A true story of witchcraft

A thirteen year old girl. A thirteen year old girl, buried centuries and centuries ago just opposite a church, near to the grave of another woman, her relative.

There’s something different about this child, though, because her body wasn’t buried to await resurrection, but to be burdened by the earth, her eyes facing the ground, soil in her mouth, air and the sky a far away dream.

The child was a witch, and the people of Albenga – town of the Romans and the sea, where the Alps and beautiful France are only around the corner – feared her so much they wanted her soul, as well as her body, dead for eternity. This is why she was buried that way.

When her bones were found centuries later, people could barely believe a child had to endure such violence, even after death.

Here’s the story of the child witch of Albenga, of how the men of today found her body and stitched together the short, tragic story of her life.

witches of albenga
Witches of Albenga … (Paul Brooker/Flickr)

Archaeology of Mystery

Albenga may not be particularly well known outside of Liguria and Italy, but it is a magnificent town. Its history goes back to the times of the Romans and its city centre, entirely surrounded by medieval walls, is a haven of romanic churches, roman vestiges and endless, narrow cobbled streets lined with quaint cafés and elegant shops. Because of its past, Albenga’s used to see archaeologists and historians roaming its alleys and populating its squares so when, in September 2015,  a group of researchers from the Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana (the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology) and the Université Aix-Marseille, lead by professors Philippe Pergola, Stefano Roascio and Elena Delù got into town, no one was particularly surprised. Their aim was to continue an important excavation in the archaeological area of San Calocero, located just outside the walls, on the slopes of Monte San Martino. Human remains had been unearthed in large quantity during the first part of the works, yet, the team didn’t expect to come across what they were about to find.

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The Cathedral of Albenga was erected upon a paleo-christian church, the vestiges of which are still visible in the baptistery at the side of the structure (not pictured).  (Roger Kolly/Flickr)

From the dust and debris, the skeleton of a young girl of about 13 years of age appears: she is 1.48 meters tall (about 4.8 ft), around 600 years old and was buried facing the ground. Unusual, the experts say, as it was believed such a burial would have precluded to the dead the possibility of resurrecting. History (and anthropology, as the practice’s apparently still common among certain tribes) teaches us it was done to punish the departed, but also, quite simply, for fear. Of what, you ask? Of the person returning to walk this earth.

The people of Albenga were afraid of a 13 year old child, so much so they decided to bury her in way that would’ve impeeded her to come back to life. Archaeologists almost immediately agreed: the girl was probably considered a witch, and a pretty dangerous one. Professor Roascio, cited in an interesting Italian website, La Bottega del Mistero, explains that “this type of burial was reserved to those who didn’t deserve to see the light of resurrection. It was usually used for killers or thieves, but also as a form of superstition, especially when witchcraft was involved.” It should also be added that prone burial was used for people who committed suicide and even for those who were murdered, as it was feared they may return to seek vengeance.

History says that, in fact, the ancient diocese of Albenga (today Albenga-Imperia) was relentless and stern towards witchcraft: the events of Triora took place in the area, and it’s reasonable to conclude that witchcraft was the responsible for the strange burials of San Calocero, too (more of it below).

The mystery gets thicker

Finding the body of a child buried in such a gruesome manner is the stuff of nightmares, but that’s far from being the only blood curdling characteristic of this peculiar discover. Not far from this first grave, another awaited to be once again open, after centuries and centuries of claustrophobic darkness: it held the charred bones of a woman in her 30s, buried facing the skies, but covered by heavy and large stones, another known method used in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to chain the body of an evil being to the ground. Two women, two hauntingly dreadful burials, one unsettling mystery, made even thicker by the fact both corpses had been interred in front of a church, a place usually kept for the most pious and devoted.

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Even reenactments of witchcraft persecution can be unsettling (Massimo Piazzi/Flickr)

Why they were witches

It’s not only and simply their burial that made historians almost certain witchcraft caused the sorrowful end of the two women. In depth analysis carried out on the child’s bones showed she was severely malnurished and suffered from scurvy, a disease that often causes mental confusion and seizures. In those distant times, both were often mistaken for signs of demonic possession, thus justifying specialists’ convinction the child had, in fact, been buried this way because considered a witch.

The older woman, as said, showed evident signs of burning, compatible with death in a fire. Whether it was accidental or she was, in fact, burned at stake, we cannot say, but when taking into consideration how her body was crushed by stones in an attempt, as mentioned above, to preclude her the possibility to return to haunt the living, the possibility she, too, was considered a witch is likely.

Some sources go even further, maintaining both skeletons showed signs of a genetic and hereditary illness, metopism, which forbids the frontal bones of the skulls to fuse properly. This could mean they were sisters or mother and daughter, although there may not be certainty about it until DNA samples are extracted from the remains of both.

As real as witches get

If truly condemned to death and buried in such ways because accused of witchcraft, “la strega bambina” and her older companion are victims of that widespread fear of the unusual and the different that characterized so many centuries of our history. The discovery, today, of their bodies is not only an immense archaeological and historical feat, but also offers an insight into how human’s sense of piety, justice and rightfulness changed and developed. As always, may history not only be our teacher and mentor, but may it also serve us as a warning for the ugly face of intolerance and fear.

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