October 6, 2014

Which girl? Witch girl!

Today's news brings word of the skeleton of a 13-year-old adolescent unearthed from a cemetery in Italy that dates to the 5th-16th centuries AD.  From what I can glean from the report in Discovery News, the burial stands out because the adolescent was buried prone (face-down), which is abnormal for this cemetery.  I don't have time or energy at the end of a long Monday to thoroughly dissect this, so here are the highlights:

First, the news media is calling this a "Witch Girl," in spite of the fact that you can't tell sex from an adolescent skeleton and DNA has not been done in this case.

Second, the burial has not been C14 dated yet, so can fall anywhere within the millennia of burials at the cemetery, but let's assume the excavators are right that this is Late Antiquity (so, the early end of the range).  Excavators insist that the prone burial is related to "an act of punishment."  While this may be true in later periods, when we see the so-called "vampire" skeletons with possible evidence of treatment of "deviance" in the burial record, this is Late Antiquity, not long after the height of the Roman Empire.  And in the Roman Empire, we have evidence of subadults being buried face-down with artifacts, and these cases are not interpreted as evidence of deviance or punishment. Although prone burial is rare in Roman cemeteries, it's not so rare among children as to suggest deviance.  Until there is better dating and therefore better burial comparanda, I cannot yet buy the explanation of prone burial as punishment.

Prone adolescent burial from a 5th-16th c AD Italian cemetery
(via Discovery News)

Third, the adolescent had evidence of cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis, two very common skeletal indications of iron-deficiency anemia.  The excavator is fairly cautious in interpreting this evidence, speaking of a cause as simple as dietary iron insufficiency.  Iron-deficiency anemia is very easy to diagnose, but very difficult to figure out the root cause of.  It can indeed be dietary, it can be related to lead poisoning, malaria, thalassemia, G6PD, any sort of parasitic infection... anything that affects the production of red blood cells.  Making a leap from an extremely common skeletal lesion to the adolescent's possible appearance of "pallor... hematomas and fainting" is, well, a ginormous and problematic leap. (My paper on the problems with using cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis to estimate health of Romans is not out yet, but here's a link to a summary of the presentation/article.)

Finally, the excavators' final word is telling and essentially sums up what I've been telling my Bioarchaeology class for the last 6 weeks: "A precise dating of the skeleton and further research on similar burials might help in finding more clues."  Yes, please do that so we can understand this burial for what it was and not what the media wants to sensationalize it as.  But I may have to give up hope considering how much of a media darling the "Vampire of Venice" is.


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