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Discovery of babies' skeletons exposes the dark side of life in Roman Britain

One of Roman Britain's darkest secrets is close to being laid bare by modern science. Experts from English Heritage are examining dozens of infant skeletons buried 17 centuries ago in a quiet valley just north of the River Thames in Buckinghamshire.

The remains were unearthed almost 100 years ago by a local archaeologist – and modern specialists in Roman history had assumed that the bones had been reburied. Instead, while examining hundreds of boxes of archaeological material stored in Buckinghamshire's county museum in Aylesbury they rediscovered the remains of each tiny individual, neatly packed into old tobacco boxes and shotgun cartridge containers.

Now English Heritage plans to examine each tiny skeleton with CT scanners and electron microscopes to try to discover how they died. So far, possible cut marks have been found on one individual – and English Heritage scientists want to discover whether any of the other skeletons bear similar tell-tale marks.

A DNA study will also be carried out to determine the gender of each infant. "The material is important because it represents the largest group of Roman period infant burials in Britain," said English Heritage's skeletal biologist, Doctor Simon Mays.

According to records kept by Alfred Cocks, the early 20th-century excavator of the site, there were originally 97 skeletons. However modern archaeologists have so far only located the stored remains of 40. The English Heritage examination has revealed that those 40 were probably all newborn babies.

All were buried in tiny pits or under walls or courtyards immediately outside a complex of Roman buildings near the modern village of Hambleden in south Buckinghamshire. How they died is still a mystery.

It is known that, though sometimes frowned upon, infanticide was practiced in the Roman world. Even so, the presence of so many newborn infants in one place is puzzling, say archaeologists.

The individuals were interred over a period of at least a century in the third and fourth centuries AD. The complex of Roman buildings at Hambleden, though normally referred to as a villa, is unusual in a number of respects, and it is those differences which may hold the clues needed to solve the mystery.

In 1912, archaeologists found 60 iron styluses (Roman writing utensils) in the complex – a discovery which suggests that many of the inhabitants were scribes involved with some sort of record-keeping activity, potentially governmental or commercial administration. The early archaeologists also found 16 corn-drying kilns, suggesting that the complex was involved in large-scale agricultural processing. Historians know that at the time, food supplies including grain were being shipped from Britain by the Roman authorities to supply the Roman army on the Rhine.

Some argue that the Hambleden complex might have been a Roman imperial agricultural administrative and processing centre serving a relatively large area. The dead infants could represent a mixture of still births, natural perinatal deaths and infanticide victims, born to women employed at the centre. Some of the infants may have been born with deformities – a fact that would have made them particularly vulnerable to infanticide.

Some archaeologists have suggested the infants were children of prostitutes serving the potentially large staff at the complex, although it would be archeologically unprecedented to find a brothel in a non-urban context.

Alternatively, the site could have had a partly religious function with the infants being the subjects of illegal rituals or even human sacrifice. Certainly newborn infants were sometimes buried as ritual foundation deposits in Roman Britain – though never in such large numbers.

The Hambleden research is being undertaken by English Heritage in conjunction with Chiltern Archaeology and a local community archaeology project. The investigation will feature in a new BBC archaeology television series Digging for Britain, being broadcast later this summer.