THE rediscovery of infant bones has led to a Hambleden field being identified as the earliest proven site of infanticide in Britain.
An excavation of Yewden Villa at Mill End in 1912 found a number of unusual discoveries, the most startling of which was the remains of 97 newborn babies.
The theory that the villa was used as a Roman brothel has also gained weight after the latest archaeological findings.
A H Cocks, former curator of Buckinghamshire County Museum, noted the discovery but focused on the tonne of pottery that was also found.
The remains of the infants, buried between 150 AD and 200 AD and all the same size, were rediscovered in cigarette boxes at the Aylesbury museum in 2008.
Dr Jill Eyers, director of Chiltern Archaeology, pushed for extensive investigation into the bones, which has confirmed beyond doubt that each baby was killed shortly after birth.
“Refinding the remains gave me nightmares for three nights,” said Dr Eyers. “It made me feel dreadful. I kept thinking about how the poor little things died. The human part of the tale is awful.”
Dr Eyers, 55, from Lane End, was directed to the site after seeing metal detectors at work in the area.
A group of 200 volunteers had already been gathered when she realised that parts of the 1912 collections had not been worked on.
She said: “I knew I had to work on the finds before I uncovered anything else. I just assumed that everything had been investigated.
“Mr Cocks mentioned the remains and sensed some foul play but then he left it. I don’t think he could face it.
“One day I was looking through the archives and found a little screwed-up note. I unwrapped it very carefully as it was old and it said, ‘I have placed the infant bodies in boxes marked various’.
“I was so excited and a bit cautious about what I would find as I do not deal with bones, only rocks.
“I went to the museum straight away and looked through all the boxes. It got to the last box and I had a heavy heart because I thought that they must have been lost.
“When I saw the word ‘various’ I cheered but it was so sad taking the lid off the box. Initially I thought, ‘oh my God, they are all the same size’.
“They were clearly all newborn, which immediately suggested foul play. It was so sad.”
Dr Eyers noted striking similarities between Yewden Villa and a site in Ashkelon in Israel, which archaeologists have concluded was also a brothel.
She said: “We know the people who were here were incredibly rich but they were not involved in the agricultural trade a lot.
“They didn’t sell grain on a big scale, the only thing they did was brewing, so the only thing they could have been doing, which explains why so many writing instruments were found in 1912, was controlling the trade on the river.
“The track coming through here is the perfect location as the villa would be passed and the river would not be navigable in the summer so all the people coming in would have to disembark exactly here.
“Because there was so much trade coming through, they had a little brothel operating.”
There was no such thing as abortion then — the best option was an ointment designed to kill sperm which didn’t work.
Dr Eyers said there would have been no place for babies for women who had gone down the road of prostitution. She discounted her colleague’s theory of a birthing centre having been at the site.
“I wanted that as well, as I didn’t want them to have been killed, but it just doesn’t work,” said Dr Eyers.
“There has never been a birthing centre in the Roman empire anywhere in the world and this is an unusually high number of burials.”
Her suspicion that the infants were systematically killed because they were unwanted births has been confirmed by Simon Mays, a palaeontologist who has spent the past year measuring the bones.
Dr Eyers said: “He proved without doubt that all the infants were new-born. They were all killed at birth and all at the gestation period of between 38 and 40 weeks.
“There were equal numbers of girls and boys, which would tie in with the fact that no babies were wanted at Yewden.
“It also emerged that some of the babies were related as they showed a congenital bone defect on their knee bones, which is a very rare gene.
“It would account for the same woman or sisters giving birth to the children as a result of the brothel.”
Experts are now studying DNA from the remains in the hope of learning more.
Dr Eyers said: “There are still little bits of the jigsaw to be pieced together.
“We want to see final figures of boys and girls and the relations to ascertain what sort of group we have here. We also found a family of five buried in a well. Did they die in a fire or were they murdered?
“I had a great team of people researching and washing finds and they became so well trained that they could do some professional work.
“I feel very proud as people do not realise how much is here — and there is still some exciting work to be done.”
Dr Eyers, who trained in geology, is seeking funding for archaeological work at a nearby site.
“I want to excavate more,” she said. “There is always lots to pick up on and around the tracks and I would love to know more.
“There is another site about a mile down the river which we know nothing about but I think there must be a connection to Yewden Villa.
“I am so lucky to work in a field that I love and I would do this for fun if it was not my job.
“During this project, I had 50 big museum boxes at home at one point and when I brought the bones home I put them on the dining room table.
“I don’t think my husband was too happy with that but I couldn’t leave them in the car.”
Romans In The Hambleden Valley, which was edited by Dr Eyers, is available to buy at the Bell Bookshop in Bell Street, Henley.
* Yewden Villa will be featured in Digging For Britain on BBC2 later this month.