Every so often, an archaeological dig will turn up something mysterious that leaves scholars scratching their heads in wonder and amazement. And then there’s excavations, like that of an ancient sewer in Ashkelon, that leave them downright horrified…
Ashkelon was a port city on what is now the shores of Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast. The first known inhabitants were the Canaanites, who settled the area during the Bronze Age. Due to it’s natural harbor and strategic position along trade routes it became one of the most important cities of the ancient world and, as a result, changed hands between various conquering forces over the years. It was eventually destroyed during the Crusades in 1191.
In 1988, archeologists from Harvard University were digging through one of the city’s Roman-era sewers when they stumbled across hundreds of tiny bones. At first these were thought to be the bones of small animals. But upon closer inspection they turned out to be human. Human, infant bones. What they discovered was the remains of 97 babies, the largest infant mass grave ever unearthed.
The bodies had been discarded along with animal bones, pottery fragments, coins and scattered trash. There were no signs of funerary practices or associated items, contrasting sharply with the infant burial jars from the same period discovered a few hundred yards away. And when the remains were brought to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for further study it was determined that none of the babies had lived more than a week and all were healthy at the time of death (showing no signs of disease, deformities or illness). So why were they dumped here?
To the Romans, it was believed that a new-born child was not yet fully human. If an infant was ill or unwanted it was common to abandon it in a practice known as “exposure”, whereby the gods would determine it’s fate. According to Prof. Patricia Smith, a forensic anthropologist who studied the bones: “We know that infanticide was widely practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was regarded as the parents’ right if they didn’t want a child. Usually they killed girls. Boys were considered more valuable – as heirs or for support in old age. Girls were sometimes viewed as burdens, especially if they needed a dowry to marry.”
But the theory of female infanticide was quickly dispelled. To everyone’s surprise the majority of bones were determined to be those of male babies. Many skeletons were incomplete, but scientists managed to extract the DNA from 43 left femurs (thigh bones), and were successful in 19 cases. Fourteen of these were male, and only five female. The results were checked by making multiple DNA extractions from each bone, obtaining the same results in 17 of the specimens.
The excavated sewer is located underneath a Roman bathhouse, in what is thought to have once been Ashkelon’s red light district. In addition to erotic pottery found in and around the site, the inscription “Enter and Enjoy” was carved in Greek on a tub near the entrance – leading archeologists to the conclusion that it doubled as a brothel. Considering the significant number of male remains, it was suggested that these infants may have been the unwanted offspring of the women who worked here. Although prostitution was a profession that involved both sexes in the Roman world, researchers believe that there would have been much more demand for women (most of who were abandoned children that had been rescued and reared to work in the brothels at an early age). The “excess” males may have simply been killed and discarded.
But there is no unified theory on the origin of these remains, and studies continue in the effort to unravel the mystery of Ashkelon’s infant mass grave.
Ashkelon’s Dead Babies, Mark Rose; Archaeology: A Publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Volume 50, Number 2, March/April 1997
Determining the Sex of Infanticide Victims from the Late Roman Era through Ancient DNA Analysis; Journal of Archaeological Science, Issue 25 (1998)
Ancient Ashkelon, Rick Gore; National Geographic, January 2001
Brothels, Baths and Babes: Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land, Tom Sawford; My Byzantine Blog: Making Byzantium Live for People Today, August 17, 2010