Saturday, August 3, 2013

Throwing the Babies Out with the Bathwater

The Skeletal Remains of Ashkelon

Every so often an archaeological dig will turn up something mysterious that leaves scholars scratching their heads in wonder and amazement. And then there's excavations, like that of an ancient sewer in Ashkelon, that leave them downright horrified...

Ashkelon was a port city on what is now the shores of Israel's southern Mediterranean coast. The first known inhabitants were the Canaanites, who settled the area during the Bronze Age. Due to it's natural harbor and strategic position along trade routes it became one of the most important cities of the ancient world and, as a result, changed hands between various conquering forces over the years. It was eventually destroyed during the Crusades in 1191.

In 1988, archeologists from Harvard University were digging through one of the city's Roman-era sewers when they stumbled across hundreds of tiny bones. At first these were thought to be the bones of small animals. But upon closer inspection they turned out to be human. Human, infant bones. What they discovered was the remains of 97 babies, the largest infant mass grave ever unearthed.

The bodies had been discarded along with animal bones, pottery fragments, coins and scattered trash. There were no signs of funerary practices or associated items, contrasting sharply with the infant burial jars from the same period discovered a few hundred yards away. And when the remains were brought to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for further study it was determined that none of the babies had lived more than a week and all were healthy at the time of death (showing no signs of disease, deformities or illness). So why were they dumped here?