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Hundreds of babies found in mass grave in ancient Athenian well were not victims of infanticide

A team of researchers using the latest technologies have come to startling new conclusions about the discovery of 450 dead babies and 150 dogs in an ancient Greek well.

The discovery of the baby’s bodies was made in the 1930’s by archaeologists investigating a well in what used to be the agora, or market place, of ancient Athens. The well had been hewn into the bedrock in an area of the city that is now a leafy, hilly space between the Ancient Agora Museum and the 2,400 year old Temple of Hephaestus. Inside it the archaeologists found the skeletons of hundreds of dogs and human infants. Around it, there had once been a number of metalworking shops and these have been found to contain numerous scraps of bronze.

The mass baby grave was found in an ancient well near the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens (Wikimedia Commons)

All that remains of the well now is a small depression in the ground but scholars over the years have tried to provide explanations for this somewhat gruesome discovery. Some of them claimed the well was a scene of mass infanticide or sacrifice, while others believed that an ancient plague had struck the city.

When the mass baby grave was first found, researchers feared the babies had been victims of infanticide or sacrifice. (Wikimedia Commons)

Athens was originally founded by the pre-Hellenic Mycenaen civilisation but grew to become such a prestigious city that when the Spartans invaded Greece during the Peloponnesian War they refused to sack it or enslave its citizens. The city’s status as a major city-state in the ancient world covers several thousand years, from its foundation in around 6,000 BC to its decline in 322 BC following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. This marks the beginning of the Hellenistic Period which lasted until 31 BC, when the last Hellenistic kingdom, that of the Lagid or Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt, was conquered by Rome.

The region governed by Athens was known in classical times as Attica and the city was the site of the first Olympic Games in 776 BC. From 500 BC to 322 BC it was highly regarded as a major centre of learning, the arts and philosophy as well as being the founder of democracy.

The Agora or market place was the focal point of the city where its citizens came to trade commodities and discuss the important issues of the day, from business to politics to the nature of the universe.

The remains of an Agora (marketplace) in Delos, Greece (Wikimedia Commons)

A team of researchers has now conducted a deeper investigation of the remains found in the well using a number of new technologies. The study has shown that none of the hypotheses proposed by the previous investigators of the well are correct

According to biological anthropologist Maria Liston from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, there were a total of 450 babies in the well, in addition to 150 dead dogs and puppies and one human adult. Other items included tons of pottery shards and this enabled Washington University in St Louis archaeologist Susan Rotroff to date the bodies to between 165 and 150 BC. This was towards the end of the Hellenistic Period just before the Roman conquest of the country.

The adult skeleton displayed signs of deformity. The babies may have had natural deaths as a pandemic was ruled out. They were all under a week old when they died, a third of them from bacterial meningitis, which is often caused by cutting the umbilical cord with an implement that hasn’t been sterilised. This was a disease prevalent in the ancient world, being first recorded by Hippocrates. It still causes death in some babies today, mostly in the underdeveloped countries.

The other babies in the well may have died from other health conditions, such as diarrhoea, which often causes dehydration and doesn’t leave any visible trace on the skeleton. However, one of them shows signs of physical abuse, including multiple fractures and damage to the skull.

The reconstructed skull of an infant discovered in the ancient well shows a y-shaped fracture to the right of the midline at the back of the skull. Credit: Maria A Liston / University of Waterloo

The dogs were probably killed as sacrifices, according to Zooarchaeologist Lynn Snyder. They were believed to be particularly good for cleansing ‘pollution’ and the dumping of the babies bodies may very well have been considered as a polluting act. Dogs were often sacrificed to the dark goddess Hecate who the ancient Greeks believed wandered around at night accompanied by ghosts and howling dogs. They were probably strays that had been picked up off the street, judging by the fact that many of them have healed fractures, a possible sign of them having led rough lives.

“We know a large amount of babies died” John Papadopoulos, professor of archaeology and classics at the University of California, Los Angeles told Newsweek. Professor Papadopoulos wasn’t part of the investigation. However, babies rarely appear in the historical record, although archaeologists have found some infants’ bodies in graves. Mostly, they are discovered in the ancient world in city dumps or buried beneath floorboards in buildings. This latest finding suggests that in the ancient world, babies were rarely buried at all but instead were usually discarded.

In Ancient Greece, as in Rome, babies weren’t considered to be properly human until 10 days after birth when a special ceremony marked their entry into the world and when they were given their name. This was probably because so many infants died shortly after childbirth. It was also a time when the father of the child decided whether or not to take responsibility for it. There were a number of reasons why he might choose not to rear the child, one of them being deformity, another being circumstances where he decided the family was too big to accommodate it. If the mother was unmarried, this too would have been an important reason for the father to abandon it. In these cases, more often than not, the child would have been left out in the open to be picked up by anyone wanting it or left alone to die. It could also be taken to be raised as a slave. If the babies died prior to the tenth day, they may have simply been thrown into a well, particularly if the well was located in an obscure corner of the city, out of sight.

In ancient Rome and Greece, many babies died in infancy, but they were not considered properly human until 10 days of age (Wikimedia Commons)

The team found this investigation a bit hard going at times, as it is one of the ‘darker’ discoveries in recent years, given the amount of infant bodies found dumped at a single location. “Four hundred fifty dead babies—that’s a lot of grieving parents and sorrow” Liston says. “And sometimes I just had to walk away and do something else for a while…. It is emotionally heavily charged.” However, as a result of this discovery, modern historians now have a better idea of the likely fate of unwanted children in the ancient world.

The team’s full analysis will shortly be featured in the academic journal Hesperia, published by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.