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Murder Mystery of Ashkelon

Roman Infanticide

The Ancient City of Ashkelon

On the shores of Israel's Mediterranean coast lay Ashkelon, a seaport since 3,500BC. It became one of the most important cities of the ancient world. The Romans conquered Ashkelon in 37BC and stayed for four centuries. The city was finally destroyed during the crusades.  

Archaeologists from Harvard University have spent the last 15 years unearthing the secrets of Ashkelon's past. Archaeologist Ross Voss was probing in one of the city's sewers when he discovered a large number of small bones. These were, at first, thought to be chicken bones, but on closer inspection they were shown to be baby's bones.

What he had uncovered were the remains of more than a hundred babies. This is the biggest single find of infant remains.. They also found coins and pottery fragments which helped them date the find to around 3BC.

Why were so many babies in, effectively, one mass grave? Had there been an epidemic that forced the townspeople to dispose of the bodies as quickly as possible?

Infant Remains
Baby Bones

Voss took the remains to Professor Patricia Smith, a forensic anthropologist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to try and identify the cause of death. It was revealed that there had been no disease or illness, the babies had been perfectly healthy at the time of death. By using the latest forensic method of examining a highly magnified cross-section of a tooth bud, she determined that none of the infants lived for more than a week.

This is the best forensic evidence ever found for the ancient practice of infanticide. In the Roman world the killing of an unwanted child was not a crime, it was a form of birth-control. New born babies who were ill or unwanted were simply abandoned.

The Romans believed that new-borns were not yet fully human. This protected them from grief when infants died. It also made it possible for them to abandon those babies they did not want. The practice was known as exposure. Rather than killing the baby directly, the mother would place the child where it might be picked up and cared for by someone else.

But, the Ashkelon case was different. These babies were not exposed, it was not in the lap of the gods to decide whether or not these babies were rescued. It has been assumed that the usual victims of infanticide were girls. Ashkelon could provide vital clues to support this assumption.

Ancient DNA research has revolutionised archaeology. The secrets of the long-dead can now be investigated scientifically. Dr. Marina Faerman tested the infant bones to see if firstly, they would provide useable DNA, and secondly what the baby's gender was.

Of 43 remains tested only 19 yielded DNA. Of the 19, 14 turned out to be boys. So the assumption that girls were the usual victims did not fit this case.

Ashkelon Representation
How Ashkelon might have looked

The sewer in which the bones had been found was below a bath-house, so the archaeologists turn their attention here. This they determined to be a small private bath-house and they uncover a notable inscription: "Enter and Enjoy" written in Greek. This, along with pottery fragments showing erotic designs suggest that the bath-house may also have been a brothel. This may account for the presence of baby boys in the sewer below.

The courtesans or prostitutes would become pregnant regularly and carry the babies to term as abortion would be too dangerous. Boys would be discarded while girls would be raised to form the next generation of prostitutes.

The archaeologists would need to find more evidence to support the bath-house brothel theory but after many attempts they could not. The dead babies will need to remain a theory.