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The Mystery of the Infant Skeletons Found in Athens’ Ancient Agora

Infant Skeletons Athens ancient Agora
A well in the Ancient Agora of Athens contained heinous findings. Credit: Jean Housen, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikipedia

In 1938, archaeologists excavating the Ancient Agora in Athens unearthed a well filled with the skeletons of over 450 infants, along with the remains of over 150 dogs.

Such a collection of skeletal material had never been seen before, and the deposit was soon known as “the Agora Bone Well.” There was also an assortment of artifacts in the well, including pottery, an ivory chape, a marble herm, and bits of bronze.

This shocking discovery surprised the archaeologists who have been trying for decades to solve the mystery. At first, they concluded with two basic theories: either this was a mass murder of children or an epidemic spread mainly to this part of the population.

The skeletons from the Agora Bone Well are currently stored in the collections of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).

Infant Skeletons Athens ancient Agora
Radiograph of the ribs of an infant found in the Agora Bone Well with sites of fractures indicated by arrows. Credit: ASCSA

A recent ASCSA publication, coauthored by Maria A. Liston, Susan I. Rotroff, and Lynn M. Snyder, presents the material of the Agora Bone Well in full for the first time.

The authors agree that the delay between excavation and publication gave science and technology a chance to develop. “The knowledge of medicine and science needed to study the infant and dog bones did not exist in the 1930s. The necessary science to study the pathology of the infant bones didn’t even exist in the 1990s,” Liston explained in an interview with ASCSA.

However, Rotroff acknowledges that there was probably more than just insufficient technology that led to the delay. “I think there was also a natural unwillingness to examine this disturbing material—there had to be some sad story behind so many dead infants,” Rotroff says.

Mystery of the infant skeletons at Athens’ Ancient Agora

The scientists who analyzed the findings for about two decades using special technology chronologically placed the babies who died somewhere between 165 BC and 150 BC at the end of the Hellenistic period and just before the arrival of Romans in Greece.

They concluded that the vast majority of the babies found in the well had died of natural causes and not from a pandemic or murder. All infants except three lived no longer than a week.

As Liston claimed after the examination of the children’s skulls, just one-third of them died of meningitis, which was likely caused by a contaminated object people probably were using at that time to cut the umbilical cord. Other babies perished as a result of various childhood diseases caused by dehydration after diarrhea.

Nonetheless,  although deaths of infants were common in the ancient world, given the difficult circumstances of the era, infant remains are usually not found during archaeological excavations. Archaeologists have discovered only a small number of babies in graves because most of them were “buried” under the floors or discarded in landfills.

Rotroff’s research showed that if a baby was dying at that time, its corpse was discarded and not buried with dignity. This happened because Greek babies, like those of the Roman Empire, were not considered to be whole persons until a special ceremony was held.

The ceremony typically took place ten days after a child’s birth, only when the head of the household, who was the father, decided whether or not to keep the baby and “baptize” it.

If there was a kind of deformity or disability, the family already had several other members, or the mother was not yet married, the infant was left in a public place with the hope that someone would adopt it. Many of these children grew up to be slaves.

Despite this, the team discovered that one of these children did not die of natural causes. This was an eighteen-month-old toddler that, according to evidence, had sustained injuries, mistreatment, and abuse. This is perhaps the oldest finding of child abuse in world history.

What about the dog skeletons?

dog skeletons Athens ancient Agora
Four skulls of adult dogs found in the Agora Bone Well. Credit: ASCSA

Furthermore, the American and Canadian anthropologists and archaeologists were asked to solve the mystery of the approximately 150 skeletons of dogs found in the same well along with the remains of the infants and a disabled adult.

Some scholars believe the dogs were buried with the infants as companions, while others suggest that they were simply scavengers who had come to feed on the remains of the dead.

Animal archaeologist Lynn Snyder said the dogs were probably sacrificed. Although at that time bird and sheep sacrifices were common, dogs were likewise used in this way.

The reason is simple, according to Schneider. Canine sacrifices were considered to be cathartic of “contamination,” and, because the death of a child was “infectious,” the Athenians strangled the dogs to death to “purify” themselves.

The discovery of the Agora Bone Well has helped to shed light on the lives of infants in ancient Athens. It has proven that infant mortality was high in the city and infants who died were sometimes buried in less than traditional ways.

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