Young “Witch Girl” Buried Face Down as Punishment by Her Community

Even in death, a 13-year old girl from a community in northern Italy was seen as a threat. When archaeologists discovered her remains, she was buried face down, a rare burial that was only carried out when people wanted to punish the deceased.

Archaeologists explained that despite her young age, “the witch girl” was rejected by society. The skeleton was found on a burial ground in front of a church at the complex of San Calocera in Albenga, by a team of the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology at the Vatican.

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

Apparently, these burials were meant to disgrace the dead and stop them from rising from their tomb. The dead would sometimes be staked to the ground, have a brick shoved in their mouth, or be dismembered and decapitated. On other occasions, a face-down burial was the most extreme punishment. They would bury the victim alive.

“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 told Discovery News.

What was peculiar about this particular burial is that her remains, which are thought to date to the early Middle Ages, were resting in a very honored spot. Italian media are calling her “the witch girl,” as the manner in which she was buried was once used for those found guilty of sorcery.

“This makes the finding even more unusual. A similar case of a teenager buried face-down in front of a church was found at the archaeological site of Pava near Siena,” Roascio said. “A precise dating of the skeleton and further research on similar burials might help in finding more clues.”

Face-down burials are a “a conscious act, a deep-seated form of human behavior occurring in all cultures in religions.” At least, according to Caroline Arcini of Sweden’s National Heritage Board. She has recorded some 600 bodies from 215 grave sites who undergo a face-down burial. Arcini believes these burials began about 26,000 years ago.

Image: Stefano Roascio