Archaeologists uncover remains of women accused of witchcraft

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Editorial Warning:  This article describes the torture and execution of those accused of “witchcraft” in the 17the century.


BOCHNIA, Poland – Many Pagans and Witches are more than familiar with the Burning Times, a period in European history wherein mostly women, but a few men were accused, tortured, and put to death for the “crime” or “sin” of witchcraft.

 

Bochnia Market Square – Image credit: Andrzej Otrębski – CC BY-SA 4.0

Despite the term’s specific reference to the accused often being burned as a method of execution, it was not the only way that victims were killed. Estimates of the number of people executed vary widely, from as few as 40,000—still a staggering number—to as many as 9 million, although most scholars now discount the higher estimates. The greatest prevalence of witch hunters in most of Europe occurred between 1550-1650 CE.

The witchcraft frenzy that swept through England and the colonies and much of Europe came to Poland a little later, well after it hit its peak.

A recent archaeological find of a second set of skeletal remains in the market square in the city of Bochnia, Poland, could in fact strengthen the claim by archaeologists that the remains are those of several women executed for practicing witchcraft by burning in 1679. During restoration work, lead archaeologist Dr. Marcin Paternoga and his team uncovered first one, and then a second set of remains in the square.

According to an article in The Bochnianin, the 1679 executions of three women accused of witchcraft and infanticide are well-known, a “confession” was written ostensibly on behalf of two of the women, Regina Wierzbicka of Predocin, and Maryna Mazurkowa of Bochnia. A third women, identified as Borucina of Niedar, was also accused, tortured, and put to death.

The three women denied practicing witchcraft at first, but after being tortured extensively, they gave varying, detailed accounts of their involvement in attempting to bewitch Regina’s lover, and in the fate of Regina’s infant child, which she claimed was the product of her affair, but may in fact have been an infant that she purchased in an attempt to get her lover to marry her.

According to their confessions, the women at first strongly renounced any affiliation with witches. Regina originally stated that she had left the baby with a girl she paid to watch it, but that when she returned, the baby was gone.

Regina Wierzbicka and Maryna Mazurkowa only confessed to working spells, flying, and meeting with the devil after being tortured multiple times. They named Borucina of Niedar as a self-confessed witch with a lot of knowledge and power, who taught and encouraged them.

It is possible that the women were placed on a torture rack, designed to wrench their limbs from their sockets, and also threatened with execution by burning. Forced confessions, or confessions obtained as a result of torture, were considered valid, binding, and truthful throughout the Middle Ages.

This was commonly based on the Latin phrase, “confessio est regina probationum,” which translates to, “Confession is the queen of evidence” and was the justification for forced confessions.

It was of vital importance to obtain a confession for a trial during the Middle Ages—so vital, in fact, that the methods of extracting these confessions were often excruciating, degrading, and regularly applied, even for minor crimes.

Unfortunately, despite overwhelming evidence that torture does not produce reliable confessions from victims, this method of obtaining confessions from accused individuals is still practiced in many parts of the world as a lawful form of obtaining justice.

Numerous scholars have noted that victims who undergo various forms of torture will say or agree to a number of things in the hopes of ending their suffering—even if what they “confess” is provably and patently false.

For those accused of witchcraft, this meant that they would often confess to participating in whatever illicit activity their torturers suggested. However, admitting to it was seen as full confirmation of guilt, and thus almost always assured their impending execution.

Despite their torture, subsequent confessions, and their pleas and prayers for forgiveness, all three women were executed in the town square. The women were tied by the arms and legs to a pole and were burned alive over a pit, meant to symbolize their descent into Hell for their sins. They were buried where they were executed, as they could not be buried in the church cemetery, having been found guilty of witchcraft.

Lead archaeologist Dr. Marcin Paternoga does expect to find a third set of remains nearby the first two. According to his team, a number of skeletal features indicate that both sets of remains are female, and there is an obvious and significant indication of charring on the bones. Both of the deceased women were found at the same level and in a similar context, indicating they were buried about the same time.

Paternoga’s team is still working to completely expose and remove the skeletal remains. Based on historical sources, at least 13 women were executed in the town of Bochnia for witchcraft.

Near where the remains have been uncovered, archaeologists have also uncovered a brick structure and multiple layers of ash. The human remains show no indication that they were reburied or relocated, aligning with accounts that the executed were buried at the site of their execution.

What was once an unsubstantiated conjecture at the start of the digging has now gained traction as a probable explanation for the existence of the remains in the square.

Once the remains have been fully excavated and sent to a lab, Paternoga expects to find further confirmation that they are two of the women burned to death in 1679.

Burning a body in high heat can cause significant, discernible changes in the porosity, dehydration, and even inversion and fusion of the bones in very high heat. When this occurs, the crystalline structure is altered. Bones shrink and become calcined.

The remains Paternoga has uncovered in the market square of Bochnia do show signs of high heat damage.