The strange face-down burial of a young woman, who likely had a nail driven into her skull around the time she died in Sardinia more than 2,000 years ago, may be the result of ancient beliefs about epilepsy, according to new research.
The face-down burial could indicate that the individual suffered from an illness, while an unusual nail-shaped hole in the woman’s skull could be the result of a medicine that was intended to prevent it. epilepsy to spread to others – a medical belief at the time, according to a study published in the April issue of Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (opens in new tab).
Epilepsy is now known as a brain condition that cannot be transmitted to others, but at the time the woman died, “the idea was that the disease that killed the person in the grave could be a problem for the whole community,” said study co-author Dario D’Orlando (opens in new tab)archaeologist and historian at the University of Cagliari, Sardinia.
The unusual burial was found in a tomb in the Necropolis of Monte Luna, a hill located about 30 kilometers north of Cagliari in the southern part of Sardinia. The burial ground was first used by the Punic people after the 6th century BC and continued in use until the 2nd century BC
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The Monte Luna necropolis was excavated in the 1970s, and the most recent study is based on photographs of the tomb and a new examination of the woman’s skeleton.
Pottery in the tomb suggests that she was buried in the last decade of the 3rd century BC or the first decades of the 2nd century BC – a time when Sardinia, a Punic or Phoenician center culture for hundreds of years, it was under Roman government since the end of the First Punic War against Carthage, which ran from 264 BC to 241 BC
And a new analysis of the young woman skeleton – based on her pelvis, teeth and other bones – confirmed an earlier estimate that she was between 18 and 22 when she died.
It also showed that she had suffered trauma to the skull shortly before or around the time she died. O archaeologists found evidence of two types of trauma: blunt force trauma, which may have occurred during an accidental fall – possibly during an epileptic seizure – and a blunt force injury in the form of a square hole in his skull consistent with the impact of an ancient Roman nail ; such nails have been found in various archaeological sites in Sardinia.
D’Orlando said the blunt force wound by a nail may have been inflicted after the woman’s death to avoid the perceived “contagion” of her epilepsy.
Medical beliefs in ancient Sardinia
That treatment may have been based on the Greek belief that certain illnesses were caused by “miasma” – bad air – which would have been known throughout the Mediterranean at that time, D’Orlando said.
The same remedy is described in the first century AD by Roman general and natural historian Gaius Plinius Secundus — known as Pliny the Elder — who recommended nailing body parts after a death from epileptic seizures to prevent the spread of the disease, the authors reported.
D’Orlando suggested that this practice of nailing the skull, and perhaps the unusual burial of the woman face down, could be explained by the introduction of new Roman ideas, heavily influenced by ancient Greek ideas, into rural Sardinia.
But Peter van Dommelen (opens in new tab)a Brown University archaeologist who was not involved in the study said that culture in Sardinia remained resolutely Punic despite Roman rule.
“Culturally speaking, and particularly in rural places like here, the island remains Punic,” he said. “There’s no reason to look to the Roman world for affinities – what people did was entirely guided by Punic traditions.”
Van Dommelen has never heard of similar burials in Sardinia, but “it’s interesting,” he said. “It fits into a broader pattern that you can see across the world and across cultures.”