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The skeleton of the girl, a little under 5 feet tall and about age 13, showed signs of scurvy and anemia

New Analysis reveals Italian Girl given Witch Burial probably just had Scurvy


The remains of a teenage girl from medieval times given a witch burial in which she was placed face-down in a deep tomb is believed to have had scurvy that disfigured her body, causing her community to reject her, archaeologists have concluded.

Italian media outlets called her “the witch girl” after her skeleton was exhumed in September 2014 from the San Calocero complex in the town of Albenga on the Ligurian Riviera. The archaeologists doing the work were with the Vatican’s Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology.

The skeleton belonged to a girl aged about 13 years old. Radiocarbon dating shows she died between 1400 and 1500 AD.  She was found in the burial ground of a church consecrated to the martyr San Calocero. The church was built in the 5th and 6th centuries AD and then abandoned in 1593.

The excavation director, Stefano Roascio, said that face-down burials were carried out as an act of punishment intended to humiliate the dead, and discoveries like this were considered rare. According to the research team, in extreme cases, victims were buried alive in the facedown position, however, this was not the case with the newly discovered burial.

Discovery reported that she likely had pale skin and possibly other symptoms, including bleeding from the eyes, legs and mouth; protruding eyes; frog-leg posture; epileptic seizures; fainting; and corkscrew hair. If she had all these symptoms, she may well have been rejected and buried in  what is called a deviant burial so her soul, which scholars speculate her community thought impure, could not rise to haunt living people.

It is unusual to find a young girl buried in such a way, as most deviant burials are associated with adults.

A similar practice in the Middle Ages was linked with a belief in vampires, in which the deceased had a stone wedged in their mouth, or was even pinned to the ground with a stake. People believed this would prevent them from leaving at midnight and terrorizing the living. The legends formed an important part of folklore throughout Europe. In Bulgaria alone, more than 100 such ‘vampire’ burials have been found.

In Scotland in October 2014 archaeologists found what they believe is the grave of the last Scottish woman accused of being a witch. Following her death in prison, Lilias Adie was buried in deep mud with a heavy flat stone placed on top of her – a tradition based on the belief that witches could rise from their graves unless held down by a heavy stone.

This stone slab may be the burial place of Lilias Adie.

This stone slab may be the burial place of Lilias Adie. ( Credit:BBC)

During the 19 th century, Adie’s grave was disturbed and parts of her body were sold on the antiquities market. Her skull was sent to St Andrews University Museum. However, some time during the 20 th century, her skull went missing and has never been recovered.

A photo of the skull of Lilias Adie
A photo of the skull of Lilias Adie

Ancient Origins reported in April 2015 about a medieval or Saxon man whose skeleton was found in a Roman villa in Hampshire, England, who may have been buried in the countryside because of a jaw deformity that made his community consider him plagued by spirits. It’s also possible the community had earlier trepanned his skull to exorcise the evil spirits.

The man with the deformed jaw, who died about age 35 to 45, had a missing right hand and missing foot bones, possibly a punishment or a result of desecration by grave robbers. His skull had been drilled, which also could have been to relieve effects of his jaw deformity.

The trepanned skull of a medieval or Saxon man found in Italy.

The trepanned skull of a medieval or Saxon man found in Italy. (Photo by Hampshire Archaeology)

As for the girl in Italy, "scurvy was diagnosed on the basis of cranial lesions which were the result of porotic hyperostosis," or porous bones, said Elena Dellù. Dellù said she believes the girl had a problem with absorbing vitamin C into her system rather than being deprived of it in her diet.

"Albenga is on the Ligurian coast and fresh foods rich in vitamin C were certainly available," she said.

Scientists intend to take thin sections of her bones to ascertain what her diet was. They received a $90,000 grant to study the girl and other skeletons in the burial ground.

"We plan to excavate more skeletons, possibly of the same period of the girl, so that we can carry and compare DNA and biochemical analyses," Dellù told Discovery.

Featured image: The skeleton of the girl, a little under 5 feet tall and about age 13, showed signs of scurvy and anemia. Credit: Stefano Roascio

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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