Infant skeleton found beneath Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon, Israel

The discovery of a mass baby grave under Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon, Israel

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Along the shores of Israel's Mediterranean coast, in the ancient seaport of Ashkelon, archaeologist Ross Voss made a gruesome find. While exploring one of the city’s sewers, he discovered a large number of small bones. Initially, the bones were believed to be chicken bones. However, it was later discovered that the bones were actually human –infant bones from the Roman era. With the remains amounting to more than 100 babies, it was the largest discovery of infant remains to date.

Ancient ruins in Ashkelon national park, Israel

Ancient ruins in Ashkelon national park, Israel ( Wikimedia Commons )

Curious as to how and why these infants died, Voss took the remains to forensic anthropologist Professor Patrician Smith. Smith examined the infant remains and determined that there was no sign of illness or disease, and that the infants appeared to have been perfectly healthy when they died. She utilized a method of forensic testing that allowed her to determine that none of the infants had lived longer than a week before dying. During Roman times, it was not uncommon for infants to be killed as a form of birth control. It was not a crime, as newborn infants were viewed as being ‘not fully human’. In most cases, a Roman woman who did not want a newborn would engage in the practice of “exposure.” She would abandon the infant, either to be found and cared for by someone else, or to perish. According to the beliefs at the time, it was up to the gods to determine whether the infant would be spared or not. The most famous account of near-infanticide, is Rome’s foundation story, in which Romulus and Remus, two infant sons of the war god, Mars, were abandoned in the woods but were raised by wolves and later founded the city of Rome.

The most famous account of attempted infanticide, in which babies were left exposed to the elements, is the story of Romulus and Remus

The most famous account of attempted infanticide, in which babies were left exposed to the elements, is the story of Romulus and Remus (Wikimedia Commons)

Strangely, research indicated that the infants at Ashkelon did not appear to have been “exposed.” Rather, it appears they were intentionally killed. One clue into the reason for their deaths lies in the location of the bodies. Investigations revealed that the sewer where the remains were found was directly beneath a former bathhouse. It is possible that the infants were born to prostitutes or laborers who worked at the bathhouse. Nevertheless, this remains as mere speculation as no further evidence has substantiated the theory.

Remains of Roman bathhouse in Israel

Remains of Roman bathhouse in Israel ( Wikimedia Commons )

The find in Ashkelon is not the only example of a mass killing of Roman-era babies. In 1912, Alfred Heneage Cocks, the curator of the Buckinghamshire County Museum in England, made a shocking discovery. While leading an excavation in Hambleden (the site of a former Roman villa), Cocks uncovered the remains of 103 individuals. Of those 103 individuals, 97 were infants, 3 were children, and 3 were adults. While this gruesome find brings forth questions of how and why these infants had been killed, Cocks failed to conduct any investigation as to the origins of the remains.

Hambleden – site of mass baby grave, Buckinghamshire, England

Hambleden – site of mass baby grave, Buckinghamshire, England. Credit: Buckinghamshire County Museum

Jill Eyers, archaeologist and director of Chiltern Archaeology in England, discovered the remains in a museum archive, and decided to look further into the circumstances surrounding the deaths. Eyers believes that the Hambleden site is another example of a brothel where prostitutes would give birth to unwanted children that were subsequently killed. The site was not an area of poverty, so a lack of resources could not explain the mass killing.  There were also no recorded illnesses in the area at the time that could account for the large volume of deaths. Eyers believes that the only reasonable explanation is that the site once housed a brothel. Due to an absence of contraception at this time, there were limited options for those who wanted to avoid having or raising children, so infanticide may have been the only choice they believed they had.

Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at English Heritage, has examined the Hambleden Roman infant bones.

Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at English Heritage, has examined the Hambleden Roman infant bones.

Regardless of the reason or manner of death, mass graves of infant remains are truly disturbing. While the nature of life during the Roman era was different than it is today, and families did not have many options to limit their family size, it is difficult to imagine any mother allowing or engaging in the intentional killing of their newborn child. In time, it is hoped that we may find more answers to exactly how and why these infants were killed.

Comments

The discovery of mass baby graves anywhere in the world is shocking enough, but the remains of the infants under a bath house at Roman Ashkelon are truly horrifying. A show entitled "Born To Die - Skeletons of Roman Ashkelon" produced in 2008 probes deeper into the mystery of the mass baby grave at Roman Ashkelon. The show examined the theory of the bath house also being used as a brothel and that the prostitutes of the brothel may have used the sewer beneath the bath house as a form of birth control. As stated in the article, infanticide in the Roman world consisted of unwanted babies being exposed where they could possibly be found to be raised by someone else or succumb to the elements or wilds of the environment in which they were left. The Romans believed the gods and goddesses would ultimately decide whether the baby would live or die. The reasons for the shock and dismay of the Roman babies of Ashkelon would include the sheer number of remains of infants found in one location, but also that it appears that these children were put in the sewer beneath the bath house on purpose so that they would never be found. These infants were deliberately disposed of and hidden so that there was no chance of any of them being found. Although we know all of these infants were intentionally murdered, the question becomes was this an organized and secret means of infant disposal for a brothel, was it an ancient form of a woman giving birth in secret so she wouldn't suffer disgrace and the infant was never known about, or was it a known dumping ground for unwanted children among the residents of Ashkelon? Sadly, the truth will probably never be known and there are many more theories that could be considered. The prostitution/brothel theory makes a lot of sense since the remains were found under a bath house and bath houses were known for being hotbeds of prostitution. It would be very interesting to see if DNA samples could be taken from the infants to find out if any of these children were related. It would tell us if the same women were having multiple children and using this sewer as a birth control method. I highly recommend watching the program mentioned above. It is a very good and detailed show about this specific topic.

That's a good one: letting the gods decide if the baby lives or dies. Washing their hands...

Sunny Young

Wow the picture of the "baby" bones looks gruesome, notice how large the teeth are in the skull of that
"baby"

What is so shocking about this? Have you not read the bible? Infanticide was common in the middle east. Still is, check out what ISIS is doing! Herod ordered all the babies killed, people just showed up with them no protests to Rome, no rebellion.

Massacre of the Innocents is not reported outside of the Gospel of Matthew (2:16) and other later Christian writings likely based on that gospel. The Roman Jewish historian, Josephus, does not mention it in his history, Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 AD). It most likely never happened.

Sometimes I am glad that we moved beyond paganism. The Bible had some good points.

How sad to be so uninformed about history. The bilble is full of infanticide in the old testament: Ex 1:22; 2Ki 17:17,18; Ez 23:36-39 to name a few. Josephus spends the length of his books lauding the Romans and what a great people they were and how bad the Hebrews were. It comes across like the 'Life of Brian' skit. Down with Rome! what have they done for us except for: roads, aquaducts, baths, laws, harbors, trade, etc, etc, etc... Paganism built those things and every piece of the world you live in. The Dark Ages happened when people started following the bible. Take time to read a few books then you might have three Engineering degrees hanging on your walls.

It's a long times since you commented but I found your comment very insightful. I have never believed that our history books are telling us the whole story and while getting closer to the truth, praise Yah, i'ts quite interesting to think of the dark ages as a period they probably wanted to erase from history books for some reason.
It might seem funny but as a woman I was looking at the history of hair and saw that through the dark ages the hairstyles where more biblical. So that gives a clue in my opinion. Anyway who am I, it's just an interesting thought and point of reference for further study.

  @constance  Indeed, this skeleton for one is not a baby. So the theory of prostitutes having babies in the bathroom en immediately dispose of them is not right.

Sunny Young

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