Archeologists digging at the site of an ancient church in northern Italy found the skeletal remains of a young woman who was buried in a manner used once for witches, prompting today’s media to immediately dub her the ‘Witch Girl.’
The grave was uncovered at the complex of San Calocero in Albenga on the Ligurian Riviera, by a team from the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology at the Vatican. The site was once a burial ground where a church was built around the 5th century honoring Saint Calocerus, a 2nd-century Christian who preached in Albenga and was martyred there.
The girl appears to be about 13 and was buried face down, a way once believed to keep the dead from rising from the grave as well as act of humiliation, according to anthropologist Elena Dellù who helped analyze the remains.
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.
Why was this poor girl considered to be a witch or at least a danger to the community? The skeleton showed no signs of a violent death but it did have spongy bone tissue, a sign of porotic hyperostosis on the skull. This can be caused by severe anemia, says Dellù.
She could have suffered from an inherited blood disorder such as thalassemia or from hemorrhagic conditions. More simply, it could have been an iron lacking diet.
The anemia may have caused the girl to be smaller than average, be prone to fainting and have pale skin and hematomas. Not frightening conditions today but in the Middle Ages when she lived, they were sadly taken as signs of someone to be feared.
The girl may have had someone who cared for her because she was buried in front of the church, a place normally reserved for the privileged.
While this happened in the Middle Ages, it’s a good time to reflect on how we respond to victims of Ebola and their families – have we really changed?