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Archaeologist discusses Agora bone well

Contributing Writer

Published: Saturday, February 4, 2012

Updated: Saturday, February 4, 2012 16:02

Classical archaeologist Susan Rotroff, the Archaeological Institute of America's Norton Lecturer for 2011-2012, came to UCF Friday night to speak to the UCF community about discoveries at the Athenian Agora excavations in Greece.

Among pottery and bronze, the remains of 449 infants and fetuses and 150 dogs were discovered in a well at the excavation site in 1938. To this day, archaeologists still debate how and why the remains were in the well, and they have studied the remains for answers. Hypotheses include infanticide, natural deaths, sacrifices to the gods and famine or the plague.

"I think it's primarily natural death. I think there are a few infanticides. There's one baby who was clearly abused. She has broken bones. I think it's mostly the way that people dealt with that problem of a newborn baby that dies," Rotroff said.

Rotroff said infants were not considered members of society until seven days after birth when their amphidromia—an introduction ceremony— took place, and there are other wells in Greece that contain human remains, so it is considered an alternate form of burial.

"They hadn't received their stamp of human approval and being part of society. That's why I think one way to think of it is another form of burial," Rotroff said.

Rotroff said around 15 percent of the remains were from fetuses around 24 to 34 weeks old. Two infants around the age of 4 to 6 months were found, and the rest of the remains were newborns. The remains from dogs may have been waste from the many strays in Athens, or they may have been buried as companions for the infants.

According to Rotroff, research on the remains found in the Agora excavation was somewhat delayed due to the nature of the discovery. She said the archaeologists were concerned about the possibility that it was infanticide.

"These people in that generation came to Greece and they really idealized the Greeks. The Greeks made the Parthenon and they created this beautiful literature, and you don't want to think of them as putting babies in wells, so this was not the time yet for that kind of topic," Rotroff said.

John Walker, an assistant professor in the UCF Anthropology Department, hosted the event and said having Rotroff speak at UCF offered students a chance to learn from a unique type of archaeologist.

"I know that she is a classical archaeologist, which makes her a unique kind of archaeologist in that she has both expertise in the department of classics, which means her colleagues are people who are both archaeologists and also people who study texts and are sort of on the line between history and archaeology," Walker said.

Sophomore anthropology major Stephanie Washbrum attended the event because she is interested in the field. She recently changed her major from biology to anthropology. She said she was fascinated by how there is still so much to learn from everything that has happened in history.

"I would love to do archaeology and do excavations and stuff. It all depends on where it can take me," Washbrum said.

Washbrum attended the event with sophomore biological sciences major Ashley McGowan.

"I almost minored in history, so I really like history a lot. Especially Greece because it just has so much information. I really just like hearing different things about Greece like the history and stuff like that," McGowan said.

Walker said the discoveries from the Agora well are important because they offer information about daily life in Athens that you could not get from written sources. He said he hopes his students will use what they learn about the past and apply it to learn more about the present.

"It's a chance for us to be exposed to part of the world that we don't have a lot of expertise on at UCF, and it's a fascinating aspect of archaeology when you sort of turn that lens on yourself or turn it on our own civilization," he said.

The Central Florida Society of the Archaeological Institute of America and the UCF Anthropology Department organized the event. To learn more about the AIA and the Agora excavation, visit http://www.archaeological.org/ and http://www.agathe.gr/.

 

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