Can archaeologists excavate evidence of malaria?

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27 Scopus citations


Archaeological excavations by the University of Arizona, USA at the site of Lugnano in Teverina, Umbria, Italy have unearthed evidence of an unusual infant cemetery within the confines of a destroyed Roman villa. The cemetery dates to just after the mid-fifth century and contains forty-seven infant burials accompanied by offerings associated with magic practices including puppies with severed heads, a raven talon, a toad and a pot with bones placed upside down. The site showed evidence of an ancient epidemic which has recently been shown, through DNA analysis, to have been Plasmodium falciparum malaria. The uniqueness of this discovery has led the author to draw up a basic primer for excavating what have been termed abnormal cemeteries. This includes special questions which must be asked when considering the stratigraphy, the positioning of the mass burials, the nature of the material culture deposited with and around the burials, the palynological evidence, various aspects of the skeletons themselves including the frequency of neonates and aborted foetuses, the tomb types and their hierarchical arrangement, evidence for ritual practices at the tombsite, the history of the area and parallels with other sites. By compiling a checklist of questions for the archaeologist, it is hoped that future excavators will be able to recognize those abnormal cemeteries which were created as a result of a response to special needs such as an epidemic or mass slaughter.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)193-209
Number of pages17
JournalWorld Archaeology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 2003


  • Abnormal cemetery
  • DNA
  • Hekate
  • Horace
  • Lugnano in Teverina
  • Malaria
  • Robert Sallares

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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