Digging For Britain: Tragic Roman secrets in Buckinghamshire

Friday 20 August 2010, 13:06

Dr Alice Roberts Dr Alice Roberts Presenter

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I think one of the most exciting things about the Digging For Britain series is that it shows archaeology in action.

Rather than just presenting history as a series of accepted facts we're seeing how the interpretation develops, during excavations and careful analysis in the lab.

Dr Alice Roberts with some of the Roman coins excavated from Frome

Excavations we've been following in the series that have also hit the news include the discovery of the massive hoard of Roman coins in Frome, and the bizarre and chilling evidence of infanticide from the Yewden Roman villa site in Buckinghamshire.

Both these discoveries are featured in detail in episode one, Romans. The Yewden Roman Villa site was excavated ages ago - in 1912 - but archaeologist Jill Eyers has been taking a fresh look at the finds from that dig.

She knew there had been numerous infant burials around the site - 97 in total. In fact, infant 'burial' sounds a bit too respectful for what had actually been found - the remains of infants shoved unceremoniously into pits in the ground.

When Jill found the infant bones themselves in the museum stores, she sent them to Simon Mays, human osteologist at English Heritage.

He ascertained that all the infants had died around the time of birth - and suddenly the burials seemed even more suspicious.

Ninety seven infants all dying at birth: death from natural causes was now extremely unlikely.

When I looked at the bones, I also spotted what looked like cut-marks on one of them - the infant's body may have been dismembered. A horrible thought. It's very sad to think about those 97 little babies who never got the chance to grow up.

And so it does look like those babies were put to death. We know the Romans practised infanticide, but this was baby-killing on a massive scale.

Jill thought the villa may have been a brothel. It's an interesting hypothesis, and one which may stand the test of further investigations as Jill continues to explore the mystery of Yewden Villa.

As a new mum myself, I felt the sadness around Yewden particularly intensely. I'm so used to looking at human remains but these little skeletons were so much more than just objects: they were telling us a dark secret from the past, and they were all that was left of those tiny human lives that were extinguished so brutally.

Were they unloved and unnamed when they were placed in the ground? Or - perhaps even worse - had they been eagerly awaited by their mothers but born into a society that thwarted that natural love and protective urge? What had those mothers gone through?

I'm not an archaeologist myself, but I'm certainly allied to the field in a number of ways. I'm an anatomist and an osteoarchaeologist, or human bone expert, and I've specialised in looking at disease in old bones.

Dr Alice Roberts with Dave Crisp, the man who discovered the horde of coins in Frome

I've had a strange career path, I suppose, but I've enjoyed every minute of it. Starting as a medical doctor, I branched off to teach clinical anatomy and study old bones, and ending up working in television and writing books. I still teach anatomy and look at the odd skeleton, though.

My favourite moment from the series was being able to look at the skeletons from the Mary Rose, which features in the Tudor programme, the final episode.

I clearly remember watching the ship being raised on Blue Peter. And more recently, I had wanted to look at the skeletons for my PhD, which was about problems around the shoulder joint (I suspected the Mary Rose archers might have suffered from something called rotator cuff disease - which afflicts a lot of us in old age, but also affects athletes like cricket bowlers and baseball pitchers in their youth), but I had to stop somewhere.

So this was a really special opportunity for me to check the shoulders of a couple of the individuals from the ill-fated ship.

You'll have to watch the series to see what I found, but now I want to look at all of them. This was one of the great things about doing this series. I was making a television programme but also getting to indulge my own curiosity - meeting fascinating people, seeing interesting sites, and being able to examine ancient artefacts and bones.

Dr Alice Roberts is the presenter of Digging For Britain.

Digging For Britain
is on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC Two and at different times on BBC HD. You can watch the first episode on the BBC iPlayer.

To find out all future episodes of Digging For Britain, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

For more information on Roman history, please visit the BBC History site.

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    Comment number 1.

    On the meticulous records of the original Yewden finds, distances are quoted in Imperial measure. One of the curators, looking at a record card, mistook feet for inches. This could cause problems in interpreting these records.

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    Comment number 2.

    Infanticide in the Greco-Roman world may seem alien to us, though far too many "modern" humans have chosen to kill their babies.
    But infanticide was common in antiquity. Some babies were disposed of by 'exposure'. Others by more aggressive forms of murder. There were many Roman houses where dead babies lay under the floorboards, or in the “backyard”.
    Rome itself was founded on exposure. Romulus and Remus were dumped -- to be found by the wolf, the lupa. (One translation for Lupa is prostitute'.)
    A papyrus letter from husband to wife in Roman Egypt, asks her to "let the baby live, if it is male; if it is female, expose it'.
    Jewish Writer Philo, wrote about the practice, explaining that some people strangle or suffocate babies, while others expose them (after which they are just as likely to be eaten by wild animals as rescued by another human being).
    We are dealing with different times, a different definition of "humanity", but we still have ongoing debates about when a baby becomes a person with full rights. For the Romans a baby became a person when it was formally "accepted" into the community. Roman law code, The XII Tables, insists that: "a noticeably deformed child should be quickly killed".
    Females could be an expensive commodity. One (or two) might be useful, could be married off to everyone's advantage; but dowries cost money and there often occurred a serious financial drain. Also, one could expect more work out of a male child, and females could not replace the males lost in battle.
    Many babies were likely exposed in the hope that they would be rescued. The story of Romulus and Remus, as I mentioned, being one. In addition to Buckinghamshore, there must be hundreds of thousands of baby skeletons across the previous Roman empire.

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    Comment number 3.

    Might there be another reason for there being 97 infant burials rather than it being a brothel. Could it not have been where a midwife lived (i.e. a maternity hospital)?

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    Comment number 4.

    Just posting a comment too Tony and Emma's comments. Yes, Tony I noticed that there was a little error in the narrative with the label wording. Don't worry - we know our feet from our metres. It is easy to slip up verbally when being filmed and I must admit to not noticing it while it was being said, only afterwards on the TV. We have the correct measurements going into our interpretations. There is now a villa reconstruction and a new plot (in metres) that you can see on the Chiltern Archaeology website (starting at [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator])
    With regard to Emma's comment on alternative theories to the brothel. Yes, the borthel was only one suggestion which fits the bill as it were, but we have very little proof at the present moment. However, I am quickly homing in on more substantial information with regard to an interpretation - don't want to spill the beans too early, but this might be more amazing than the first theory! I had looked into maternity hospitals though, which is a good suggestion. There is no evidence to support this on either, but in fact there is a written record (from Rome) that women had babies in their own homes with a female companion/attendant. So evidence so far leads us away from this one!

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    Comment number 5.

    re. programme thurs 26th. Just my two pence worth. 1. the Ibis artwork looked to me like a pelican as I could see what looked like the gular pouch drawn below it. Also, re. the animal bones in the Orkney house, this looked to me like cavity wall insulation! Modern builders use metal ties to hold together the two walls, but why not use animal bones!


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