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Archaeologists investigating mass infant burial at Roman villa

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Mystery of 2000-year-old babies
  • 97 Roman-era babies found buried at Roman villa in England
  • The villa may have been used as a brothel, archaeologists say
  • Remains first found in 1912 but never were researched
  • New investigation aims to solve the mystery of mass burial

London, England (CNN) -- English archaeologists said Friday they are trying to figure out why 97 babies were buried around a Roman-era villa that may have been used as a brothel.

Because childbirth in Roman times was more dangerous than it is today, infant mortality was high and infant burials are common at Roman villas. However, the massive number found at the site in Buckinghamshire, northwest of London, is far higher than at any other Roman villa in Britain, Buckinghamshire County Council said.

Recent examination of the Roman-era bodies shows "the infants almost all died around the time of birth, suggesting this may be an example of deliberate infanticide," the council said.

That was legal in Roman times if the mother was a slave, and a large number of deliberately killed babies may show someone wanted to keep the mothers working, it said.

The villa was occupied for several hundred years during the Roman era, and there is a theory it may have been used as a brothel, which would explain the high number of unwanted babies, the council said.

There is also a theory that the building was an imperial supply depot with many literate workers, since a large number of writing implements were found at the site, along with a high number of kilns for drying corn. If those literate workers were mostly women, they may have been forced to kill their babies and keep working, the council said.

Yewden Villa, as the site is known, was first excavated in 1912. It was later covered over and is now a field. The report on the dig didn't appear until 1921 because World War I got in the way, the council said.

A community archaeology project recently started looking at the 1912 finds, most of which had never been examined, hoping a century's worth of new research may shed new light on them, the council said.

The 1921 report, which was published in the national journal Archaeologia, described the grounds as "positively littered with babies."

"A few were laid at length, but the majority were evidently carried and buried wrapped in a cloth or garment, huddled in a little bundle, so that the head was almost central, and the knees above it," the report said.

"As nothing marked the position of these tiny graves, a second little corpse was sometimes deposited on one already in occupation of a spot, apparently showing that these interments took place secretly, after dark."

Most academics agree that large Roman villas were built and used by a small but extremely wealthy section of the society that lived in the area between the first and fourth centuries AD, the council said.

They were used as both residences and administrative and servicing centers, it said.

Adults had to be buried outside a settlement when they died, but that rule did not apply to infants, the council said.