Infanticide in paradise?
2013-01-15 0:00

By Kristina Killgrove |

A recent paper presented at the January 2013 Archaeological Institute of America conference by Anthony Tuck of U Mass Amherst entitled “Evidence for treatment of perinatal deaths in Etruscan central Italy,” has caused something of a stir.

Infants thrown out as rubbish

Poggio Civitate in Tuscany is a lavish Etruscan site dating back to 700 BCE and has been excavated over several decades. In 1971, a single fragment of infant humerus (arm bone) was found. Again, in 1983, two further fragments of humerus from an infant (or infants) who died around birth were recovered from the interior of the sites’ workshop. In 2009, another fragment of bone surfaced within the structure, this one a small part of the pelvis of a newborn.

The recent LiveScience headline, “Baby bones found scattered in ancient Italian village,” was predictable in getting across the idea that these bones had been haphazardly strewn across the floor, the implication being that the babies may also have been unwanted and cast aside. The evidence, according to the LiveScience article (as the full paper is not yet published), includes:

An arm bone of a fetus or neonate found near a wall with other animal bones and debris in 1971.
Two neonate or infant arm bones found with animal bones in 1983.
One neonate ilium found in 2009.

Creating exciting narratives?

The press has now begun to lead with headlines such as, “Did Romans dump the remains of their dead children with the rubbish? Grisly discoveries reveal unsympathetic attitudes.”

This sensational journalistic reporting draws people to conclusions that are at best misleading and at worst factually incorrect, given that Poggio Civitate is an Etruscan site from the 7th century BCE and clearly not Roman.

Examining the evidence critically

There are three compelling reasons not to interpret these 4 small fragments as babies being thrown out with the rest of the rubbish as the implications suggest.

First: incidental human bones on an archaeological site is not unusual, especially if the occupation is over any length of time, such as at Poggio Civitate.

Second: the conclusions Anthony Tuck reaches are at the bounds of possibility; he is quoted in Live Science as saying the bones may have been simply “left on the floor of the workshop,” and then suggests that the babies were from people of low social status because of their placement in a workshop, further insinuating that the babies were the children of slaves. He concludes that the bone found in 1971 was “swept the debris up against the wall, not differentiating between baby bones and garbage.” A rather odd situation to have dead babies scattered across the floor, where a more likely scenario was an unrecognised bone that had long been disturbed from its primary location ending up with other bones without the individual even realising they were mixing human and animal bones.

Third: Why does burial within or near a workshop (if indeed these infants were buried in/near the place they were found, and this is not just secondary deposition) necessitate low status? Finding infant burials under walls, under living floors, or just outside houses or workshops is not unusual in ancient Italian cultures. Jeff Becker and Jessica Nowlin [2011] published a preliminary report on the burials of two Elite Infants at Gabii, along with comparanda of infant burials in Italy.

Problems of reporting

The reporting of infant burials is always problematic to a bioarchaeologist. From “brothel babies” to the Carthaginian infant sacrifice and now Etruscan neonates discarded with the rubbish, the headlines always seem to imply the people of the past were unfeeling about infant mortality, that poorer people had no time to mourn. It’s a long-standing trope – that death was just something people put up with and they were hardened to its devastation – but anthropologically and historically, it’s not usually based in proven fact.

We like to tell ourselves that we’re better than our forebears, that we are more civilized than the Etruscans, Romans or Carthaginians, that somehow we have culturally evolved to do right by our biological progeny. But we do a disservice to the past by assuming a lack of emotion, and we do an even greater disservice when we over-interpret a very small amount of data to arrive at a conclusion that has many other less sensational options.

Article from:

.Terracotta ex-voto with babies, from the votive stipe, from Tessennano Lazio. Etruscan Civilization, 4th Century BC.

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