Does Roman Infanticide Explain the Mass Infant Burial Discovered in England?
Between 43 AD and 410 AD, huge swathes of Britain were under the control of the Roman Empire and funerary practices were mostly Christian, but also included the practice of Roman infanticide. Although, Roman infanticide has been well documented in Italy and in the Roman province that is Israel today, little evidence of this practice has been found in the UK. However, a discovery of about 100 infant skeletons, almost a 100 years ago, at Yewden Villa (Lodge), Buckinghamshire, by excavator Alfred Cocks, suggested Romans in Britain did practice infanticide. Now, experts from English Heritage have begun a deeper investigation into the Buckinghamshire skeletons discovered by Cocks, reports The Independent. And the reality seems to be related to the children born to prostitutes in a British-Roman brothel!
These burials, which are almost 1700 years old, were originally found at the Yewden Villa, near the village of Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, just north of the River Thames. Alfred Cocks’ archaeological finds had been stored in Buckinghamshire’s county museum in Aylesbury. English Heritage experts found that each individual infant was neatly stored in old tobacco boxes and shotgun cartridge containers. The researchers have so far located found 40 of the 97 dead infants reported by Cocks and, so far, all of them are newborn babies!
The next course of action for the English Heritage experts is to examine each individual infant skeleton with CT scanners and electron microscopes, to understand how they died. "The material is important because it represents the largest group of Roman period infant burials in Britain," said English Heritage's skeletal biologist, Doctor Simon Mays.
One infant's skeleton found at the Hambleden Roman infanticide mass burial site. An analysis of the remains from 35 infants revealed they were most likely killed at birth. (English Heritage)
Roman Infanticide and the Children of Roman Prostitutes
Cut marks were found on one of the infants, and the experts hope to examine each infant skeleton to determine whether their bodies bear the same marks. To ascertain gender and other finer characteristics, a DNA study will also be carried out on each of the skeletal remains.
It is common knowledge that Romans practiced infanticide, but why so many? So many dead newborns in one place might indicate cultish intent, or some religious ritual that is yet to be understood. In 2018, Dr. Jill Eyers, from Chiltern Archaeology, announced the discovery of the largest ever Roman infant burial count to the world, and shown that these were perfectly healthy children, with no sign of illness or disease.
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As Histecho reports, this theory was expanded upon to suggest that perhaps these newborn children were born to prisoners of war, prostitutes, or laborers. In Roman society, it was not uncommon to kill children because they were not considered to be “fully human.” New mothers would also engage in the practice of “exposure,” wherein if they did not want to bring up the child, it would be abandoned or left to die. The most famous tale of exposure is that of the abandonment of Romulus and Remus, the two infant sons of Mars, who were raised by wolves, and later became the founders of Rome.
It is this prior research on Roman infanticide that has suggested the current Hambleden finds are the children of prostitutes that worked in a Roman brothel in the area. The Hambleden infants also display no signs of illness or disease, and official historical records indicate no natural calamity, or lack of resources, which would have made the bringing up of these children difficult. Moreover, the cut on the wrist of one of the Hambleden infant skeletons is another indicator that there was something else afoot here.
In 1912, Alfred Cocks led the original excavation at Yewden Villa. Evidence and his report from the excavation were housed in the Buckinghamshire County Museum archives and rediscovered by Dr. Jill Eyers, who led a new study on the site. (BBC / 360 Production / Buckinghamshire County Museum)
A Government Building Dispensing Food Grains?
The answers lie in determining the nature of the complex on the outskirts of Hambleden, a Roman center of habitation. Sixty Roman iron styluses (Roman writing utensils) were discovered at the site and this could help unravel the mystery. Perhaps it was a Roman record-keeping center for the crops grown in the area, which were then exported to feed the Roman army on the banks of the Rhine River in Germania.
It is possible that the infants died of various causes including natural death and some as the result of infanticide. For example, deformed newborns may have been particularly vulnerable and were often killed. It is also possible that prostitutes were used to “service” those working and staying at this Roman complex. Children borne from such relations had no one to raise them and thus were killed. A final explanation might lie in some type of human sacrifice ritual.
- The discovery of a mass baby grave under Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon, Israel
- Hundreds of babies found in mass grave in ancient Athenian well were not victims of infanticide
There are many unanswered questions to this complex mystery, but certainly, with the availability of modern scientific techniques, we will likely have more answers soon. The latest results of the Hambleden Roman infanticide investigation will be featured in the next season of the BBC FOUR archaeology series called Digging for Britain.
Top image: Statue of Romulus and Remus suckling on a she wolf. Their famous story was one of attempted Roman infanticide but were saved by the she wolf, now a major symbol of the Roman Empire. Source: borzywoj / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
Keys, D. 2021. Discovery of babies’ skeletons exposes the dark side of life in Roman Britain. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/history/discovery-babies-skeletons-exposes-dark-side-life-roman-britain-2011017.html
Natasha, P. 2018. Archaeologist discovered mass baby grave under Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon. Available at: https://www.histecho.com/archaeologist-discovered-mass-baby-grave-roman-bathhouse-ashkelon/