What happens to our bodies after death is an ageless question that continues to pique the interest of modern man. In some ancient cultures, the living feared that the dead weren’t quite finished on earth. Stories of zombies, vampires, ghosts and worse permeate myth and folklore around the globe. Researchers in one cemetery outside in Teverina, Italy, have unearthed several clues that suggest Romans more than 1,500 years ago took pains to make sure the dead stayed dead.
A malaria outbreak in fifth century Italy fueled both deaths of disease-prone children and fears of witchcraft. A small cemetery overlooking the Tiber River near the town of Lugnano contains skeletons of dozens of children and infants — the outbreak’s youngest victims.
One recently uncovered tomb has an unusual feature — heavy roofing tiles providing additional weight over the body. Archeologists were further surprised to find that the skeleton of the ten-year-old child under the tiles has a stone set purposefully in the mouth. Like beheading and a wooden stake through the heart, a stone between the jaws was believed to prevent vampires or other undead from rising from the grave.
This is not the only evidence of individual skeletons being singled out for special preventative measures. One body, estimated to be three years old, was discovered weighted down at the arms and legs with heavy stones to prevent the corpse from leaving its tomb.
Ravens’ claws, decapitated puppies, toad bones and bronze cauldrons have also been found among and alongside the buried victims. These items are talismans and other objects associated with witchcraft, a desperate attempt by the locals to stem the tide of deaths due to malaria, Italian for “bad air.”
While the stones and amulets did little to lessen the threat of malaria to the ancient Romans, these placebos hopefully helped the survivors sleep better at night.