Mass Baby Grave: Skeletons Under A Roman Bathhouse In Israel - History Key

Mass Baby Grave: Skeletons Under A Roman Bathhouse In Israel

Ashkelon is an ancient seaport, located on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, 50 kilometers south of Tel Aviv and 13 km north of the Gaza Strip border. During the Roman era, the city witnessed something that has formed into a mystery, something inexplicable.

In 1988, Patricia Smith and Gila Kahila, both anthropologists from the Hebrew University, took an unusual case from the archaeologist Ross Voss. When Voss discovered several bones during his explorations of the city’s sewers, he believed to be chicken bones, but after a closer look, the conclusion was pretty different: a large number of small bones were actually human, and most probably coming from infants, children.


Panorama of modern Ashkelon
Panorama of modern Ashkelon © Image Source: Wikipedia

After the case was taken over by Professor Patricia Smith, the context became a bit clearer. The examinations revealed that there was no sign of illness in the bone’s structure and the infants were in total good health at the moment of their death. More detailed examinations fixed that none of the infants had lived more than one week before dying, in what looks like a sort of ritual or blood tribute. But what may seem a blood tribute related to a ritual ceremony, could have been also to something simpler, almost practical.

The “exposure” practice was very common during Roman times. If a newborn was unwanted, the mother would abandon the baby most probably in nature, in order to let him be found by someone or die. The most well-known case of “exposure” is directly related to Rome’s foundation story when Romulus and Remus were abandoned in the woods and raised by wolves.

It’s interesting to observe how the Romans considered newborns as “not fully human”, an idea that led to the killing of numerous infants, sometimes even as a form of birth control.


The story of Romulus and Remus
The story of Romulus and Remus © Image Source: Wikipedia

The discovered bones suggest that around 100 infants were dropped into the mass grave. Considering the location of the discovery, probably the “exposure” wasn’t practiced, but more likely an intentional action or a scheduled killing took place.

The place of the discovery could put on the table few more details or few more unconfirmed assumptions. The bones were found in a space located beneath a former Roman bathhouse. Maybe the infants were born by prostitutes who worked at the bathhouse or maybe they were killed just as a solution for reducing family size. Even if it is hard to imagine, this practice was usual during Roman times, and the Ashkelon mass grave is not the only one of its type, related to the Romans.

Alfred Heneage Cocks, the curator of the Buckinghamshire County Museum in England, discovered a similar situation, in 1912. On the site of a former Roman villa, located in Hambleden. Cocks discovered the remains of 103 individuals which 97 of them were infants. However, the infant’s remains from the Ashkelon Roman bathhouse are also surrounded by mystery and so they will stay until new details will emerge. At the moment, every theory related to the baby mass grave must be considered as a speculation.


Infant skeleton from the Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon
Infant skeleton from the Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon © Image Source:

(Article is written with references from,

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