In 2008, Dr. Jill Eyers from Chiltern Archaeology in England discovered the skeletal remains of 97 newborn babies packed away in a museum storeroom. The infants had been recovered from an excavation of a Roman villa from Buckinghamshire in the early 20th century. However, no analysis of the remains or report of their presence had ever been published. The initial analysis by Dr. Eyers found that the remains dated to 40 weeks gestation, which led her to interpret the remains as being an act of infanticide. From this, she argued “The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel” (BBC 2010). She came to this conclusion based an interpretation that a lack of effective contraception in the Roman era would have made infanticide among brothels a common practice. Further, she noted that infants in the Roman era may not have even been considered real people until they were at least two, making the practice less barbaric than it would seem to modern populations.
In determining whether infanticide is the cause of the 97 infant death relies heavily on bioarchaeological intepretation. Dr. Simon Mays determined the age of the infants through long bone measurements. Given the similar size in the infant remains and the aging of the remains to around 40 weeks gestation suggests infanticide rather than natural causes. If the deaths were due to natural causes, bioarchaeologists would expect to find bones that came in a range of sizes suggesting variation in infant age.
Since the initial investigation and interpretation, the archaeological team has plotted the burials and artifacts associated with the infants in order to gain a better understanding of the site as a whole. The site has been dated from 150 to 200 CE, and all the burials fall within this 50 year period. Dr. Eyers continues to argues for the brothel hypothesis, finding that further research and the combination of the human remains with archaeological evidence only further supports her conclusions. However this has been called into question by archaeologists, like Brett Thorn, who argue that the site also has evidence of a Mother Goddess cult, and may represent an area where women went to give birth. He notes that “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.” To further complicate interpretation, cut marks have now been discovered on some of the remains which could indicate anything from ritual practice, to defleshing before burial, to medical marks from trying to dismember a baby to save the mother.
This isn’t the first time that infant remains have led to interpretations of brothels and infanticide. In 2005, archaeologist Thomas Crist argued that the remains of two full term neonates and a fetus found at the bottom of a privvy in the Five Points District of 19th century New York City are evidence of infanticide, miscarriage, or abortion. He further argued that they were likely related caused by prostitution of the mother. This interpretation was made due to a number of lines of evidence. First, like the babies found in England, the age was estimated from the long bone length suggesting that two were around 10 weeks, and the third was around 20 weeks. Second, there is textual evidence form this period that abortionists were often used by prostitutes and working women as a form of emergency birth control, and that the abortion could take place at any number of weeks. Finally, archaeological evidence from the tenement site associated with the privy containing the fetal remains suggests that it may have been a brothel. Police records show that this specific location was indeed considered to be a house of ill repute, and that it had been shut down at least once for being a brothel.
The NYC site has a fairly wide range of evidence both with archaeological remains and textual materials that increase the likelihood of the prenatal remains being the cause of abortion at a brothel. The site from England however does not have this range of evidence. More work is needed to be done at the site before a conclusion of infanticide can be fully accepted. other possibilities may be that it was a birthing center as Thorn suggested, or that burials at the site were grouped by age and only this one burial cluster has been recovered. A systematic survey of the site and artifacts may reveal enough evidence for a more nuanced interpretation.
Crist 2005. The Babies in the Privy: infanticide and Abortion in the Five Points District. Historical Archaeology 39(1)
Ord, 2011. Roman dead babies in Brothel. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14401305
BBC, 2010. Baby deaths linked to brothel. BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10384460