Rare burial in Italy attributed to a 'witch girl'
Image: Stefano Roascio

The way a person is buried by their community says a lot about how they were perceived in life. For that reason, burial customs are often used by anthropologists to gain a better understanding of how ancient civilisations and the various communities within them once functioned. Even today, there are still such strong ties between a person’s religion in life and the burial customs that follow them into death, the alien anthropologists that will one day study us will no doubt appreciate the effort.

Fortunately for us, shaming a person in death, or taking measures against the possibility of supernatural retribution from beyond the grave, is far less common now as it has been in much of human history. An interesting example of this is the rare ‘prone burial’, which sees the skull of the deceased person being positioned face-down in their grave. The earliest known case of prone burial was found in the Czech Republic and dated to 26,000 years ago, while the most recent one was found in a World War I grave unearthed in Belgium.

Now archaeologists have found a new example of a prone burial - a 13-year-old girl in Italy, buried face-down in a grave facing what once was a church. The girl's remains have yet to be carbon dated, but it’s been estimated that she lived some time between the Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, so between 400 and 1,000 AD. 

The teenager was excavated by a team from Italy's Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology at the Vatican, and the site she was found in is located in the coastal region of Italy’s Ligurian Riviera. Thanks to her burial pose, she has been dubbed a ‘witch girl’ by the Italian media, with anthropologists suggesting that her community was frightened of her, even after she had died, due to some kind of supernatural belief.

“These rare burials are explained as an act of punishment. What the dead had done was not accepted by the community,” excavation director Stefano Roascio told Rossella Lorenzi at Discovery News

Lorenzi points to other measures that have been taken in the past to ensure that the dead stays, well, dead, including putting a brick in the mouth of the skull, and nailing the bones to the ground. Just this week, a ‘vampire grave’ was unearthed in Bulgaria containing a skeleton with an iron stake through its heart.

Anthropologists suggest that positioning a person’s skull to be 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.

In some cases, a victim of this treatment was buried face-down while still alive, added Dellù, but says this was not the case for teenage girl, as the arrangement of her bones show no signs of a struggle. The girl’s bones also suggest that despite very likely being reviled in life, she did not suffer a violent death. But there were indications to suggest that she suffered from a genetic blood disorder or was severely deficient in iron, which might have caused her to have hematomas - terrible bruising - and regular fainting spells, which might have frightened her community. 

"Dellù noticed porotic hyperostosis on the skull and orbits. These areas of spongy or porous bone tissue are the result of a severe anaemia,” says Lorenzi at Discovery News

“A precise dating of the skeleton and further research on similar burials might help in finding more clues,” Roascio adds.

We can't help but be reminded of this: