450 Dead Babies Found in Athenian Well Shed Light on Ancient Greeks

Remains discovered at bottom of well reveal macabre tradition 2,000 years ago

  • 450 infant skeletons were found in well during excavation of Athen's Agora

  • All but three of the babies appear to have died within a week of being born

  • Researchers say they died of natural causes and were dumped in the well

  • The practice appears to have been part of the traditions in Ancient Athens 

It was a discovery that horrified and baffled archaeologists when it was first unearthed – the skeletons of 450 infants at the bottom of a well in the middle of Athens.

Now researchers claim to have solved the macabre mystery of why so many babies were dumped in the well in the Athenian agora – the large square at the centre of the ancient Greek city.

Analysis of the remains, has shown all but one of the babies appear to have died of natural causes somewhere between 165BC and 150BC at the end of the Hellenistic period in Greece.

Archaeologists excavating the agora in Athens discovered a well hewn into the rock that contained the remains of 450 babies and 150 dogs. The image above shows the first day of excavation in 1931

Archaeologists excavating the agora in Athens discovered a well hewn into the rock that contained the remains of 450 babies and 150 dogs. The image above shows the first day of excavation in 1931

Just three of babies managed to live beyond one week and a third of them appear to have died of meningitis, possibly due to an infection caused from cutting the umbilical cord.

Others died of various childhood diseases, including dehydration.

The scientists behind the study of the remains, which were first unearthed in an excavation in 1931, believe the bodies of the infants were dumped rather than being buried as they were not deemed 'full citizens'.

Professor Maria Liston, an anthropologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and Professor Susan Rotroff, a researcher at the department of classics at Washington University in St Louis, said it appeared they were victims of a bizarre practice in Ancient Greece at the time.

Babies were not considered to be Greek citizens until a special ceremony 10 days after birth when they were given their name and the head of the household decided whether to raise them or not.

If babies died before they were granted citizenship in this way, they were dumped rather than being buried.

Professor Liston said it is possible that midwives disposed of the bodies down the well as it was down a blind alley near the agora and so was easily accessible but out of sight.

Speaking to Newsweek, she said: 'Four hundred fifty dead babies—that's a lot of grieving parents and sorrow.'

The infant skeletons were first discovered in 1931 when archaeologists began excavating the Athenian agora at the centre of the city.

Alongside the temples and statues they found the well cut into the bedrock with 450 human infant skeletons inside.

At the time archaeologists thought the infants may have been the victims of a mass infanticide and had been flung down the well or a plague.

However, the new research has shown neither theory was correct and reveals the society in Athens at the time in a new macabre light.

Professor Liston said that half of the skulls showed marks caused by a meningitis infection.

The agora in Ancient Athens served as a market place, gathering site and centre of worship in the city. The well filled with bones was found in an alley off the main square and so was easy to access but quiet

The agora in Ancient Athens served as a market place, gathering site and centre of worship in the city. The well filled with bones was found in an alley off the main square and so was easy to access but quiet

The agora in Athens, which is shown as it is today, was once a major market place and gathering site in the centre of the Ancient Greek city. Researchers say the well was found in an alley just off the main square, suggesting it provided a quiet spot where the bodies of dead babies could be disposed of easily

The agora in Athens, which is shown as it is today, was once a major market place and gathering site in the centre of the Ancient Greek city. Researchers say the well was found in an alley just off the main square, suggesting it provided a quiet spot where the bodies of dead babies could be disposed of easily

Just one of the bodies – belonging to an 18 month old – showed signs of frequent abuse – making it perhaps the oldest example of child abuse ever found.

The youngster had multiple fractures throughout the body with different degrees of healing. A final jaw fracture appeared to have occurred at the time of their death.

Speaking at a conference last year, Professor Liston said: 'Abuse often is, and was, a hidden crime, and in antiquity its victims may have been disposed of outside of formal cemeteries, making recovery and documentation difficult.

'The oldest infant from the "Baby Well" found in the Athenian Agora excavations provides evidence of a possible case of child abuse from the 2nd century C.E.' 

Archaeologists also found the remains of around 150 dogs in the well, which researchers believe may have been sacrificed.

It may be that the dogs were considered to good for relieving 'pollution' – possibly from the bodies of the infants down there in the first place.

By RICHARD GRAY FOR MAILONLINE