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Ashkelon's Dead Babies Volume 50 Number 2, March/April 1997
by Mark Rose

[image]Infants' bones were found in this sewer. (Terry Smith/Leon Levy Expedition) [LARGER IMAGE]

How and why the bones of nearly 100 infants were deposited in a late Roman-early Byzantine sewer beneath a bathhouse at Ashkelon, on the southern coast of Israel, continue to baffle scholars. An initial examination of the remains by Patricia Smith and Gila Kahila of the Hebrew University revealed that most of the bones, discovered in 1988, were intact and that all parts of the skeletons were represented, suggesting that the infants had probably been thrown into the drain soon after death. All of the bones and teeth (unerupted) are comparable to those of newborn infants. The absence of neonatal lines--prominent marks in the enamel of deciduous teeth and first permanent molars, which are considered evidence of survival for more than three days--indicates the babies died shortly after birth.

The number of infants, all of the same age and with no signs of disease or skeletal malformation, suggested infanticide rather than a catastrophe such as epidemic, war, or famine, in which a range of ages might be expected. Smith and Kahila thought the Ashkelon infants were probably girls because female infanticide was widespread in Roman society. In a letter written in 1 B.C a husband instructs his pregnant wife, "if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it," and the Roman poet Juvenal mentions children "abandoned beside cesspools."

Ariella Oppenheim of the Hebrew University and her colleagues have now analyzed DNA from the bones to determine the sex of the infants, for which standard osteological methods are unreliable. They extracted DNA from 43 left femurs, using a single bone to eliminate the possibility of analyzing the same infant's DNA more than once. The extraction was successful in 19 cases, 14 of which were male and five female. They checked their results by making multiple DNA extractions and analyses for each bone, obtaining the same results in 17 of the specimens. The significant number of male victims was unexpected, they say, and raised the intriguing possibility that these infants may have been the unwanted offspring of courtesans working in the bathhouse.

There are problems with this interpretation. If prostitutes were discarding all infants, a ratio closer to 1:1 of males to females would be more likely (about 20 males are born for every 21 females). Either the results of the analysis are somehow biased or some selectivity took place in the abandonment of the infants. Harvard archaeologist Larry Stager, director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, interprets this as evidence that male infants may have been discarded while females were brought up to work in the brothel.

The link between the contents of the sewer and the bath, built over several houses, is not entirely clear. According to Stager the bath and sewer are both fourth-century constructions. The remains of the babies were found in a gutter in the bottom of the sewer, which filled with debris and went out of use by ca. 500, suggesting the babies may be contemporary with the functioning of the bath. In a 1991 report Stager noted that hundreds of fragments of ceramic oil lamps, some decorated with erotic motifs and others with mythological scenes, were found in a small street-front room of one of the houses. Although the lamps appeared unused, Stager claimed they were "solely for the amusement of the owner" and were not being sold from the house. The possibility that the bath also served as a brothel was considered but dismissed in the same article. But in the DNA report, published in Nature, the lamps are associated with the bath, not the earlier houses, and considered to be evidence that it was also a brothel.

Based on ancient sources, historian John M. Riddle of North Carolina State University raises additional questions about the new interpretation. "The literary evidence--classical, medieval, and early modern--is virtually united in claiming that prostitutes knew what to do to prevent full-term pregnancies," he notes. "Why would prostitutes at Ashkelon be different?" A variety of contraceptive methods and abortifacients was used in the classical world (see ARCHAEOLOGY, March/April 1994). Among the church fathers, Jerome (348-420) condemned the use of potions that cause "sterility and murder those not yet conceived," while Augustine of Hippo (354-430) held that as long as the fetus was no more than "some sort of living, shapeless thing" homicide laws did not apply because it had no senses and no soul. Riddle also says that after the first century A.D. the value of slaves increased to the point that unwanted babies could be and were sold to dealers. Neither of the proposed explanations--female infanticide or discarding of unwanted children by prostitutes--seems to match the evidence.

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© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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