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The Bones of Monsters: Witches (Part 2)

I was in middle school when “The Craft” came out. The movie went as follows: A high school girl transfers into a seedy Hollywood high school and meets 3 outcasts. They befriend her as they soon discover that she may contain some magic and would be the perfect addition to complete their ‘circle’ (coven?). Anyway, the witches practice spells and magic and soon they grow strong. Their leader, played by Fairuza Balk, goes to the dark side of magic, while the young Robin Tunney must embrace the light magic and defeat her!
Awesome soundtrack! And it was the movie that sparked a new generation of occult enthusiasts and black lipstick wearers. However, that wasn’t the only portrayal of witches that has shown up in pop culture land! Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, Bewitched, Hocus Pocus, etc. are among the beloved images of witches.
Most of these portrayals, though, are more known for their hijinxs or ability to save the world.
Yet, when I was young, I also was very aware of the dark and fractured relationship that culture has often had with witchcraft. Especially once Christianity came on to the scene. I knew the fictional tale of Abigail Williams that depicted the very real fear and hysteria that led to the persecution and death of many women throughout the world. ‘Burn the witch!’
Even my own mother had shielded me away from New Age and occult studies in fear I would discover voodoo and bring evil into the house. I found out years later that my grandmother had been a voodoo practitioner and it is believed that it led to her demise (true story).
In many cultures, for ages, witches, shaman, brujas, etc. were revered for their powers to heal, help, solve, read, and reveal. However, such power was also feared. The archaeological record has shed some light on the ways in which ‘witchcraft’ has been subjected to punishment and retributive justice in societies where such behavior was deemed as satanic, demonic or evil.
In an unearthed grave, dating to about the late 1500s, found in Italy, a young girl was laid to rest. Her body was face down- a cultural act of humiliation and shame. It also suggests that the girl,  about 13 years old, was feared by the community. While there were no other indications that she suffered any torture, her burial was indicative of the beliefs that would have been shared by the area in which she lived and died. Additionally, a face down burial would have also been believed to help the spirit not rise from the dead or to escape the body.

Image: Stefano Roascio
Image: Stefano Roascio

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

Further investigation of the skeletal remains showed that the girl may have suffered from a blood disorder and may have caused her to have fainting spells. Her unexplained ailments may have been explained as a curse or supernatural malediction- promoting the fear of her.
Another Middle Ages burial discovery, again in Italy, revealed what has been interpreted as a witches grave yard. These grounds were consecrated, meaning made sacred.
Archaeologist, Alfonso Forgione, noted that one of the skeletons “was buried in bare earth, not in a coffin and she had no shroud around her either, intriguingly other nails were hammered around her to pin down her clothes.”
She also had a nail through her jaw.
This was very similar to the vampire burial that I mentioned in part 1 of this series. Like that burial, the culture belief or superstition would seem that they were trying to keep the ‘witch’ pinned to the earth.
Also found on the site, was another skeleton, similarly entombed but she had 17 dice surrounding her. “…17 is an unlucky number in Italy and also dice was a game that women were forbidden to play.”


In both cases, please note that the title of ‘witch’ is an interpreted one. This means there may have been other explanations for why the bodies were laid to rest in the manner that they were. There has been the interpretation that suggests that nails in the mouth were associated with adultery. Perhaps they were viewed as both.
When archaeologists and anthropologists piece together the skeletal remains, material objects, and take into account the historical and cultural context of the time period and location, there becomes very few known possibilities. This is why anthropology requires such an interdisciplinary approach.
I bet you thought I was going to talk about the Salem Witch trials! There is so much information known on the Salem Witch Trials that I didn’t really feel compelled to talk too much about it, but I will offer a few pieces of information that we can add to the mix.
1) They were often hanged and then buried. Remember when I wrote about the hyoid bone and strangulation? Fractured hyoids and broken necks were found in some acccused girls and women. This helped to identify cause and reason of death during that time period which would be important because… (See #2)
2) Some of those graves were later found empty. Some family members of the excused went back to collect the bodies for proper burials.
3) This was an accepted cultural norm spurred by fear of difference, change, ignorance, anxiety, loss of control and fear of women. Most of the accused and attacked were the vulnerable and powerless. Those in power felt they were being just and upright. Think about that.
Salem Witch Trials Martha Corey-Longfellow
The last part of the series should be up on Halloween! Stay tuned for The Bones of Monsters: Mutants (Part 3)
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