Dead babies still are bad evidence for a Roman brothel

Posted on August 9, 2011


Last year I asked the rhetorical question “Are dead babies good evidence for a Roman brothel?”

My post rehearsed a number of reasons to be skeptical of the widely reported story about a Roman British site being described as a brothel. Centrally, I objected to the claim that Roman women had “little or no access to effective contraception”.

After reviewing the evidence that Roman women did have effective contraception, and the evidence that Roman demography provides that family planning was actually widespread, I wrote

But there is more than one way to imagine this villa populated with women who, although living in a house of some presumed luxury, did not themselves have the means to use contraception known to and employed by others in Roman Britain.

I then reviewed the archaeological writing about the site, which showed that it was a working farm in a rural area.

I left open the possibility that Dr. Jill Eyers was right in her conclusion, although I think it was clear that I disagreed with her, and especially, that I found problematic her quoted conclusion that

“The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel”.

Now, Dr. Eyers is back in the news with renewed claims that the site has to have been a brothel. Which leads me to provide my own answer to my rhetorical question.

No. And no again.

The blog Rogue Classicism reviews the new discussion, which originates with a BBC News item promoting a BBC television program. Not news, really, but noteworthy because of the greater balance shown by the BBC reporter, whose article starts out

New research has cast doubt on the theory that 97 infants were killed at a Roman brothel in Buckinghamshire.

Which is no surprise to me, since a year ago I found the idea dubious. But there is one person who still finds it entirely convincing: Dr. Eyers, quoted as saying

“To be honest, when I first put this idea forward last year, it was really to get people talking and debating, but the more I look into this, the more convinced I am by my original brothel theory.”

The article says her continued studies of “the landscape around the villa site” have produced “a whole host of other evidence” supporting her suggestion, although the only data cited was plotting the locations of the burials and drawing the conclusion that all the infants were buried in a 50 year period, from 150-200 AD.

So, where does the “new research” come from to “cast doubt” on this still unconvincing speculation?

The BBC News article cites two lines of argument.

The biological studies of the infants recovered have now extended to include ancient DNA analysis by Keri Brown of the University of Manchester. This study found a normal sex ratio (about half boys and half girls). The BBC News article says this is unexpected in a brothel site, citing a bath-house in Ashkelon interpreted as a likely brothel, where the infants killed were boys.

Presumably, although they don’t go into the logic, the idea is girls can be raised to be sex workers, while boys would just be extra mouths to feed.

Curiously, though, they don’t drop the idea of infanticide, even though they note that infanticide sites usually do show selective sex bias, with girls more likely to be eliminated than boys. The logical conclusion would be that the deaths here don’t actually represent infanticide at all, since they mirror a normal birth ratio.

(Parenthetical note: I myself cannot support the assertion that infanticide normally affects girls more than boys historically. It seems to be true in the modern world. Any comments that can point me and readers to sources from antiquity accepted gratefully.)

The BBC News article doesn’t draw what I see as a logical connection between this sex ratio evidence and the other skeptical argument it cites, by the keeper of archaeology at the Buckinghamshire County Museum, Brett Thorn. He proposes an alternative interpretation that

“the site was a shrine and women went there to give birth, and get protection from the mother goddess during this dangerous time. The large number of babies who are buried there could be natural stillbirths, or children who died in labour.”

This independent suggestion is more consistent with the reported sex ratio. Thorn has curated a museum exhibit of objects from the site to support his argument, noting that

“There are a few significant religious objects from the site that indicate possible connections with a mother goddess cult.”

Despite the fact that this is clearly a case of sensationalizing a somewhat routine site for the sake of ratings, it seems like the development may be showing us the self-correcting nature of archaeology in action.

The original claims still are unconvincing. The objections I raised a year ago are not addressed, at least in the BBC News report, and new data are not consistent with expectations, while alternative models are being proposed that would better account for the known data.

So, “are dead babies good evidence for a Roman brothel?”