Murder Mystery of Ashkelon
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.