Why were 97 new-born babies buried in the grounds of a Roman villa at Hambleden near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, during the third and fourth centuries AD? This is a mystery that has endured for almost a century, since the site was first excavated in 1912 by the naturalist and archaeologist Alfred Cocks.
The sheer number of burials led the early 20th century archaeologist to conclude that it was an irregular burial, and that perhaps the babies had been buried there secretly perhaps having been murdered over a period of a century or more towards the end of the Roman occupation of Britain.
Almost 100 years later, boxes of bones and archaeologists’ notes were found in storage in Buckinghamshire County Museum at Aylesbury. It’s believed that the boxes hadn’t been opened since the 1920s, and interest in this case of ‘mass infanticide’ was rekindled. Dr Simon Mays, an expert in bones at English Heritage, was asked to conduct further tests.
Of the original 97 infant skeletons discovered during Alfred Cocks’s excavation, the bodies of just 40 have been found in the museum’s storage.
Dr Simon Mays told me earlier today: I’ve always been interested in infanticide and the site at Hambleden was infamous although it was thought that the burials from Cocks’ excavation had been lost. Jill Eyers of Chiltern Archaeology found the box and when it was opened, it contained bones and handwritten notes by the Scottish anthropologist and anatomist, Sir Arthur Keith. Mays explained that in the early 20th century, there was interest in establishing the racial origins of modern Britons, and that Keith’s notes refer to this.
Dr Mays has been studying the bones for six months. He said: I measure the bones and then use a method, which I devised some 20 years ago, to show whether the infants were killed naturally or not. The measurements indicate the baby’s age at death and, in the case of infanticide, we would expect there to be a spike of deaths at 40-42 weeks of gestation, because the baby would be killed almost as soon as it is born.
The burials of natural deaths could also be present at the site (for example, still-born or premature babies or infants who died naturally within the first few weeks of life) but so far analysis of the bones has shown there is indeed a spike in the number of deaths immediately after birth, which is congruent with infanticide, according to Dr Mays.
Was the Infanticide Linked to a Brothel?
So why were so many infants deliberately killed and buried at this one site?
A tempting conclusion is that this Roman villa could have been used as a brothel. Dr Jill Eyers of Chiltern Archaeology told BBC News: “The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel.” The article reasons that “with little or no effective contraception, unwanted pregnancies could have been common at Roman brothels.”
The burials at Hambleden Roman villa have been compared to the discovery of the skeletons of 100 Roman-era infants discovered in a sewer beneath a bath house in Ashkelon, southern Israel, in 1988. It has also been suggested that the burials at Ashkelon could have been the result of unwanted pregnancies at a brothel, although this is not conclusive and, according to this article on archaeology.org, there is evidence from classical texts that suggest that prostitutes at that time knew how to avoid or terminate pregnancies, making it unlikely that prostitutes would have many full-term pregnancies.
Another crucial difference is that Ashkelon was a busy seaport in Roman times, while the Roman villa at Hambleden may have been, at most, something similar to a country manor, home to a rich family of landowners, perhaps Romanized Britons, surrounded by their servants and workers. It was not a town. As Dr Mays put it: To my mind, it just doesn’t make economic sense to have a brothel in a quiet countryside location such as Hambleden.
The Mystery Continues
So what other explanations could there be for the large number of child burials?
According to Dr Mays, infanticide was an accepted practice in many historic societies, and it could have been practised in Roman society too.
The infants could have been buried over several centuries, although it’s thought that most of the bones date from the third and fourth centuries AD.
Dr Mays said: We don’t know how they were killed in other societies infanticide was often carried out by smothering, and this could well be the case in Roman times too.
He also reports that cut marks have been found on some of the bones, which raises the possibility of other causes of death. He adds: The next phase of the project will closely examine all the bones for cut marks.
DNA analysis will soon be carried out to try, if possible, to determine the sex of the infants. It is possible, therefore, that the site was a burial place for unwanted babies born into a community of farm workers and servants on a rich country estate during the third and fourth centuries AD.
While there may not yet be a convincing and conclusive explanation for the mass infant burial, perhaps the most compelling scenario was conjured by Cocks, who imagined that the bones came from children secretly disposed of in the grounds of the country villa. However, Cocks may have been influenced by the Victorian images of child murder, as documented in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summersdale.
More information will emerge after further analysis determines the sex of the infants, and how many of the bones have cut-marks on them.
Photos courtesy of Dr Jill Eyers, Chiltern Archaeology.