A field in Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, located in southeast England hides something considered extremely heinous to us today but completely normal to the ancient Romans who settled the area 2,000 years ago. At Yewden Villa, an archaeologist uncovered the bones of 97 infants in a mass grave, the most substantial discovery of its kind found at a Romano-British site. Originally thought to be a site of ritual infanticide, recent studies of the site have raised more questions than answers. An archaeologist who led the most recent investigation of the site thinks there was a brothel there, which explains the presence of the infant’s bones; others aren’t so sure.
Many factors indicate that the Roman villa was a highly sophisticated agricultural settlement. There is one main house with evidence of luxurious living, such as heated floors and a tiled roof. More structures at the site are less sophisticated, suggesting that they may have been workhouses or housing for servants, workers, or slaves. Archaeologists have uncovered fourteen ovens and over twenty-six garbage pits at Hambleden, a large quantity that suggests that the town was highly productive. The ovens show signs of use in drying corn, processing barley, and melting bronze, indicating that the community produced a variety of items for use and trade.
The archaeologist, Alfred Heneage Cocks, led the original excavation and collected his thoughts on the findings in 1921, including his opinion that the community practiced infanticide, but he did not focus on it. The evidence from the initial excavation, conducted before modern archaeology techniques, sat housed in the archives of Buckinghamshire County Museum until archaeologist Dr. Jill Eyers discovered them in 2008. Dr. Eyers led a new investigation, and she concluded that the site was an ancient Roman brothel where prostitutes were forced to abandon their babies, under the assumption that they had very few options on contraception and infanticide was their only option.
As shocking as it is to us today, infanticide was an open and systematic method of maintaining the population and contributing to the greater good of the typical Roman family. According to Roman law, parents deserted newborns who were sick or had a visible congenital disability. Babies born to families who couldn’t care for them were also abandoned to the elements.
Ancient Roman burial practices were much different than they are today. Unlike modern-day thinking, a person was not considered a person when they were born, due to a high infant mortality rate. Infants often went unnamed until they survived the first week of life, and they weren’t considered full Roman citizens until they were almost a year old. Romans cremated their dead until the end of the second century when burials became more common. Babies who died before they were about six weeks old did not receive funerals, and they were buried in communal sites in the town or city.