Yewden ‘Brothel’ Reconsidered?

Hmmm … my Google+ spiders beat my gmail spiders on this one … it’s interesting how the BBC seems to be developing their critical sense of late:

New research has cast doubt on the theory that 97 infants were killed at a Roman brothel in Buckinghamshire.

In 2008, the remains of the newborn babies were rediscovered packed in cigarette cases in a dusty museum storeroom by Dr Jill Eyers from Chiltern Archaeology.

They were excavated from the remains of a lavish Roman villa complex in Buckinghamshire almost 100 years earlier, but had remained hidden ever since.

The story caught the attention of the world’s press last year as Dr Eyers suggested that the villa was operating as a brothel and its occupants committing infanticide to dispose of unwanted offspring.

The new research and the DNA results will feature on the forthcoming BBC Two series of Digging for Britain which starts the first week in September.

“Even now, a year after all the original press attention, every other day I’m getting inquiries about this story. It seems that everyone is intrigued by this puzzle,” said Dr Eyers.

She has now carefully plotted the infant burials and the associated artefacts from The Yewden Villa at Hambleden.

This revealed that all those infants that could be dated were buried between 150AD and 200AD, meaning all their deaths look like they took place in a 50-year period.

And she said she now had a whole host of other evidence from studying the landscape around the villa site to support her brothel theory.

She admitted: “To be honest, when I first put this idea forward last year, it was really to get people talking and debating, but the more I look into this, the more convinced I am by my original brothel theory.”

Brett Thorn, keeper of archaeology at the Buckinghamshire County Museum, has disputed her hypothesis.

“My main concern with the brothel theory is that it’s just too far away from any major population centres. I’m just not convinced,” he said.

He has put together an exhibition of other objects from the villa excavation that could point to the villa having associations with a series of mother goddess cults from around the world.

“There are a few significant religious objects from the site that indicate possible connections with a mother goddess cult,” he explained.

“They may indicate that the site was a shrine and women went there to give birth, and get protection from the mother goddess during this dangerous time. The large number of babies who are buried there could be natural stillbirths, or children who died in labour.”

Last year during filming for BBC Two’s Digging for Britain series, presenter Dr Alice Roberts noticed cut marks made by a sharp implement on one of the bones, a discovery that was not revealed to the public until now.

Cut marks can indicate anything from ritual practices involving human sacrifice, the de-fleshing of bones before burial, or the dismembering of a baby during childbirth to save the life of the mother.

Keri Brown at the University of Manchester carried out DNA tests on the 10 sets of the ancient bones to determine the sex of some of the infants.

It is common throughout history in cases of infanticide for girls to be killed rather than boys, but the opposite holds true for brothel sites. A brothel site at Ashkelon in Israel revealed that nearly all of the babies were boys.

Although the tests represented a very small sample of the total number of baby skeletons found, there seemed to be an equal number of victims of both sexes at the Buckinghamshire site, and so the mystery for now remains unsolved.

Dr Eyers said she believed that only further excavation at the site would clear up the mystery once and for all.

Of course, we need to remember this is TV hype, and the BBC is squeezing out another episode from something they sensationalized in the past. It’s interesting that the researchers seem to deal with some of the objections we mentioned in a previous post in regards to numbers over time:

Possibly more interesting (and sensationalizable), there was that claim of evidence of a dismembered child:

… which has been brought up in some hype video that just hit Youtube:

… other than that, I wonder if the program will deal with the large number of styluseseseses found at the site and the associated claims:

… we anxiously await to see this one …

@ Other blogs:



Circumundique – August 8, 2011

The Classical blogosphere never sleeps:

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem v idus sextiles

The Flight of Pompey after Pharsalus, by Jean ...
Image via Wikipedia

ante diem v idus sextiles

  • rites in honour of Sol Indiges on the Quirinal Hill
  • 480 B.C. — Spartan forces under Leonidas fight a suicidal delaying action against Persian forces at Thermopylae (by one reckoning)
  • 48 B.C. — The forces of Julius Caesar defeat Pompeius Magnus at Pharsalus
  • 117 A.D. — official announcement that Trajan had adopted Hadrian as his successor (hmmmm …)
  • 1804 — death of Robert Potter (translator of Aeschylus and critic of Dr. Johnson)