The treatment of infants in the past can vary significantly from their treatment in modern times; which is why a recent find from Italy has caused discussion. The excavation at Poggio Civitate in Tuscancy has revealed a number of infant bones within garbage debris along the floor of the villa. The site dates to the late 8th century BCE, and has been excavated over the past four decades. During the 1970’s, excavators found the arm bone of an infant within swept up debris. In the 1980’s, two more arm bones were revealed in a garbage cache along with animal remains. Finally, in 2009, a neonate pelvic bone was discovered. Putting all this evidence together, it appears that the death of an infant during this period may not have been an occasion for mourning or burial.
Anthony Tuck, an archaeologist from U. Mass who presented on the site at the Archaeological Institute of America meetings this past week, argues that infants may not have been given the same treatment as adults in death. It is highly likely that burial was afforded to community members, a status reached at a certain age. Very few infant burials are found in Italy until after the Roman period. Often when they are found it is in different context than the contemporary adult ones. An example is the Tophet of Carthage, which had a completely separate burial ground for infants, and the Roman cemetery at Hambeldon, which had an area discrete from but near to the main cemetery for infant remains.
Tuck argues that this neonate’s remains were not given proper burial, but rather were part of the garbage cache scattered across the workshop floor. In this narrative, the bones were part of the normal discard of life and it is assumed that emotional attachment was fairly low. We cannot know the mindset of the Etruscans living at this site, whether it was the offspring of the wealthy villa owners or one of their servants, or even how natal death was viewed in this period. Infant bones are quite weak and usually have poor preservation, so our samples of them are usually skewed and cause interpretation of their treatment to be based on only a few scattered finds.
Remains are given differential treatment, which can vary drastically with age. When infant mortality was extremely high, it is possible that they were not treated in the same lavish manner as adults or were not even viewed as community members. Plutarch’s “Letter of Consolation to his Wife”, responds to the death of their two-year-old daughter. He asks for her to be restrained in mourning, stating that infants “have no part in earth or earthly things”, which is why they do not have or require the normal rites performed for the deceased. Many archaeologists and ancient Italian scholars argue for a lack of care in the burial of infant remains.
However, as Maureen Carroll argues, the interpretation for neglect of infant remains and lack of emotional investment is not based on the available evidence. Her examination of skeletal assemblages from the Roman period showed that there was mourning and loss felt. Kristina Killgrove looks specifically at Tuck’s argument for Etruscan infant burials and argues that there isn’t enough evidence to prove that this was simply a discarded burial. She notes three major problems with his argument: first, that incidental remains are not rare on ancient sites due to taphonomy and movement of earth throughout history, second that this could be taphonomic disturbance and not a primary discard, and finally that this could have been a burial near the house to keep the infant close and not a sign of neglect.
We need to be very careful when interpreting infant remains. In many cases they were treated differently, but we can’t assume that this means their was any less emotional attachment or that it is a symbol of neglect. Infant remains are difficult to recover due to their poor preservation and small size, so we don’t have a large sample to base our interpretations off of most of the time. Further, news articles tend to reduce arguments and pull out the most grisly interpretation, like the Daily Mail who published “Did Romans dump the remains of their dead children with the rubbish? Grisly discoveries reveal unsympathetic attitudes” in response to Tuck’s talk. Were they unsympathetic? It is highly unlikely. Did they treat infants in a different manner? Yes, but this doesn’t indicate their emotional response.
You can view the bones from the Poggio Civitate excavation online here: http://poggiocivitate.classics.umass.edu/catalog/searchresults.asp?searchtype=quick
Killgrove, Kristina 2013. Baby Bones Trash to Romans. In Powered by Osteons. http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/2013/01/baby-bones-were-trash-to-romans.html
Parry, Wynne 2013.Bones of Roman-Era Babies Killed at Birth Reveal a Mystery. In Live Science. http://www.livescience.com/15961-baby-graves-infanticide.html