10.06.2011

A Medieval Witch?

I'm not sure if it's archaeologists getting lucky, or just the media being more interested, but we've been getting press coverage of another strange burial from a Medieval cemetery at Piombino in Tuscany, Italy.

Two bodies in particular interested the excavators, both of women. One was found buried with 17 dice, and since women were not allowed to play dice games at the time, they interpreted her as a having been a prostitute - which seems like a bit of a stretch in my opinion.



The second body was far more interesting ...


Seven nails were placed in her mouth - reminiscent of the placing of stones in the Medieval 'zombies' in Ireland and the Medieval 'vampires' in Bohemia. Presumably this was an attempt to stop the women rising and returning from the dead. Yet in addition, in this Italian burial, the woman's clothes were nailed to the ground by 13 nails, to further 'hold' her down (see the yellow arrows indicating their positions):


Because of these highly unusual nails, the woman was identified initially as a witch. She died around AD 1300, aged 25 to 30, and was buried in the church yard amongst other citizens of Piombino who had been buried normally. Most of the other burials had a shroud and / or a simple coffin, but the 'prostitute' and the 'witch' had neither. The excavator, Prof Alfonso Forgione, of L'Aquila University, said he had never seen anything similar, and felt that the pinning down by nails was an attempt to stop her from 'rising' from the dead by those who buried her and who believed she had some sort of magical powers, making her a witch.

The fact that the two women were buried in the church graveyard, in consecrated ground, has been an issue, and led some to question whether a witch would be buried in this way. The Irish 'zombies' were certainly buried in a consecrated graveyard, as were many of the Bohemian and Moravian 'vampires' so I'm not sure why this should be an issue. It has however led at least one archaeologist to revise his opinion of the 'witch' burial and re-label her an 'adulteress'  ... seven nails through the jaw and another 13 pinning her clothes down seem to be to be over-kill for an adulteress, but then again it was a pretty serious sin in the Medieval period.

The English language coverage has largely been in the Daily Mail (here), but if you want slightly more intelligent coverage, then I recommend UNC anthropologist Krista Killgrove's blog post on the burials (here), since she links to all the Italian coverage, and knows what she's talking about.

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