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Ancient Cemetery for Infants Discovered on Greek Island

Ancient Cemetery for Infants
An ancient cemetery for infants in Astypalea. Credit: Dodecanese Ephorate of Antiquities

The study of the largest ancient cemetery for infants found on Astypalea island in Greece continues, shedding light on the worship of the goddess of childbirth and the Earth mother.

The Dodecanese Ephorate of Antiquities that is conducting the study has found that almost all the infants buried at the site were newborns or, at most, a few months old. There are also a few toddlers that were up to two years of age.

The bodies of the babies were placed in ceramic containers, mainly amphorae or hydrias, which were buried in shallow pits with stones on top indicating that there was a tomb there.

Burial of newborns and babies in such receptacles was a rather common way of burial in ancient times.

What distinguishes the infants’ cemetery of Astypalea is the huge number of tombs and its use for nearly an entire millennium.

History of the Astypalea cemetery for infants

Archaeologists found that burials in the Astypalea cemetery for infants began
in the 8th century BC and continued into the 2nd century AD in the imperial Roman era.

So far, a total of 3,000 vessels containing the skeletons of babies have been excavated, but many more are buried in the cemetery.

With few exceptions, the tombs contained no favorite objects of the dead. This was common for newborns and infants since they were not considered “full” persons at that point and were thus not buried ceremoniously according to traditions as were all adults.

The number of tombs and the fact that the containers originated from various parts of the Mediterranean indicate that it is possible that many of the infants did not belong to  Astypalea’s inhabitants.

Ancient Cemetery for Infants
Ancient cemetery for infants in Astypalea. Credit: Dodecanese Ephorate of Antiquities

Ancient Greek goddess of women giving birth

Various theories speculating as to the reasons ancient Astypalea was chosen as a burial site for so very many infants abound.

The uniqueness of the ​​Kylindra area on the island lies in the fact that it is a burial ground exclusively for newborns and infants, most of whom died at birth.

Such a large cemetery for infants is certainly not justified by the size of the island’s population. There was a city there, but it was not amongst the most significant in ancient Greece.

The most realistic theory for the existence of a cemetery for infants on the island is that there could have been a sanctuary on Astypalea where women went to give birth.

Indeed, inscriptions have been found on the island that mention not only Asclepius, the god of medicine, but also Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth and midwifery.

The goddess of childbirth helped women give birth and endure its great pains. She was also worshiped as a goddess who tends to newborns.

The latter seems more likely to be associated with the presence of newborns and infants on the island. Such sanctuaries existed in other parts of the Greek world, but that of Astypalea was perhaps one of the most famous and had pan-Hellenic significance.

Thus, women who were not from Astypalea preferred to give birth there, much like, for example, patients from all over Greece would visit the Asclepieion of Epidaurus for cures of their diseases.

Possibly, there may have even been doctors in the sanctuaries of Eileithyia who specialized in obstetrics, something that would be especially helpful to midwives at a time when childbirth was particularly risky and many newborns and mothers died in the process.

Even under these conditions, many newborns died in the sanctuary; perhaps these were the ones who were buried in the cemetery of Astypalea.

Eileithyia had many sanctuaries in Crete. The most famous sites of worship dedicated to her were found in Amnisos, Olounda, Diktynnaio, and Inato, but the main seat of the goddess was in ancient Lato.


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