The skeletal remains were found by archaeologists from the University of Arizona (UA) and Stanford University, alongside Italians, with a stone placed purposefully in the child’s mouth.
According to researchers, the stone was intentionally inserted as part of a funeral ritual designed to stopper disease and the body from rising after being buried.
The unusual so-called “vampire burial” was described as “extremely eerie and weird” by archaeologist and professor David Soren, who has been excavating the site in Teverina since 1987.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Professor Soren, a Regents’ Professor in the UA school of anthropology and department of religious studies and classics.
“Locally, they’re calling it the ‘Vampire of Lugnano’.”
The find was unearthed at La Necropoli dei Bambini, or the Cemetery of Children, a burial site which dates back to a malaria outbreak in 400 AD which killed many vulnerable babies and small children in the area.
Archaeologists had previously believed the cemetery was exclusively for infants, toddlers and unborn fetuses – with the eldest body found of more than 50 burials being a three-year-old girl.
However the discovery of the 10-year-old, whose age could be measured from dental development but whose sex is unknown, suggests that it may have been a burial location for older children as well, according to bioarchaeologist Jordan Wilson.
“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,” said Mr Wilson, a doctoral student in anthropology at UA.
Excavation director David Pickel said: “Given the age of this child and its unique deposition, with the stone placed within his or her mouth, it represents, at the moment, an anomaly within an already abnormal cemetery,”
The UA and Stanford academic added: “This just further highlights how unique the infant – or now, rather, child – cemetery at Lugnano is.”
Previous excavations at La Necropoli dei Bambini have revealed the bones of infants and toddlers alongside objects associated with witchcraft and magic, including raven talons, toad bones, bronze cauldrons filled with ash and the remains of puppies that appear to have been sacrificed.
The body of the three-year-old girl discovered at the site had stones weighing down her hands and feet, a ritual practice used by many different cultures throughout history to prevent the dead from rising from their graves.
“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,” said Professor Soren.
“It’s a very human thing to have complicated feelings about the dead and wonder if that’s really the end,” Mr Wilson said.