Lugnano in Teverina is a small village surrounded by green hills which fall down slowly towards the Valley of Tiber. At the beginning of the I AD in one of those hills, a foreign rich Roman built up his villa, a complex of over 1,800 m² (19,000 ft²), which went into disrepair already around the III AD.

For some reason, around mid 400 AD, when the Western Roman Empire was about to come to its end, the citizens living nearby turned some rooms of the building into a cemetery dedicated to children of a few years old as well as fetus and stillborn creatures.

Lugnano in Teverina

Above: picture by LigaDue shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

During the excavation in 2017, a team of Italian archeologists in collaboration with two American Universities (Stanford University and University of Arizona) found themselves in front of a surprise: a child of approximately 10 years old buried in an unusual position, very close to the typical “vampire burial”. Inside the mouth of the little victim it had been placed a stone, probably as part of a funeral ritual to prevent the person from coming back amongst the living. Perhaps the people were afraid the child would have spread the disease, most likely malaria, which had been cause of death. Professor David Soren, director of the work from 1987, declared:

“I’ve never seen anything like that: It’s extremely unsettling and odd”.

The “Children Necropolis” of Lugnano seemed to be intended for newborns, fetus, and children of just a few years:

Amongst 50 burials discovered so far the oldest child counted only 3 years old

The find of the skeleton of a 10 years old child though, age presumed by the teeth of the victim, suggests to the archeologists that the cemetery hosted even older children:

“The age of this specific child and the type of unique burial with a stone inside his mouth represent an anomaly inside this already anomalous cemetery” said the archeologist David Pickel.

According to the researcher, the children cemetery of Lugnano is actually unique but not just that; its content could be extremely useful for the study of the terrible epidemic of malaria which hit the Umbria region as well as central Italy 1,500 years ago. A bishop coming from Ravenna heading to Rome remembered the event in his “Epistulae” in summer 467 AD.

Some years before, in 452, the Ruler of the Huns, Attila, gave up on marching to Rome due to this unknown pestilence which would contaminate the air of the streets that from the North went down to the eternal city. For the archeologists studying the Necropolis of Lugnano, that pestilence was nothing but malaria, responsible of the death of all those children in the Roman villa.

The stone placed inside the mouth

In the 5 rooms transformed into cemetery the archeologists found bones of children and newborns along with objects and animal rests, especially puppy dogs which suggest the intention of having the little victims accompanied by those creatures in the afterlife. Despite Christianity was widespread, the ancient Pagan beliefs delayed to disappear. According to Soren, the dogs, especially the puppies, were usually sacrificed to the Goddess Hecate, who had the task of accompanying the death, especially the children, to the afterlife.

A further detail which makes the cemetery unusual is that all the children were buried within a few weeks, or perhaps days, during that long summer which brought not only the scent of the blooming honeysuckles but also a disease which contributed to the decline of the ancient world.

The picture of the excavations were published with kind permission of David Pickel – Stanford University. Thanks to the Italian researcher Elena Varotto for her contribution and corrections.

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