History

Medieval 'Witch Girl' Suffered From Scurvy

A Medieval teenage girl found buried face-down in northern Italy suffered from scurvy and was rejected by her community.

A Medieval teenage girl found buried face-down last year in northern Italy suffered from scurvy and was rejected by her community, according to new study of her burial.

Dubbed by Italian media as "the witch girl," the skeleton was unearthed in September 2014 at the complex of San Calocero in Albenga on the Ligurian Riviera, by a team of the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology at the Vatican.

The site, a burial ground on which a martyr church dedicated to San Calocero was built around the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., was completely abandoned in 1593.

Skeleton of Possible 'Witch Girl' Found

"The girl lay in prone position in a tomb much deeper than the others. She was buried in an isolated area of the cemetery in front of the church," said archaeologist Stefano Roascio, the excavation director.

Like other deviant burials, in which the dead were buried with a brick in the mouth, nailed or staked to the ground, or even decapitated and dismembered, the prone burials aimed to humiliate the dead and impede the individual from rising from the grave.

Found with her hands placed on the pelvis and straight and parallel legs, the girl's bones showed all signs of a severe anemia. Further analysis also determined she suffered from scurvy, a disorder caused by an insufficient intake of vitamin C.

The disease was most common among sailors in the 16th to 18th centuries who embarked on long voyages without enough foods with vitamin C and frequently died from the condition.

"Scurvy was diagnosed on the basis of cranial lesions which were the result of porotic hyperostosis," anthropologist Elena DellĂą told Discovery News.

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Found mostly in the bones of the cranial vault, porotic hyperostosis causes them to become spongy and the bone tissue porous. Examining the remains of the teenage girl, DellĂą and colleagues found evident signs of the pathological condition on the external surface of the occipital bone, on the orbital roofs and on the greater wings of the sphenoid.

"Areas of these osteo productive lesions were also present near the dental sockets and on the palate, where some teeth had fallen probably due to weak blood vessels, also damaged by mastication," DellĂą said.

In the anthropologic literature, porotic hyperostosis is mostly seen as evidence of iron deficiency anemia, but in this case specific clues indicate the girl was a scurvy victim.

"When it comes to anaemia, porotic hyperostosis normally concentrates on the internal surface of the skull and on the eye bony sockets. In case of scurvy we also find it on the palate and in the sphenoid," DellĂą said.

Standing just under 5 feet tall, the young girl somehow scared the community.

Her pallor, associated to other scurvy symptoms such as mouth, leg and eye bleeding, corkscrew hair, protruding eyes, frog leg posture and possibly fainting and epileptic seizures, must have played a key role in her social rejection.

As she died, she was humiliated with the face down treatment, so that her soul, considered impure, would not come out to threaten the living.

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"Any disease that people didn't understand may have caused them to bury someone in a deviant manner," Kristina Killgrove, biological anthropologist at the University of West Florida not involved in the research, told Discovery News.

Radio carbon dating revealed the girl died between the first half of 1400 and the beginning of 1500, a period of social and religious tensions which led to witch hunts and persecutions.

One of the most famous witch hunt manuals, the Malleus Maleficarum ("Hammer of the Witches") was published in 1484.

"In that climate, it is quite likely the young girl was considered a witch," Roascio and DellĂą said.

Led by scientific director Philippe Pergola, professor of topography of the Orbis Christianus Antiquus at the Pontifical Institute of Archaeology, Roascio and DellĂą will present their findings at an archaeological conference in Rome later this month.

The scurvy diagnosis makes the deviant burial finding even more interesting, according to Killgrove.

"There's not a whole lot of large-scale analysis done on ancient kids with scurvy, and the research we have tends to have been done on younger individuals between 3 and 7 years old," Killgrove said.

She noted that many of the scurvy cases are from places like England and parts of North America that didn't have access in the past to lots of vitamin-C-rich foods.

"It's interesting that this case is from Italy; after all, by the Middle Ages, citrus was well-known and well-circulated throughout Europe," Killgrove said.

DellĂą believes the girl likely suffered from scurvy because of vitamin C malabsorption.

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

The researchers will soon carry biochemical or histological analyses -- thin-sectioning bone or testing it -- to see what the diet of that individual was like.

For the next three years, they have received a $90.000 funding from private foundations (Fondazione Nino Lamboglia and Fondazione De Mari) to continue both analysis and excavation.

"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," DellĂą said.

The grave of the "witch girl" reveals how the young child was buried face-down.

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