As is typical, when life is most hectic comes the time when the most interesting bloggables start flashing past me on Twitter, Facebook, and in email. I can’t get to them all today, but I do want to quickly comment an item from the Telegraph regarding possible evidence of infanticide associated with remains of a Roman ‘brothel’ in Buckinghamshire:
An extensive study of a mass burial at a Roman villa in the Thames Valley suggests that the 97 children all died at 40 weeks gestation, or very soon after birth.
The archaeologists believe that locals may have been killing and burying unwanted babies on the site in Hambleden, Buckinghamshire.
Unwanted pregnancies were common in Roman brothels due to little contraception and Romans also considered infanticide less shocking than it is today.
Infants were not considered to be human beings until about the age of two and were not buried in cemeteries if they were younger than that.
Consequently, infant burials tended to be at domestic sites in the Roman era.
“The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel,” Dr Jill Eyers, of Chiltern Archaeology, told the BBC.
Experts say that the number of children killed at Yewden villa in Hambleden is unusually large.
“There is no other site that would yield anything like the 97 infant burials,” said Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at English Heritage’s Centre for Archaeology, who has been investigating the finds.
There is possibly some compression of thought going on here, either by the archaeologist or the journalist or both. The brothel suggestion is likely connected to a similar sort of find at Ashkelon over a decade ago, although in that situation the remains were found in the drainage system beneath a bathing complex. But there seems to be a bit of circularity going on here, no? A pile of dead babies suggest a brothel nearby. A brothel nearby suggests the babies must have been unwanted, and so killed on purpose. What I don’t understand is why if these babies were unwanted ‘ab initio’ as it were, why they wouldn’t simply have been aborted. It’s not as if the ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t aware of abortion.
The babies were all found to be of roughly the same size, suggesting systematic infanticide at birth rather than death from natural causes, which would have struck infants at different ages, Dr Mays added.
… which is not really the Roman practice; not sure about native Briton-types. As far as we can tell from our sources, unwanted Roman infants were “exposed” and wouldn’t likely have been buried at all if they died.
The Hambleden site, close to the River Thames, was excavated 100 years ago and identified as a high status Roman villa.
Alfred Heneage Cocks, an archaeologist, reported the findings in 1921. His report, along with photographs, and hundreds of artefacts, pottery and bones were recently rediscovered at Buckinghamshire County Museum.
The records gave precise locations for the infant bodies, which were hidden under walls or buried under courtyards close to each other.
The remains are now being tested for the first time by English Heritage.
The team plans to carry out DNA tests on the skeletons in a bid to establish their sex and possible relationship to each other.
The Hambleden investigation features in a new BBC TV archaeology series, Digging for Britain presented by Dr Alice Roberts, to be broadcast on BBC Two in July and August.
An important detail which is left out of all this is the date of the Hambledon site … presumably this is the Yewden Roman Villa, as the Mill End Villa doesn’t seem to have been excavated. A page on the site tells us the date: the site was used from the first to the fourth centuries A.D.. Hopefully there is enough information in the notes from the original excavation (1912) or datable organic materic material to establish some dates for the remains. 97 infant burials sounds like a lot, but when you spread it over three centuries it isn’t so sensational. As such, while an epidemic seems unlikely,depending on how the remains are dated, one could speculate that these are all stillborn remains …
UPDATE (06/27/10): David Keys in the Independent provides a good summary of the possible explanations:
Some argue that the Hambleden complex might have been a Roman imperial agricultural administrative and processing centre serving a relatively large area. The dead infants could represent a mixture of still births, natural perinatal deaths and infanticide victims, born to women employed at the centre. Some of the infants may have been born with deformities – a fact that would have made them particularly vulnerable to infanticide.
Some archaeologists have suggested the infants were children of prostitutes serving the potentially large staff at the complex, although it would be archeologically unprecedented to find a brothel in a non-urban context.
Alternatively, the site could have had a partly religious function with the infants being the subjects of illegal rituals or even human sacrifice. Certainly newborn infants were sometimes buried as ritual foundation deposits in Roman Britain – though never in such large numbers.
… and a tip o’ the pileus to Terrence Lockyer for drawing our attention to the excellent blog post on the subject over at Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives (Rosemary Joyce), which delves into the claims about lack of contraception and the identity of the site as a brothel:
For some background on prostitution in the ancient world:
- Baby deaths link to Roman ‘brothel’ in Buckinghamshire | BBC (includes a nice little video)
- Discovery of babies’ skeletons exposes the dark side of life in Roman Britain | Independent
- Romans killed dozens of unwanted babies at English ‘brothel’ | Daily Mail