The Mysteries of Yewden

An ancient Roman villa at Yewden in Buckinghamshire was first excavated in 1912. Recently, finds from the site, including the skeletons of a number of newborn infants, have been studied in some detail.

Main building at Yewden, artist's concept. (Buckhamshire County Council)

Ninety-seven infant skeletons were discovered in the 1912 dig, forty are still available for study, the others having disappeared over the deacades. Since all the skeletons were newborns, most analysts have suggested that they were victims of infanticide. The Romans did sometimes kill the offspring of slaves. The bodies of infants under the age of two, infanticide or not, were usually buried without ceremony. This would square with the Yewden findings where the ninety-seven infants’ remains were distributed around the property, the largest group in an adjacent field.

Still, it’s unusual to find so many small corpses on the same plot of land. The forty extant skeletons have all been dated to the period 150 – 200 AD. This concentration in time and space has suggested to Dr. Jill Eyers that Yewden was the site of a brothel and that the burials represent the unwanted byproduct of that business. Running against that notion, however, is Yewden’s distance from any population center — there wouldn’t have been many customers in the area.

Samian ware from Yewden. This was a mortar. (chilternarchaeology.com)

Another idea that has been floated is that Yewden was some kind of birthing centre, perhaps a place having to do with a mother goddess. But this conjecture also runs into the lack of population in the area: centre of what?

Woman nursing child. Goddess? (chilternarchaeology.com)

Yewden was a wealthy place and some people in the villa lived well. Valuable red Samian pottery and colored glassware are among the archaeological finds. The complex of buildings include an area that contains sixteen kilns for drying grain. Yewden would not have been an immediate market that sold grain but it might well have been a trade centre that received local produce and then shipped it down the Thames. This activity required a lot of bookkeeping and, in fact, sixty or more iron styli, used to write on wax tablets, have been unearthed. All this activity brings us back to the possibilty of prostitution — farmers bringing in the crop and the hands necessary to load it, the boatmen themselves, all potential customers.

One of the infant skeletons has a cut mark on his bones, possibly from a difficult birth. Several show signs of a rare genetic knee disorder that suggests that they were related — perhaps from the same mother. One final datum: the infants that can be DNA tested are equally divided between male and female; they represent a normal sex ratio at birth. It isn’t necessary, I think, that Yewden be a major brothel to have ninety-seven unwanted births over fifty years. These could represent the children of female slaves who worked at the place during the period.

Iron stylus from Yewden. (chilternarchaeology.com)

One item unearthed at Yewden is a pot with the name “Siitomina” scratched into its base. This is a Romano-British woman’s name; Siitomina is the earliest named individual from the area that is known. One wonders if she was slave or free and if, perhaps, she carried a gene for a congenital knee disorder.

"Siitomina". (chilternarchaeology.com)

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One comment on “The Mysteries of Yewden

  1. nursemyra says:

    Very interesting. And the red pottery is lovely.

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