Prone Burial Leads to New Finding Named “Witch Girl”

Recently, the skeleton of a 13 year old girl was found in Italy, and is believed to be from the early Middle Ages or late antiquity. The skeleton was found buried face-down –  a position that is popularly associated with those rejected by society, and the media have dubbed her the “Witch Girl”.

The skeleton of the “Witch Girl” found in Northern Italy

While burials often contain a lot symbolism and speak for the culture of the society, atypical burials allow archaeologists to glean insight into the society’s beliefs. Because of the shocking nature and uncommon occurrences of face-down burials, they provide a powerful contrast to the more common face-up burial.

Face-down, or prone burials are commonly associated with Europe and are constantly linked to those who were feared, despised, or not respected by the society around them. They are popularly connected to witches and others who were feared from beyond the grave as prone burials were one method from hindering the dead’s spirits from rising.

While our reading warns that there are very few symbols that exist that have meaning cross-culturally, it would seem as if prone burials are one of the exceptions (although of course this is not a rule). Over 600 of these burials have been documented cross-culturally and they consistently seem to bear a negative connotation for the buried individual.

However, the context of the negative connotation is extremely important and this differs through cultures and individual burials. Without context, the numbers can be misleading. For instance, prone burials occur most frequently in the Viking Age in Sweden, but only around 13% of each gravesite is composed of face-down burials. On the other hand, in Mexico in 1000 BC the proportions are much higher with around 90% of individuals per grave site buried face-down. Without cultural and symbolic context it is impossible to get the full picture. Although a lot is still unknown, it is believed that the frequency of prone burials increased as some Vikings turned from Paganism to Christianity, and these burials may show disdain for those who switched religions. In a grave site in Mexico, 74 skeletons were found face-down while six were sitting upright. Archaeologists believe this demonstrates a difference in social status rather than as a sign of disrespect.

Prone burials occur cross-culturally

How does this relate to the “Witch Girl” and the society she lived in? Without enough background evidence, we should not jump so quickly to the conclusion that she was considered a witch. Additional evidence from the site causes questions and concerns.  For instance, while most prone burials occur on the edges of gravesites, she was buried in a privileged section. Also, skeletal analysis suggests that she may have died from severe anemia. Whether she was truly considered a witch, and whether it was something her society had reject, remains unknown.

Understanding the symbolism behind the act can enlighten us as to the nature of the society that buried them this way, and why they did so.  However the significance of these symbols are tied to the context in which they are found.

References (and further reading)

  2.  Handler, J. S. (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. (30)3 76-86. 



Surveying the Titanic

Deep-sea exploration illuminates the ruins of the Titanic

On the night of April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank, killing over 1,500 people, pulling the massive ship with everything inside under the dark waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Inside the Titanic was a bursting microcosm of life filled with a diversity of people, the remains of which still exist 2.5 miles under the surface. Being able to examine the artifacts left behind could provide an insight into life during that time as well as answer critical questions. Although the Titanic remained an important archaeological site to survey, underwater archaeology could not penetrate the depths of the ocean, – until recently.

It was coincidentally the sinking of the Titanic that allowed for its rediscovery and exploration. The use of sonar was developed partially to create safer methods of avoiding future hazards under the water. As technology developed the reach of underwater archaeology expanded. In 1985, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) towed an unmanned deep-sea vehicle carrying video and sonar on miles of cable behind their boat and was able, for the first time since its ruin, to bring images of the Titanic to the public. In the following years, small manned submarines were able to circle the ruins of the Titanic while archaeologists peered out through thick Plexiglas portholes. But these small glimpses of such a massive structure were not enough to provide enough detail and recording in such short trips, and even the unmanned vehicles only viewed select areas of the ship.

Experts believe that the Titanic will not remain intact for much longer due to rust and bacteria, making it a priority. But there were many other complications besides the difficulty of being able to create a full survey. The Titanic lay in international waters making it difficult to access legally, and other companies had collected artifacts from the Titanic and were putting these up for display or auction. Archaeologists argued that they may have not been properly recorded, and that the artifacts taken were selectively – seemingly only the first class items have been picked up, creating an impression that was not wholly representative. Furthermore, the removal of items caused concern that other items may have been moved from their original locations without any record of where and how they were found. The site also contains modern trash, including many of the weights the manned submarines need to drop in order to return to the surface, and the Titanic had already taken damage from submarines that had latched onto its rails in order to get closer.

A view of the Titanic and surrounding area from the 3-D rendered map created in the 2010 expedition.

In a multiagency* expedition in 2010 the obstacles were finally jumped. With the work of two autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), archaeologists were able to take video and make a 3-D rendering of the entire ship as well as the area around the ship in full detail, every artifact included. The complete rendering was a revolutionary step for underwater archaeology, and allowed archaeologists to finally ask and answer important questions about the Titanic.

*WHOI, the Waitt Institute, Phoenix International, NOAA, and the National Park Service


photos obtained from:

for a photo of an archaeological map made of the Titanic site:

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