There is little doubt that the find of so many babies’ skeletons proves that Roman Britain shared another part of the empire’s culture – infanticide. Illegal today, it was the opposite for the Romans, with the law making a child under two entirely the property of its father, to be disposed of as he saw fit.
By Stephen Hull
The babies of Roman prostitutes were regularly murdered by their mothers, archaeologists have found.
A farmer’s field in Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, yielded the grisly secret after a mass grave containing the remains of 97 babies – who all died around the same age – was uncovered.
Following a close study of the plot, experts have decided it was the site of an ancient brothel and terrible infanticides took place there.
With little or no effective contraception available to the Romans, who also considered infanticide less shocking than it is today, they may have simply murdered the children as soon as they were born.
Archaeologists say locals may have systematically killed and buried the helpless youngsters on the site.
Measurements of their bones at the site in Hambleden show all the babies died at around 40 weeks gestation, suggesting very soon after birth. If they had died from natural causes, they would have been different ages.
Archaeologist Dr Jill Eyers, who lives locally, has been interested in the site for many years. She put together a team to excavate the site and is writing a book about her findings.
She said: ‘Re-finding the remains gave me nightmares for three nights.
‘It made me feel dreadful. I kept thinking about how the poor little things died. The human part of the tale is awful.
‘There were equal numbers of girls and boys. Some of the babies were related as they showed a congenital bone defect on their knee bones, which is a very rare gene.
‘It would account for the same woman or sisters giving birth to the children as a result of the brothel.’
The Yewden villa at Hambleden was excavated 100 years ago and identified as a high status Roman settlement.
It is now covered by a wheat field, but meticulous records were left by Alfred Heneage Cocks, a naturalist and archaeologist, who reported his findings in 1921.
He gave precise locations for the infant bodies, which were hidden under walls or buried under courtyards close to each other.
However, the matter was not investigated further until now. Cocks’ original report was recently rediscovered, along with 300 boxes of photographs, artefacts, pottery and bones, at Buckinghamshire County Museum.
Dr Eyers was suspicious that the infants were systematically killed because they were unwanted births – a suspicion which has been confirmed by Simon Mays, a palaeontologist who has spent the past year measuring the bones.
Dr Eyers said ‘He proved without doubt that all the infants were new-born. They were all killed at birth and all at the gestation period of between 38 and 40 weeks.
‘There are still little bits of the jigsaw to be pieced together. We want to see final figures of boys and girls and the relations to ascertain what sort of group we have here.
‘We also found a family of five buried in a well. Did they die in a fire or were they murdered?
‘There is another site about a mile down the river which we know nothing about but I think there must be a connection.’
The find has been compared to the discovery of the skeletons of 100 Roman- era babies in a sewer beneath a bath house in Ashkelon, southern Israel, in 1988.