetery of the Babies") was known to be the final resting place for toddlers and infants.
Romans were in control of the area at the time and Dr Sovren believes they were responsible for keeping evil at bay, which explains the stone in the child's mouth.
These so-called "vampire" burials have been found before in Italy and Poland, with a stone placed in the mouth or over the body's throat, sometimes with a stake driven into the torso. It is on its side, its mouth agape and stuffed with a limestone rock about the size of a big egg.
Until now, it was believed that the cemetery only held infants, toddlers and unborn fetuses as previous excavations of more than 50 burials found a three-year-old girl (also found with stones weighing down her hands and feet) to be the oldest child.
It's thought that someone placed the rock in the mouth during the funeral process, this being done as a deliberate way to keep the dead from returning to afflict the living.
The UA and Stanford academic added: "This just further highlights how unique the infant - or now, rather, child - cemetery at Lugnano is".
But the recent discovery of a malaria-stricken 10-year-old buried in a 5th-century Roman graveyard suggests that vampire-fighting strategies weren't always so complex. (The archaeologists are now rethinking that assumption.) Based on the open position of the child's jaw, they concluded that the rock had been placed there intentionally, since this would not have happened naturally as the body decomposed.
"There are still sections of the cemetery that we haven't excavated yet, so we don't know if we'll find other older kids", Wilson said.
Soren says, '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'. And just past year, a 3rd- or 4th-century adult male was found in Northamptonshire, England, with his tongue cut out and replaced by a stone.
"It seems when humans are faced with the unknown, it's been a very common reaction throughout our entire history to react with fear", Wilson said.
These types of burials are often referred to as vampire burials since they are associated with a belief that the dead could rise again. "Anytime you can look at burials, they're significant because they provide a window into ancient minds".