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Deadly Plague Epidemic Painting

Child Cemetery in Thessaloniki Sheds Light on Infant Plague Burials


A recent exploration of burial sites in Thessaloniki, Greece, has revealed that dozens of the burials are of children and infants. These poor young souls were not victims of a bloody war or tyrannous rule, but rather, the tragic Justinian plague of the sixth century.

Unusual Findings During Excavations at Thessaloniki

Greece’s second largest city Thessaloniki (or Thessalonica) is the capital of the region of Macedonia, overlooking the waters of the Macedonian Gulf. The area has a hugely storied past, although its history isn’t always quite what you’d expect. The excavations were conducted in Kastrona Street, at the historic walls of the city.

During work for a redevelopment project in the heart of the modern city, which has involved digging and renovation along the outer ramparts of the ancient Roman-Byzantine walls, archaeologists came across the stunning find. According to Archaeology News Network, over 200 burials have been found, 90% of which were jar burials.

The find has been reported at the 33rd Scientific Meeting on the Archaeological Project in Macedonia and Thrace (AEMTH) and during which archaeologists reported that this was once part of the Christian part of the Eastern cemetery, used almost exclusively for children and infants between the 4 th and 6 th centuries AD. Aikaterini Kousoula, the archaeologist for the Ephorate of Thessaloniki City, described what she termed a “riveting” scene:

In contrast to the organized arrangement of graves observed in the lower layers where 21-tile-roofed children’s burials and a cist-shaped children’s grave were found, the jar burial with dozens of vases almost stacked on top of each other in the upper layers, suggest the increased child mortality and the urgent need for burial in a limited space.

The custom of jar burials for infants isn’t new and has existed since prehistoric times. However, the jar burials discovered in Kastrona Street, Thessaloniki, “were accompanied by a mosaic tile or a piece of flooring with tesserae which we believe were probably detached from ruined shrines or martyrdoms.” The archaeologists believe that the dense nature of the burials was “linked to the deadly plague epidemic that struck Justin’s empire in 541-542.” This outbreak is said to have killed a quarter of the people of Constantinople and had an enormous impact along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean.

Aerial view of Thessaloniki following the Roman-Byzantine wall, Greece

Aerial view of Thessaloniki following the Roman-Byzantine wall, Greece. (dudlajzov / Adobe Stock)

Infant Burials Through Human History

In total, 212 burials of infants and children were discovered at Thessaloniki. While it may seem of today, the practice of burying babies in jars is something that has existed since the Bronze Age (3100 BC to 300 BC), and has continued till as recently as the 20 th century, reports Smithsonian Magazine. In fact, according to Dr. Alfredo Mederos Martin of the University of Madrid, the style of burying children in jars was practiced as early on as 4500 BC.

The jury is still out about why jars are used as a method of burial, particularly for children and infants. One possible hypothesis was explored when an infant jar burial was discovered in Israel’s Jaffa that was found to be 3,800 years old. “You might go to the practical thing and say that the bodies were so fragile, they felt the need to protect it from the environment, even though it is dead. But there’s always the interpretation that the jar is almost like a womb, so basically the idea is to return [the] baby back into Mother Earth, or into the symbolic protection of his mother,” according to Israel Antiques Authority researcher Yoav Arbel.

The practice of burying babies in jars is something that has existed since the Bronze Age. This example is a middle Bronze Age infant jar burial from the Lebanese site of Sidon

The practice of burying babies in jars is something that has existed since the Bronze Age. This example is a middle Bronze Age infant jar burial from the Lebanese site of Sidon. (Claude Doumet-Serhal / CC BY-NC-ND)

A New-Found Respect for the Young?

There are many takeaways from this discovery in Thessaloniki, and other ancient cultures which buried their dead babies in jars. On the one hand, healthcare or the idea of dignifying human life is much more of a modern phenomenon. History is replete with examples of the loss of human life through natural catastrophes and disease. Another hypothesis is that infant lives were not viewed as being as important as they are today.

In fact, in an article published in 2018 in Haaretz, Ruth Schuste argues that at one stage children were thought to be of little importance. She based this assumption on the evidence that prehistoric humans had buried only adults in jars. The finding of so many children buried in jars at Thessaloniki reflects a possible change in society’s attitudes towards the young. It is safe to say that modern-day mourning of the dead has acquired greater cultural and emotional import, even at the time of a brutal pandemic.

“The moving revelation at the time of a pandemic becomes particularly poignant,” adds Kousoula.

Top image: The Plague at Ashdod painting by Angelo Caroselli shows people dying of the plague, similar to the cause of death at the child cemetery in Thessaloniki. Source: Public domain

By Rudra Bhushan

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I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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