Thursday 20 March 2014

Roman infant death in Godmanchester.

Inbetween business meetings on Fridays, I drop by the friendly Norris Museum in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, UK. One Friday...

“Bones of an infant at about nine months, Roman cemetery, Godmanchester 1905”. The words were written in copperplate lettering on the slightly battered cigar box. It lay in an archive box amongst the remains of Roman pottery sherds(1). Norris Museum volunteer Rodney Scarle was meticulously photographing and recording the large collection of Roman artefacts held at the Museum. He pointed out the box to me whilst we were chatting about his work. I asked whether I, as a biologist, could lay them out for photography.

The Reverend Walker’s box containing Roman infant bones, from 1905
I opened the box, and there, protected by cotton wool, were the small bones and fragments. I gently began laying them out on a piece of card. The task was complicated by the fact that the bones of infants and very young children do not look like those of adults(2). Our adult hip joints for example, are made up of several bones that fuse together.

On the one hand, it was obvious that not all the bones were present. On the other, there seemed to be duplication. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that bottom right there are at least three very robust long bones that are most likely to be femurs or thighbones. This suggests that we may actually have the bones of several infants mixed together.

The Roman infant bones laid out on card. Thighbones bottom right.
Even today, thighbones are used for estimating the age of an infant before birth and after. With lengths here of about 7 to 8 cm, these matched those of new-born infants(3).

The infant bones were part of a larger excavation by the amateur archaeologist, Reverend Walker, who lived in the north of Godmanchester. He recorded that in 1904 he was actually digging a hole in his orchard when he came across pots and other artefacts(4). It seemed to be a Roman cemetery, possibly belonging to a villa located in a neighbour’s garden to the north and inaccessible to Walker. Coins found in the cremation urns of adults, perhaps for the ferryman to take them across the river in the underworld after death, suggested a date in the first or early second century A.D..

Rodney and I could not pinpoint the location of Walker’s finds on an online map. So I visited the Huntingdonshire archive to try and find the exact location of this Roman cemetery and Rev Walker’s garden. The extremely helpful staff directed me to the old Ordinance survey maps. 1885 - nothing. 1900 - nothing. 1926 - bingo! The cemetery was marked just to the west of where two important Roman roads came to a junction, namely Ermine Street and Cambridge Street, as also described in Walker’s notes.

Section of 1926 Ordnance Survey Map held in the Huntingdonshire Collection, showing North of Godmanchester. Roman finds in circle.
According to Walker, the infant bones were found scattered near the adult cremation urns. Yet, as far as I could tell, they had not been near fire as you might expect for a cremation. Why were there so many new-borns buried here? Both the dating and in association with the Romans could provide some of the answers.

Today, we live in a very child-centric time. We value the new-born child as it is welcomed into the world. Perceptions in Roman time were very different. Men came first, their wives and children were regarded as their property. And then of course there were the slaves, chattels that had very little say over their own existence. If there truly was a villa north of the cemetery, the number of its slaves may well have outnumbered the owners.

When a child was born in a Roman household, it was presented to the head of the family, the Pater Familias. It was then his decision whether to keep the infant or to let it die by exposure. If he rejected an infant from his wife, then the custom was to place it in a bowl outside the house or more often outside the temple in the town where there was a chance that someone else might take it into care - or into a life of slavery. This did happen. Roman remains show a peak of deaths at birth - a large number of infants were left to die. Infanticide and abandonment was not just a Roman practice. It was practiced in many other cultures at the time. Infant abandonment was not universally accepted even amongst Romans, but it was an open and recognised fact of life at the time. 

The future might have been more brutal for births amongst slaves. They had no say. The head of the household would decide: can we afford to keep the baby as a new slave? Could it be sold on, or was it simply surplus to requirements – to be disposed of(5). 

The situation only changed in the 374 A.D., when infanticide was banned - You were only able to either keep the infant or sell it! Unless, that is, it was seriously ill or disabled, when it could still be killed. The practice of infanticide and abandonment at birth continued and was prevalent in Europe right up to the Middle Ages. It probably led to the creation of the first orphanages(6). 

So, the infant bones found by the Rev Walker in Godmanchester could very well be of those unfortunate new-born children that did not find favour with the head of the family, were abandoned and discarded when they died.

The Romans feared the ghosts of the dead(7). Adult cremation and burials were conducted outside of the town or villa, with enough soil to cover them so that they could not return to haunt the living. The bodies of slaves (and unwanted infants) ended up on the rubbish tips. Whilst there seemed to be less regard for the newly born, we are left with a vision of the Roman underworld, where the dead would go, in Virgil’s Aenid (book VI)(8) :

“Immediately a loud crying of voices was heard, the spirits
of weeping infants, whom a dark day stole at the first
threshold of this sweet life, those chosen to be torn
from the breast, and drowned in bitter death.”

After photography, the bones were carefully collected again and this time placed in a new, separate box, to protect them in storage, following guidelines on the handling and storage of human remains in museums(9).

Exploring the story of a small cigar box with its collection of bones reminded us of the harsher aspects of Roman life in Godmanchester. It also brought home how fortunate we are in the present day: Free and with more control over our own destinies, whatever our age and gender. And, above all, in most cases cherished from birth.

Dr Chris Thomas, Norris Museum volunteer
Rodney Scarle, Norris Museum volunteer
With kind thanks to the Norris Museum, St Ives, Cambridgeshire


(1)  In archaeology sherd referes to pottery fragments and shard to glass fragments.
(2)  Louise Scheuer; Sue Black, 2000. “Developmental Juvenile Osteology”, Academic Press. Image seen in blog Lawn Chair Anthropology; article “Osteology everywhere: A sign I might have a problem”. 
(3) Fetus Growth Charts Graphs and Calculators 
(4)  Reverend F G Walker, 1909. “Greek coins and Syrian arrowhead dug up in a Roman cemetery at Godmanchester”, Cambridge Antiquarian Society, volume XIII, pp280-290.
(6)  Wikipedia “Infanticide”, 2014,
(7)  Burial with the Romans, British Archaeology site, 
(8)  Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil), 19BC, “The Aenid”. Book VI, 417-439 “Beyond the Acheron”. 

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