Ancient necropolis of stillborn babies, toddlers found in Auxerre

An excavation in the historic center of Auxerre, France, has unearthed a necropolis dedicated to stillborn and very young children. It was on the periphery of a larger necropolis for the general population, common for a burial ground for dedicated subgroups, and was in use from the 1st to the 3rd century.

The fortified town of Autessiodurum was founded by the Gallic Senones people in 30 B.C. on the banks of the Yonne river. Under Roman rule, it was at the intersection of several important roads, but it didn’t rise to notable political importance until it was made a provincial capital of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. New fortifications enclosed the town in the 4th century. It was under those ramparts that the necropolis was found.

The necropolis contains a wide variety of funerary practices. Babies and very young children (toddler age) were buried in ceramic containers, wood coffins, tree bark, stone formwork, texties and long curved roof tiles (imbrex). Sometimes they were covered with amphora fragments or another set of tiles. One grave is marked with a reused stone engraved with a rosette shape. There is evidence of complex muti-stage funerary rituals performed in the burials.

Ceramic crockery is broken near the burials on circulation levels, their contents being intended for the dead and the gods. In order to protect these young deceased people, objects intended for protection in the afterlife (called “apotropaic” or “prophylactic”) accompany them, such as a pearl, a coin, a spindle. A miniature ceramic cup was also placed at the head of a young child. […]

The very high density of burials and their superposition make it possible to study a very large number of burials and other funerary practices associated with toddlers during the 1st – 3rd centuries . Up to five levels of tombs have been observed, which, in the current state of research, is unique in the Gallo-Roman world where the integrity of the tomb must be preserved. In Auxerre, however, some graves destroy others, which may be linked to a problem of available space but also be linked to the very status of these very young children, not always perceived as individuals in their own right. The excavation of Auxerre, like that of Narbonne and others recently, brings a lot of new knowledge and questions about the funerary practices associated with very young children and stillborns in Antiquity.