Decapitation, infanticide, votive deposition and magical protection: infant burials in Roman Lincoln

Infant burials are some of the most emotive remains encountered in archaeology. The discovery of any ancient human remains can be an emotional, even profound, experience, and the remains of very young children particularly so. Nevertheless, with high infant mortality in the ancient world, the burial of stillborns and children who died in the days and weeks after birth was a common reality. How the burial of these unfortunate youngsters differed from the burial practices associated with older children and adults can tell us much about social relationships and religious belief.

Roman Lincoln has produced 28 infant burials at the time of writing, discovered both inside and outside the city walls (see my earlier post on some recent burial finds here). This in itself is not surprising, as although adult burials were legally forbidden within the city boundary, infant burials are commonly found inside. There is a strong association between infant burials and buildings, the burials often placed underneath the floors of structures or immediately outside, under the eaves or in drainage channels. This supports the idea that infant burials were votive in nature, valuable offerings to mark the construction, demolition, or a significant stage of a building’s life. Of course, as one could not guarantee to have a recently deceased infant to hand at the time that a new building was being constructed, we have to question how this worked in practice, and there is a strong possibility that the infants buried beneath buildings were not the children of the people that lived and worked there. The natural parents must therefore have also perceived a benefit in their children being buried in this manner, and child corpses can be seen to have had a ritual value to the wider community.

One issue that haunts the study of infant burials is the extent of ancient infanticide. Ancient literary sources provide evidence of the practice, with Pliny defending it on the grounds of limiting population growth, and Cicero referencing a law that deformed children should be quickly killed. Infanticide on the grounds of illness/disability, questionable paternity or gender selection occur throughout human history, but distinguishing between infants deliberately killed and those who died of natural causes in the archaeological record, however, is extremely difficult. Perhaps because of our own horror at the practice, the subject remains one of interest to the media.

The distribution and dating of infant burials in Lincoln and its suburbs can tell us something of the changing nature of this practice and of the wider development of the Colonia and its hinterland. The map below (see also the table at the end of this post) shows the distribution, date and context of the infant burials known so far, with the exception of two important burials from Bishop Grosseteste University (discussed below).

infant-burials-map

Infant burials in Roman Lincoln

It is interesting to note that broad phases of infant burial activity can be discerned. Early burials focus on the upper enclosure, mid Roman burials on the developing suburbs, and later burials in the lower enclosure. As the majority of these burials are directly associated with building construction, a narrative of growth and contraction for the Colonia can be proposed. Strong connections between infant burials and the houses of traders have been identified (Jones 2011), and the burials in the suburbs mostly come from such a context. The two burials from Spring Hill/Michaelgate came from a private dwelling, however, demonstrating that the practice existed across society.

Some burial events are worthy of individual comment. Though the majority of infant burials are inhumations, two of the Lincoln examples (From The Park and Brayford Wharf East) are cremations. It is clear that the legal, societal and religious rules for the burial of infants differed from those for adults, leading to suggestions that deceased infants could be effectively thrown away with the rubbish, or that infanticide was commonplace. We should look first, however, to explanations that involve differing but respectful rites for infant burial, rather than assuming that ancient peoples were ambivalent towards their dead offspring. The high infant mortality rate undoubtedly led to some degree of a hardening of attitudes, for psychological self-preservation if nothing else, and babies were perhaps not seen as fully human until they reached a certain age. Pliny, for example, stated that children did not possess souls until they were teething (Natural History VII.72). These views extended to the burial of infants. Those under a certain age, 40 days according to Fulgentius (Sermones Antiqui), were not subject to normal adult burial rites and the secular and religious rules that governed them. The two Lincoln cremations are therefore of interest, as they seem to have undergone an ‘adult’ rite. Sadly, the age of death of the infant at The Park cannot be determined, and the one from Brayford Wharf East is a recently excavated find and still undergoing analysis (see the blog of the excavators, Allen Archaeology, here). The mid to late first century cremation in the adult cemetery at Monson Street of a youth of between five and seven years old serves to illustrate that reaching a certain age dictated a change in burial rite.

The cremation at The Park is notable for the context recovered during excavation. The cremation was placed within a Black Burnished ware (BB1) cooking pot in the south west corner of a square depression, measuring c.600mm square and c.200mm deep, close to the  town wall. Holes for stakes at the four corners of the depression suggest that a roof structure of some kind was erected. The possibility, therefore, is that this represents a bustum – a combination of cremation pyre and burial site, the stakes representing where the pyre was constructed above the depression, and the remains subsequently gathered into the pot. You can read more about different types of Roman cremation here.

