Archaeologist Discovered Mass Baby Grave under Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon

Archaeologist Discovered Mass Baby Grave under Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon

New research has cast doubt on the theory that 97 babies were killed at a Roman brothel in Buckinghamshire.

The remains of the newborn babies were rediscovered packed in cigarette cases in a dusty museum storeroom by Dr Jill Eyers from Chiltern Archaeology.

They were excavated from the remains of a lavish Roman villa complex in Buckinghamshire around 100 years earlier, but had remained hidden ever since.

Along the shores of Israel’s Mediterranean coast, in the ancient seaport of Ashkelon, archaeologist Ross Voss made a gruesome find. While Exploring one of the city’s sewers, he found a large number of small bones.

At first, the bones were believed to be chicken bones. However, it was later found that the bones were actually human –infant bones from the Roman time.

With the remains amounting to more than 100 babies, it was the largest discovery of infant remains to date.

Ancient ruins in Ashkelon national park, Israel
Ancient ruins in Ashkelon national park, Israel

Curious as to how and why these Babies died, Voss took the remains to forensic anthropologist Professor Patrician Smith.

Smith analyzed the infant remains and determined that there was no sign of illness or disease, and that the infants appeared to have been perfectly healthy when they died.

She used a method of forensic testing that allowed her to confirm that none of the infants had lived longer than a week before dying.

During Roman times, it was not uncommon for infants to be killed as a form of birth control. It was not a crime, as babies were viewed as being ‘not fully human’.

In most cases, a Roman woman who did not want a newborn babies would engage in the practice of “exposure.”

She would abandon the newborn child, either to be found and cared for by someone else, or to perish.

According to the beliefs at the time, it was up to the gods to determine whether the infant would be spared or not.

The most famous account of near infanticide, is Rome’s foundation story, in which Romulus and Remus, 2 infant sons of the war god, Mars, were abandoned in the woods but were raised by wolves and later founded the city of Rome.

Strangely, research indicated that the infants at Ashkelon did not seem to have been “exposed.” Rather, it appears they were intentionally murdered. One clue into the reason behind their deaths lies in the location of the bodies.
Examinations revealed that the sewer where the remains were found was directly beneath a former bathhouse.
It is possible that the newborn child were born to prostitutes or laborers who worked at the bathhouse. Nevertheless, this remains as mere speculation as no further evidence has substantiated the theory.


The find in Ashkelon is not the only example of a mass killing of Roman era babies. In 1912, Alfred Heneage Cocks, the curator of the Buckinghamshire County Museum in England, made a shocking discovery.

While leading an excavation in Hambleden (the site of a former Roman villa), Cocks revealed the remains of 103 individuals. Of those 103 individuals, 97 were infants, 3 were children, and 3 were adults.

While this horrifying finds brings forth questions of how and why these infants had been killed, Cocks failed to conduct any examination as to the origins of the remains.

Jill Eyers, archaeologist and director of Chiltern Archaeology in England, found the remains in a museum archive, and chose to look further into the circumstances surrounding the deaths.
Eyers believes that the Hambleden site is another case of a brothel where prostitutes would give birth to unwanted children that were subsequently killed.
The site was not an area of poverty, so a lack of resources couldn’t explain the mass killing.  
There were also no recorded illnesses in the area at the time that could account for the large volume of deaths. Eyers believes that the only reasonable explanation is that the site once housed a brothel.
Due to an absence of contraception at this time, there were limited options for those who wanted to avoid having or bringing up children, so infanticide may have been the only choice they believed they had.


Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at English Heritage, has examined the Hambleden Roman infant bones.
Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at English Heritage, has examined the Hambleden Roman infant bones.

Regardless of the reason or manner of death, mass graves of Babies remains are truly disturbing.

While the nature of life amid the Roman era was different than it is today, and families did not have numerous options to limit their family size, it is hard to imagine any mother allowing or engaging in the intentional killing of their newborn child. In time, it is trusted that we may find more answers to exactly how and why these infants were killed.