The 1550-year-old “vampire burial” was uncovered in an ancient infant cemetery, called La Necropoli dei Bambini, which dates back to the mid-fifth century when a deadly malaria outbreak plagued the area.
Among the findings was a skull with a rock intentionally stuffed into its mouth, which researchers believe was the result of a funeral ritual intended to contain disease.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s extremely eerie and weird,” University of Arizona archaeologist David Soren said in a statement.
“Locally, they’re calling it the ‘Vampire of Lugnano’.
“We know that the Romans were very much concerned with this [the spread of disease] and would even go to the extent of employing witchcraft to keep the evil – whatever is contaminating the body – from coming out.”
Researchers determined that the 10-year-old child, whose sex is unknown, had an abscessed tooth, a side effect of malaria.
The finding was also significant because archaeologists previously believed that the cemetery was specifically for infants, toddlers and unborn foetuses.
In fact, until now, the oldest bones in the cemetery belonged to a three-year-old.
Other bizarre findings have been discovered at the site, including the skeletons of babies and toddlers found buried beside raven talons, toad bones and bronze cauldrons filled with the remains of sacrificed puppies.
In one case, the skeleton of a three-year-old girl at the cemetery was found with heavy stones holding down her hands and feet, a practice meant to keep her from rising from the dead.
The archaeologists now plan to return to Lugnano next summer to complete excavations of the cemetery.