Happy Halloween: Can we excavate witches?

Painting of a witch by John William Waterhouse  1886, via Wikimedia Commons

Painting of a witch by John William Waterhouse 1886, via Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Halloween, I was going to post something about the new morbid terminology- necropants. However, this is a site about bones, burials, and bodies- so I’ll let you read that at Huffington Post. For Halloween, we’re going to be exploring the burials of witches. Like many other of the ‘deviant’ burials we’ve discussed here like vampires and aliens, the main thing to keep in mind is that we’re not arguing that these individuals are true evidence of the supernatural, rather that the burying population perceived them to have some type of superhuman power in life or in death. On that note- can we excavate evidence of witchcraft and witches?

In Summer 2011, archaeologists found the remains of an individual they believe to be a witch. The burial dates to the 13th century, and was found in Piombino near Lucca in Italy’s Tuscany region. The cemetery supposedly belongs to a ‘witches graveyard’ due to the finding of two females who are thought to be witches. Both burials were in shallow graves without a coffin or shroud, and both women are aged from 25 to 30 years. The first burial belonged to a female who was found with 17 dice. Since women were forbidden from gambling and playing dice 800 years ago, it is an anomalous find that has some meaning. To make it more meaningful, 17 is also an unlucky number. The second burial was even more rare- the mouth of the female had seven nails in her mouth, and 13 more nails around the skeleton. Whether or not these were ‘driven’ into the jaw or simply placed in the mouth at burial is not known (though the popular news would seem to support the latter).

The 'Witch' with the nails in her mouth, via Daily Mail

The ‘Witch’ with the nails in her mouth, via Daily Mail

Based on the type of burial, the archaeologists suspected that the women were buried as witches. He thinks that the nails found around the body were hammered into the women’s clothing in order to pin her down into the grave. He argued that it was done in order to prevent the deceased from rising from the dead. However, they were buried in the consecrated grounds of a church. In this era, deviant burials are often excluded from the normal cemetery and found at alternative locations like execution mound cemeteries. The archaeologists argue that perhaps these were affluent women, and were able to secure a consecrated burial despite the fear of them.

Are these witches or not? Are they possibly adulterers or prostitutes? Kristina Killgrove talks about this belief (which isn’t mentioned in the Daily Mail version of the post), and the evidence may point to this identity. First, dice are a sign of immorality and could point to the individual’s immorality as a prostitute. Second, there is evidence that nails in the mouth was done as a punishment for adulterers.

Another possible ‘witch’ burial was found during an excavation of  the Newton Plantation in Barbados. The burial dates to the late 17th or early 18th century. The young adult female was buried in an artificial mound without grave goods or a coffin. However, the individual was buried face down. We do not have much ethnographic or historical evidence for how these witches would have been  buried, but we do know that there was a real sense of fear about witchcraft and the belief did exist. One important piece of evidence was that she had lead poisoning, which would have caused seizures, convulsions, or paralysis very suddenly, and this may have been interpreted as related to supernatural power.

One interesting mystery is what happened to the burials of the Salem Witch Trials? In the first few cases we discussed burials of individuals who may be witches due to the circumstances of the burials. We don’t have any text or ethnographic evidence that those previous burials themselves are definitely witches. The reverse of this is the Salem Witch trials where we have text and ethnography to support that witchcraft happened, but we lack the archaeology or burials. 20 peoples were killed as witches, but there are no known burials. They would not have been buried in the consecrated church grounds due to the manner of their death. It is thought that they were buried in unmarked graves at their respective family cemeteries- but the truth it not known.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgJerome Handler (1996). A Prone Burial from a Plantation Slave Cemetery in Barbados West Indies: Possible Evidence for an African-type Witch or Other Negatively Viewed Person
Historical Archaeology, 30 (3), 76-86

Killgrove 2011. Witches and Prostitutes in Medieval Tuscany. Powered by Osteons. http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/2011/09/witches-and-prostitutes-in-medieval.html

Pisa 2011. 800 Year Old Remains of Witch Graveyard Discovered. Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2041671/800-year-old-remains-witch-discovered-graveyard-Tuscany-Italy.html

19 responses to “Happy Halloween: Can we excavate witches?

  1. Our local churchyard has been a burial ground before Christian Era, I wonder at such an early burial being found on consecrated ground if it is still in use! As far as I know, no ancient burials have ever been found in our graveyard since the ground has constantly been reclaimed .. Enjoying learning a little more.

    • Perhaps you should do ground penetrating radar to see if there are some unmarked burials at the site! There was a tendency for re-use of ‘pagan’ sites by Christians in a hope to co-opt their power.

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  3. Hmm, well I find it hard to believe they were witches because I don’t believe in magic and witch craft. I can accept that they were thought to be witches or thought themselves to be witches. It all depends very much on your definition of a witch.

    One of the things I love about archaeology is realising that people thousands of years ago were as brilliant (and as dumb) as we are today. technology changes but people don’t change a great deal. They loved, they worshipped, they fought and argued. Some murdered and some were heroes. Fabulous.

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  5. I seriously doubt, as indicated by Killgrove as well, that these late 13th-early 14th century Italian graves would be of accused witches since this is before the witch craze, not to mention the consecrated ground in which they were found. Prostitution, adultery, or some other misdemeanor seems more likely. Most of the fear of witchcraft or demonic magic as real (as compared to illusory) and consequent heavy inquisitorial procedures stepped up after c. 1350, with the full blown witch craze occurring in the early modern period. So much for Renaissance and Enlightenment!

    • The evidence doesn’t seem to point towards witches in the Italian example, though it is interesting that this is the only perspective that the press picked up on!

    • I would not rule out witchcraft. I am not knowledgable about witchcraft and demonology beliefs in medieval Tuscany, but I do know in medieval England there were accounts of revenants and necromancers in Histories of Britain as early as the late 12th century. I do not think we should define a certain time as a “full blown witch craze” especially when these beliefs and fears existed MUCH earlier. It is similar to suggesting that the macabre came to life after the Black Death.

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  7. Interesting! I live not far from Lucca, but had not heard about this find!

    In Scandinavia it was common to stick pins into the soles of the feet of troublesome people after they died to keep them from becoming revenants and continue their troublesome ways (the pins would make it hurt too much to walk).

    Oh, and necropants is a translation of an old Icelandic term – nábrók.

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