Baby Bones Were Trash to Romans

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.
  • Subadult humerus from Poggio Civitate.
    Credit: A. Tuck via LiveScience
  • One neonate ilium found in 2009.
These bones are not in good shape (see pics).  Only half of the humerus pictured has been preserved, and the cortical bone appears to be flaking, a possible indication of weathering (meaning the bone was exposed to the elements at some point).  The report doesn't suggest who studied the bones or specifically how old the fetuses/neonates/infants were at death - the ilium and humerus should be able to narrow the age range down, though.  [Update: Bones were studied by Sarah Whitcher Kansa and Suellen Gauld, and the 1983 and 2009 remains are all neonates, or around full-term.]

So, first: incidental human bones at an archaeological site are no big deal.  Really.  I work at Gabii, where there was continuous occupation from about the 10th century BC through the 3rd century AD.  That's well over a millennium of people living on, working, eating on, discarding onto, and digging up the land.  There are plenty of stray human bones found, usually small bones from adults (like hand and foot bones) and small bones from infants.  The latter often aren't recognized as human bones because we don't tend to see infant bones on a regular basis and because many people incorrectly assume they look just like adult bones (they don't - babies are born with about 450 unfused and undeveloped bony elements [Baker et al. 2005], compared to the fully-developed 206 adults have).
Subadult ilium from Poggio Civitate.
Credit: A. Tuck via LiveScience

Second: the conclusions Tuck reaches are, well, a reach.  He is quoted as saying the bones may have been simply "left on the floor of the workshop," and then suggests that the babies were from people of low social status because of their placement in a workshop, further insinuating that the babies were the children of slaves (and therefore would have been slaves themselves, had they lived).  He suggests that the 1971 bone was debris, swept up against a wall as so much garbage.  There are so many problems with these assumptions about taphonomy that I honestly don't even know where to start.  How does he know the bones were left on the floor and not, say, incidentally picked up with dirt fill - fill that was possibly hundreds of years old - that was used in another context?  How does he know that the person who swept the bone towards the wall knew that it was a human infant bone rather than an animal bone and chose to ignore that?  

And third: Why does burial within or near a workshop (if indeed these infants were buried in/near the place they were found, which is possible but there's no evidence of this in the report) necessitate low status?  Again at Gabii, excavators found several infant burials, some of which were very well-appointed, dating to the same general time period as these Poggio Civitate ones.  Jeff Becker and Jessica Nowlin [2011] published a preliminary report on these Gabine burials, along with comparanda of infant burials in Italy.  Infants are quite often buried very close to the settlement throughout Roman history, as they are in many other cultures - finding infant burials under walls, under living floors, or just outside houses or workshops is not unusual.  Pliny the Elder called these types of burials subgrundaria ("beneath the eaves"), and there is plenty of evidence for the practice dating back to the Iron Age.  The four Poggio Civitate bones, if they do represent infant burial close to the workshop, are a bit earlier than most of the infant burial evidence in Italy but are not particularly anomalous.

To sum up: Just because bones were found in a workshop doesn't mean burials were made in a workshop or that no burial was made.  And it certainly doesn't necessitate conclusions about status and Etruscans' feelings about the death of newborns.  Perhaps the Poggio Civitate infants were low-status, and perhaps the Etruscans didn't place a high premium on the lives of infants - both are entirely possible.  But nothing that has been reported would lead any Roman bioarchaeologist to come to these conclusions.  The only conclusion that I can reach with the bones presented is: Huh. Some intrusive bones were found.

The reporting of infant burials is always problematic to me, though.  From the "brothel babies" to the Carthaginian tophet infants to these Etruscan neonates, the headline is always about how unfeeling people of the past were about babies.  It's a longstanding trope - that death was just something people used to put up with, that they were hardened to its devastation - but anthropologically and historically, it's not usually based in fact.  We simply like to tell ourselves that we're better than our forebears, that we're more civilized than the Etruscans/Romans/Carthaginians, that we've culturally evolved to do right by our biological progeny.  But we do a disservice to the past by assuming a lack of emotion, and we do an even greater disservice when we over-interpret small amounts of data to arrive at those conclusions.  So I'll be interested to read the publication of these four bones from Poggio Civitate, whenever that happens.

Random bones from Poggio Civitate?
Credit: A. Tuck in the Daily Mail
UPDATE (11:20AM CST) - I emailed Anthony Tuck, and he generously shared his unpublished manuscript on the bones with me.  His osteologists are Sarah Whitcher Kansa and Suellen Gauld, and the osteological analysis of the three bones in the article (he is excluding the 1971 bone from this publication) is first-rate.  Their analysis of post-mortem breakage and bone erosion fits with my suggestion above of taphonomic (or post-depositional) processes.  The conclusions reached in the article, though, are fairly summarized by the LiveScience piece - namely, that the neonates were discarded with other debris.  I do have a problem with this conclusion, as Tuck and coauthors have not presented enough evidence to convince me that these three neonate bones represent a primary depositional event (or "disposition" in the forensic literature).  Everything about the bones and their context screams secondary depositional event to me (e.g., the bones wound up in dirt fill that was used in the workshop), meaning the suggestion that neonates were unwanted, lower-class, or nothing more than garbage is highly suspect.  I've communicated this to Tuck, along with some additional bibliography, so we'll see what he does with this article.  It's an interesting article, and I appreciate his sharing it with me, but I think it can be better.

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.


Baker, B.J., T. Dupras, & M. Tocheri. 2005.  The osteology of infants and children. Texas A&M University Press.

Becker, J. & J. Nowlin. 2011. Orientalizing infant burials from Gabii, Italy.  BABESCH 86:27-39.

Further Reading:


Unknown said…
Awesome, this was a very enjoyable and informative read! Love the renaming of the 'Daily Fail'. hahaha
Anonymous said…
Loved the article. These type of claims always drive me nuts. I can see right wing news headlines now, and of course it's women's fault..."Pagan Mothers believed dead babies garbage before Christianity."
andrea said…
Some episodes also in today's Italy where children were abandoned in this way. Not the best heritage from Romans avoid this Italian law on registered birth has been changed something about 15 years ago

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