Recent Archaeomags

Current Archaeology #260 (November) has a piece on the Roman baby burials at Yewden villa in England. Excavated in the 1910s, they have long been suspected to represent infanticide. Now Simon Mays has been able to prove that this is indeed the case by means of new osteological methods and comparison with other burial sites. People have wondered if the site was a military brothel. Since it’s a rural high-status habitation, this seems rather unlikely. But Mays suggests that if the child murders were spread out over three centuries, what sets Yewden apart is mainly the tenacity of the custom. There are indications that the same thing went on at other sites as well, but more episodically.

I met Mays once, at a conference in Riga in 1996 when I was a 24-y-o PhD student. He gave an interesting talk on infant burial in Roman Britain, and I asked if the skeletons could be sexed, which might say something about gender attitudes. He replied that they could not, but that he hoped to be able to do so soon. I nodded and said “Yes, that would be quite a breakthrough”, which for some reason drew a laugh from the audience. I suppose they found my young self a little over-earnest or self-important. But Mays did not laugh. And now he has sexed ten of the Yewden babies with DNA! Their sex ratio is fairly even.

Current Archaeology #2610 (December) has a good piece on cave archaeology in Northern England. I was saddened to learn that most of the area’s caves were dug out and robbed of their stratification in the 19th century by “antiquarians”. Pockets of remaining sediment prove that their faunal record goes back to the Pleistocene. Too bad we saw nothing similar at my little cave dig in Pukberget back in August.

Alderney is a small island in the English Channel that I hadn’t heard of before. Jason Monaghan, museums director for Guernsey, presents the evidence that a small fort on Alderney is one of the best-preserved Roman fortifications in the world. The reason that it hasn’t been recognised as such before seems to be partly that Alderney has seen few visits from archaeologists, partly simply that the thing is unbelievably well preserved. Archaeologists expect ruins.

British Archaeology #121 (Nov/Dec) and Skalk 2011:5 provided good everyday reading but nothing I feel compelled to comment on.


11 thoughts on “Recent Archaeomags

  1. What do the cave sediments usually consist of? Windblown leaves and dust would not penetrate far inside. Rubble falling off the roof? Animal faeces?
    — — — — —

    People are surprisingly unaware of the horribly crues values that existed in antiquity.

    In the Greek and Roman socie ties, it was taken for granted that physical beauty or ugliness reflected moral qualities.
    Thus the ugly and crippled had low status. Cripples were routinely tormented.
    And children below 1 year of age could be put to death without this being considered homicide. Just because they built great temples did not make these people “nice”. When considering all this, I am actually surprised that we do not find evidence for cannibalism in the Greek or Roman cultures.


  2. Most astronomers know about Alderney, as the 1999 total solar eclipse was visible from there, and for that reason that year’s UK National Astronomy Meeting was on Guernsey. I was there. It was cloudy, then the clouds opened up around the Sun a few minutes before the eclipse, then closed again a few minutes afterwards.


  3. In limestone karst caves you get a lot of alluvial (water-borne) sediment. Such caves are in fact made by underground streams that slowly dissolve and wash away the limestone. In gneiss/granite block caves, there is both colluvial and alluvial sedimentation, particularly as these caves tend to be rather shallow. And then there’s bat guano, bedding material brought in by hibernating or nesting animals, and finally stuff brought in by humans.


  4. Over three centuries? Did May’s study show that? (I can’t access/won’t pay for the article.) Earlier reports by Eyers said the infants were buried over a fifty-year period, 150 – 200. Also, there were a large number of styli found at Yewden. A clerical office? A school?


  5. Mays just points out that most of the burials haven’t been dated and so the total date spread may be wider. I’m thinking that Yewden may just be a place where an otherwise prevalent custom of infanticide is particularly visible because the bodies received formal burial instead of being dropped into the pig pen. Chances are their mothers were slaves.


  6. ” .. because the bodies received formal burial instead of being dropped into the pig pen.
    The necessarily pragmatic attitudes that almost everyone had to unwanted neonates until very recently are hard for us modern western softies to calibrate.
    I frequently have to kick myself up the (mental!) arse and mumble “They did do this, but they weren’t necessarily savages”.

    Dull anecdote: OK not actual infanticide, but my Uncle Frank is only cashing his pension because Gran came round, after the ordeal of a protracted labour, enough to cry out to the midwife “The paper’s moving!”

    The dozy git had assumed a (unfortunately routine) stillbirth as he hadn’t wailed on first sight. And had wrapped him up in brown paper (Grandad was a butcher) and popped him on the sideboard, while she stoked up the bedroom fire prior to slinging Frank on. Quite normal for those days.

    Mind you, given the (reportedly sober) midwife’s diagnostic skill, I do sometimes wonder at how many of those “stillbirths” actually were ..?

    At least Gran didn’t go the full Malin Häggström.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s