Roman dead baby 'brothel' mystery deepens

Skeletal biologist Dr Simon Mays examines the remains found on the Yewden Villa site

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New research has cast doubt on the theory that 97 infants were killed at a Roman brothel in Buckinghamshire.

In 2008, the remains of the newborn babies were rediscovered packed in cigarette cases in a dusty museum storeroom by Dr Jill Eyers from Chiltern Archaeology.

They were excavated from the remains of a lavish Roman villa complex in Buckinghamshire almost 100 years earlier, but had remained hidden ever since.

The story caught the attention of the world's press last year as Dr Eyers suggested that the villa was operating as a brothel and its occupants committing infanticide to dispose of unwanted offspring.

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The new research and the DNA results will feature on the forthcoming BBC Two series of Digging for Britain which starts the first week in September.

"Even now, a year after all the original press attention, every other day I'm getting inquiries about this story. It seems that everyone is intrigued by this puzzle," said Dr Eyers.

She has now carefully plotted the infant burials and the associated artefacts from The Yewden Villa at Hambleden.

This revealed that all those infants that could be dated were buried between 150AD and 200AD, meaning all their deaths look like they took place in a 50-year period.

And she said she now had a whole host of other evidence from studying the landscape around the villa site to support her brothel theory.

She admitted: "To be honest, when I first put this idea forward last year, it was really to get people talking and debating, but the more I look into this, the more convinced I am by my original brothel theory."

Brett Thorn, keeper of archaeology at the Buckinghamshire County Museum, has disputed her hypothesis.

The Yewden Villa at Hambleden was excavated in 1912 The Yewden Villa located near Hambleden in Buckinghamshire was excavated in 1912

"My main concern with the brothel theory is that it's just too far away from any major population centres. I'm just not convinced," he said.

He has put together an exhibition of other objects from the villa excavation that could point to the villa having associations with a series of mother goddess cults from around the world.

"There are a few significant religious objects from the site that indicate possible connections with a mother goddess cult," he explained.

"They may indicate that the site was a shrine and women went there to give birth, and get protection from the mother goddess during this dangerous time. The large number of babies who are buried there could be natural stillbirths, or children who died in labour."

Last year during filming for BBC Two's Digging for Britain series, presenter Dr Alice Roberts noticed cut marks made by a sharp implement on one of the bones, a discovery that was not revealed to the public until now.

Cut marks can indicate anything from ritual practices involving human sacrifice, the de-fleshing of bones before burial, or the dismembering of a baby during childbirth to save the life of the mother.

Keri Brown at the University of Manchester carried out DNA tests on the 10 sets of the ancient bones to determine the sex of some of the infants.

Hambleden Valley The Yewden Villa dig site is now under a field

It is common throughout history in cases of infanticide for girls to be killed rather than boys, but the opposite holds true for brothel sites. A brothel site at Ashkelon in Israel revealed that nearly all of the babies were boys.

Although the tests represented a very small sample of the total number of baby skeletons found, there seemed to be an equal number of victims of both sexes at the Buckinghamshire site, and so the mystery for now remains unsolved.

Dr Eyers said she believed that only further excavation at the site would clear up the mystery once and for all.

A full discussion of new research and the DNA results will feature on the forthcoming series of Digging for Britain on BBC Two, which starts the first week in September.

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