The children’s bone rediscovered in a cigar box at St Ives museum

11:06 31 March 2014

Infant bones found in cigar boxes within the Norris Museum. Picture: Chris Thomas

Infant bones found in cigar boxes within the Norris Museum. Picture: Chris Thomas

Archant

Volunteers made a grisly discovery as they sorted through the archives of the Norris Museum in St Ives.

Tucked away in two cigar boxes were a collection of infant bones.

Rodney Searle rediscovered the bones, which included a label marked ‘Roman cemetery, Godmanchester 1905’ and added that they were the remains of a nine-month-old, while cataloguing the museum’s artefacts.

When fellow volunteer Dr Chris Thomas laid them out to photograph, they noticed that the bones were from several infants, believed to be from newborns.

Dr Thomas believes the bones, found by Reverend Walker in 1904 as part of an excavation behind homes opposite the war memorial in Park Lane, Godmanchester, are evidence of the Roman practise of infanticide.

He said: “The child would be presented to the head of the household. If it did not meet with his approval, then it could either be sold or abandoned to its fate.

“Abandonment tended to be in a pot or dish either outside the house or outside the temple. There was a chance that a passerby would adopt the child into their own household as part of their family or as a slave. If nobody took up the abandoned child, it was left to die.

“Child abandonment and infanticide occurred in many cultures and in Europe right through to the Middle Ages.

“The future might have been more brutal for a slave’s child. They had no say. The head of the household would decide if they could afford to keep the baby as a new slave or if it should be sold on or disposed of. The situation only changed in the year 374, when infanticide was banned – you were only able to either keep the infant or sell it.”

The bones have been photographed as part of a project to make more of the Norris Museum’s collections publicly available.

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