Three of the inhumations are notable for the creation of a simple tomb around the infant. One burial from Spring Hill/Michaelgate had the infant, remarkably, placed safely between two tegula roof tiles, positioned so the flanges created a space for the body. Similarly, one of the recent Brayford Wharf East burials was covered with a tile. At St Marks an inhumation was found with 85 amphora sherds. Was the infant originally placed within a complete amphora, or at least covered with sherds to protect it?

Infant burials are rarely found with grave goods, but two burials found close together under the floor of the same building at St Marks had a single item each, one a small glass bead and the other a jet pin. The jet pin is particularly interesting, as the child it was buried with (who died aged between 1 and 3 months old) had rickets, and the pin was placed at the child’s feet. Jet was considered to have amuletic properties in the ancient world, able to assist in protection and healing. Was this pin not simply an item of adornment but something placed to offer continued protection or succour to the child? The presence of jet items in infant burials at Colchester, York, Malton, Winchester and Trier has been discussed by Crummy (2010).

Perhaps the most dramatic infant burial from Lincoln is one of the two excavated from beneath the floor of a building at Bishop Grosseteste University in 1995. The otherwise well-preserved skeleton was missing its right arm, with no traces of it in surrounding soils or of any cut marks on the remaining bone, and had also been decapitated, the head placed between the spread-eagled legs. Decapitation was a more common burial rite in south central England than in Lincolnshire, but infant decapitation is extremely unusual anywhere and the reasons behind its presence at an otherwise normal Roman suburban structure remain unclear.

Infant burials were not purely an urban phenomenon and are found on rural sites, particularly villas. One was uncovered, for example, at recent excavations at the Sudbrooke villa site. They are also sometimes found at temples and shrines, where their votive nature is even more clearly pronounced. For example, at the sequence of temples at Springhead in Kent, one structure (temple IV), had an infant burial placed at each corner of the building, deposited in two separate events. Prior to the initial floor being laid, burials were placed at the north east and south east corners, the former burial being decapitated. At least a decade later, when a second floor was being laid, the ritual was repeated at the north west and south west corners, again with one burial being decapitated (Jarrett 2008). The heads of the decapitation burials were not found, leading to suggestions that they may even have been displayed within the temple, evidence indeed that, no matter how familiar many elements of Roman culture may seem to us, in other respects we are very far apart indeed.

infant burials table.png

 


References:

Boylston, An and Roberts, C. 1995. Report on the Human Skeleton Remains from Lincoln Excavations 1972-1987. CLAU excavation archives reference PX72/20/2 (stored at The Collection)

Crummy, Nina. 2010. Bears and Coins: The Iconography of Protection in Late Roman Infant Burials. Britannia vol 41, 37-93

Gibney, Glenn. 2016. Infant Burials in Roman Britain. Ancient Sources, Modern Historiography, and Archaeological Evidence. The Histories and Humanities Journal Vol. VII. Trinity College Dublin

Jarrett, Richard. 2008. Reappraising Penn and Harker: a reassessment of the finds from excavations at Roman Springhead, published between 1957 and 1984, and interpretations made about their use in past activities. Durham theses, Durham University

Jones, Michael J. (Ed.). 1999. The Defences of the Lower City: Excavations at The Park and West Parade 1970-2 and a discussion of other sites excavated up to 1994. CBA Research Report 114. Council for British Archaeology

Jones, Michael. J. 2011. Roman Lincoln: Conquest, Colony and Capital. The History Press

Mays, Simon. 1993. Infanticide in Roman Britain. Antiquity Vol 67, 883-8

Merrifield, Ralph. 1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. Book Club Associates

Steane, K (Ed.). 2001. The Archaeology of Wigford and the Brayford Pool. Lincoln Archaeological Studies No 2. Oxbow

Steane, K (Ed.). 2006. The Archaeology of the Upper City and Adjacent Suburbs. Lincoln Archaeological Studies No 3. Oxbow

Steane, K (Ed.). 2016. The Archaeology of the Lower City and Adjacent Suburbs. Lincoln Archaeological Studies No 4. Oxbow

Wragg, Kevin. 1997. Library Extension, Bishop Grosseteste College, Lincoln. CLAU archaeological report no 262

‘Bones Don’t Lie’ blog

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2 thoughts on “Decapitation, infanticide, votive deposition and magical protection: infant burials in Roman Lincoln

  1. Pingback: Bodies, bodies everywhere… | Roman Lincolnshire Revealed

  2. Pingback: Villas and vineyards? Excavations on the route of Lincoln’s eastern bypass | Roman Lincolnshire Revealed

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