One of the great mysteries of ancient Greece is now understood a bit more, thanks for scientists who have been studying the skeletons for years.
The babies were originally discovered in an excavation in 1931 in Athen’s Agora, the large square at the center of the city. At the time, archaeologists didn’t understand why the babies had been dumped into the well.
After study, they now believe the 450 bodies were dumped between 165 BC to 150 BC rather than receiving a full funeral and burial because they were not considered “full citizens.” Tradition at the time was to officially recognize them as citizens after 10 days old.
All but three of the babies appear to have died of natural causes (a third of them from meningitis) within a week of being born, perhaps part of some macabre Athenian tradition.
Archaeologists also found the remains of around 150 dogs in the well, which researchers believe may have been sacrificed.
Excerpts from the Daily Mail.
Archaeologists discovered the bodies of 450 babies in 1931. The reasons for their demise has remained a mystery until now.
Greek lore and artistry depicts an idyllic existence for babies in Athens. The well of babies tells a more macabre story.
Parents in Carthage ritually sacrificed young children as an offering to the gods and laid them to rest in special infant burial grounds known as tophets. Dedications from the children’s parents to the gods are inscribed on slabs of stone above their cremated remains, ending with the explanation that the god or gods concerned had “heard my voice and blessed me.”
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Professor Maria Liston, an anthropologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada said babies were not considered to be Greek citizens until a special ceremony 10 days after birth when they were given their name and the head of the household decided whether to raise them or not. If babies died before they were granted citizenship in this way, they were dumped rather than being buried. She said it is possible that midwives disposed of the bodies down the well as it was down a blind alley near the Agora and so was easily accessible but out of sight.
Liston said researchers on the project had to step away from the study at times to get away from the heaviness of thinking about so many babies being dumped into a well, unwanted.
“Four hundred fifty dead babies,” said Liston. “That’s a lot of grieving parents and sorrow.”
One of the bodies, an 18 month old, showed signs of frequent abuse. Researchers said they think it was the oldest example of child abuse ever found. He had multiple fractures throughout the body with different degrees of healing. A final jaw fracture appeared to have occurred at the time of their death.