Not really. But the occasional news story pops up trying to make us think that the Romans (or Greeks or Carthaginians or whathaveyou) were chucking their infants with the household trash. And those news stories are invariably based on sketchy details about excavations without much consideration for taphonomy, or what happens to bodies after death and burial.
In June of 2010, the media fervor was over the so-called "brothel babies" found in Buckinghamshire dating to the mid-2nd century AD (so, Roman Britain), and David Meadows (the Rogue Classicist) doubted the conclusions reached. The story came back up in August of 2011 in service of a new documentary, and at that time, archaeologist Rosemary Joyce debunked the idea fairly well. This story has become so widespread, though, that those of us who do bioarch in the Roman world are often asked about it, and it has almost a running joke among us... "Have you found any brothel babies yet?"
The discussion about the Carthaginian tophet - were the babies found there sacrificed or did they die naturally? - has been raging for a few years now, with an anti-sacrifice 2010 publication in PLoS One by Jeffrey Schwartz and colleagues and a back-and-forth in Antiquity in September between Schwartz and Smith (who argues that it was sacrifice). It's hard to keep the evidence straight when several different osteologists have examined the same remains and have come to diametrically opposite conclusions. Then of course there are others who think the question itself is problematic...
And in classical Athens, hundreds of baby and dog skeletons found in an abandoned well by archaeologists in 1938 have puzzled osteologists for years. Susan Rotroff, though, thinks based on the analysis of the bones that they were all likely natural deaths rather than infanticide or some other nefarious act. (The dogs, however, may have been sacrificed, according to Jacopo deGrossi Mazzorin.)
Ancient dead babies are generally pretty newsworthy, and yesterday, LiveScience covered a paper presented at the Archaeological Institute of America conference by Anthony Tuck of U Mass Amherst. In the paper entitled "Evidence for treatment of perinatal deaths in Etruscan central Italy," Tuck presented bones from the site of Poggio Civitate. The LiveScience headline, "Baby bones found scattered in ancient Italian village," was predictable in getting across the idea that these bones were haphazardly strewn about the site, the implication of which is that the babies may also have been unwanted and cast aside. The evidence, according to the LiveScience piece (as this is not yet published), includes:
- An arm bone of a fetus or neonate found near a wall with other animal bones and debris in 1971.
- Two neonate or infant arm bones found with animal bones in 1983.
- One neonate ilium found in 2009.
|Subadult humerus from Poggio Civitate.|
Credit: A. Tuck via LiveScience
|Subadult ilium from Poggio Civitate.|
Credit: A. Tuck via LiveScience
|Random bones from Poggio Civitate?|
Credit: A. Tuck in the Daily Mail
UPDATE (6:05PM CST) - As could have been predicted, the Daily Fail got in on the story with the headline, "Did Romans dump the remains of their dead children with the rubbish? Grisly discoveries reveal unsympathetic attitudes." Which is extra awesome because Poggio Civitate is an Etruscan site, not Roman. The reason I'm linking to this article, though, is the main picture, which includes skull fragments that have heretofore been unmentioned. They weren't in the LiveScience piece, and they weren't in the article Tuck let me preview. There's no mention of the ilium, though, so it's possible that the Daily Fail is completely ignorant of human anatomy and mixed them up. I'm guessing it's just a poor labeling job, and the picture with the skull fragments (see right) represents animal remains. Honestly, it's hard to tell from such small fragments, but all of them look relatively fully grown, so couldn't be from babies. (The cranial fragment in the upper-right is definitely not a baby bone, for instance, and doesn't look human either.) Anyway, more to come perhaps... I strongly disagree with Tuck's interpretation of the remains, but he doesn't seem bothered by that.
- Palaeopathology and urban decline at Imperial Gabii. (PbO - 4/12/12)
- Meet the Gabines. (PbO - 8/3/10)
- Are dead babies good evidence for a Roman brothel? (Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives - 6/25/10. See especially the comments at the end by Rosemary Joyce on the problems with interpreting infant remains.)