Even today, a person’s social and religious life determines the burial customs that follow them into death, so for archaeologists, the way someone is buried can reveal a great deal about how they were perceived in life. Luckily for us, shaming a person in death, or taking extra measures to stop them wreaking retribution from beyond the grave is not as common as it has been in much of human history.
Take, for example, the ‘vampire grave’ unearthed in Bulgaria containing a skeleton with an iron stake through its heart. Or the fresh discovery at an archaeological dig in northern Italy which unearthed the remains of a 13-year-old-girl buried face-down who the media have dubbed ‘witch girl’.
The teenager was excavated by a team from Italy’s Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology at the Vatican, in the coastal region of Italy’s Ligurian Riviera. Her remains have yet to be carbon dated, but it’s been estimated that she lived some time between 400 and 1,000 AD.
Though unusual, such deviant burials aren’t as rare as you might expect. According to an article in Current Archaeology, archaeologists around the world have discovered around 600 such ‘prone burials’, where the skull of the deceased person is positioned face-down in their grave. Britain seems to be a particular hotspot, with over 200 such burials discovered, but the earliest known example was found in the Czech Republic and dated to 26,000 years ago, while the most recent one, from early 20th century Flanders, was a grave from the First World War.
Face-down burials could be “a treatment used for murderers and thieves,” excavation director Stefano Roascio told the Italian newspaper Il Secolo XIX. “These rare burials are explained as an act of punishment. What the dead had done was not accepted by the community,” Roascio told Rossella Lorenzi at Discovery News.
Another possibility is that the girl was buried that way out of a superstitious belief that it would prevent her from being resurrected, or coming back to haunt the living as a spirit. Archaeologists suggest that positioning a person’s skull face-down in their grave signifies that the community not only wanted to humiliate the person, but also make it more difficult for them to rise from the dead. “In particular, the prone burial was linked to the belief that the soul left the body through the mouth. Burying the dead face-down was a way to prevent the impure soul threatening the living,” anthropologist Elena Dellù from Italy’s Institute of Archeology told Lorenzi.
So, despite her young age, the archaeologists believe her community saw her as a danger even when dead. According to Dellù, victims of this treatment were in some cases buried face-down while still alive, but this does not seem to have been the case for the teenage girl. Found with her hands placed on the pelvis with straight, parallel legs, the arrangement of her bones show no signs of a struggle and suggest that even if she was reviled in life, she did not suffer a violent death.
So just why was she buried face down? What had she done? Although her burial was otherwise normal, the archaeologists did notice porotic hyperostosis on the skull and orbits of the eyes. These areas of spongy or porous bone are often the result of severe anaemia and suggest that she suffered from an inherited blood disorder such as thalassemia, from a hemorrhagic condition or was severely deficient in iron.
The condition may have meant the girl was very pale, fainted regularly or had hematomas (bruising), which might have frightened her community. Intriguingly though, her burial was found in a privileged area, just in front of the church. Calling her a ‘witch girl’ couldn’t help but remind us of this:
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