Excavation of the Roman-Byzantine sewer system associated with the bathhouse at Ashkelon revealed the skeletons of nearly 100 infants. They were found mixed in with the garbage more commonly associated with such contexts—broken potsherds, animal bones, murex shells and odd coins. Most of the infant bones were intact, and all parts of the skeleton were represented. Since infant bones are fragile, they tend to fragment when disturbed or moved for secondary burial. The good condition of the infant bones at Ashkelon indicated to us that the infants had been tossed into the drain soon after death with the soft tissues intact. This manner of disposal of the infants indicates a rather callous attitude, suggesting that these might represent abortions or infanticide, rather than death from natural causes.

We focused closely on the age range of the infants as one indication of the cause of death. The rationale for using age range as an indicator of the cause of death is that perinatal death in all populations studied shows a comparable pattern of mortality. There is a high rate of mortality in the first month of life that gradually decreases over the first year, followed by a second peak at weaning. If the drain served as a mass grave following some catastrophe, or was the normal way of disposing of infants who died when young and were not accorded full burial rites, then we should expect some variability in the age of death of the infants in the drain. If on the other hand, these infant skeletons were the result of infanticide practiced immediately after birth, all would be of the same age.

Examination of the Ashkelon sample showed that all the infants were approximately the same size and with the same degree of dental development. Both bone size and dental development were equivalent to that of newborn infants. Moreover, forensic tests showed no neonatal lines in the teeth. These are considered evidence of survival of more than three days after birth. Their absence in the Ashkelon infants reinforces the hypothesis of death at birth.

A sudden increase in the number of deaths which would result in emergency burial measures, such as have been documented following epidemics, warfare or famine, would affect children of all ages. This does not apply to the skeletons found in the Ashkelon sewer, where only newborns were found. Infanticide in the past (as at present) was (and is) usually carried out immediately after birth, before the development of mother-infant bonding. Child sacrifices, on the other hand, were usually made periodically, so that infants of different ages were sacrificed. While it is conceivable that the infants found in the drain were stillborn, their number, age and condition strongly suggest that they were killed and thrown into the drain immediately after birth.