Thin plates of bone, small and with sutures nowhere near fused into their adult form. They are no doubt pieces of an infant’s skull. As I expected, and as is the case with many ancient societies, this whole pot contains the burial of a very young child.
Basically, pots make good coffins, and in some periods, large pottery coffins were made specifically for burials (such as the ‘slipper coffins’ of the Parthian period and the anthropomorphic clay coffins of the Philistines). Of course, amphorae have narrow necks, and so the neck must be broken off to fit even a small body inside. Then, the pot is typically lain on its side in order for the body to lay in its natural position, and then it is supported by stones and covered over with dirt. Thus, the type of jar, its intentional break at the shoulder, and the stones surrounding it all led me to believe this was an infant burial from the time we first spotted it.
Especially as the dirt cleared deeper and deeper in the round center of the pot, nearing what had to be the other side, my student helpers doubted my interpretation; but, the stones were there both to protect the pot and to mark its position, as it was placed near the surface just outside the Roman building. I believe that many of the stones we’ve encountered sticking up in places are more than just wall fall, but rather robbed out stones to line, cover, and mark a series of graves that succeeded the building phase. And, a decomposed tiny body does not take up much room.
The pieces of skull I found were at the western end of the pot, unusual as most burials of this period are placed with head at the east. Plus, there was little here but a few pieces of skull and one long bone beneath. Had the water, or something else, pulled the rest of the body away? At first this was my interpretation. In fact, there was a stone near the missing neck of the vessel that was almost certainly the original cap for the coffin, but it had been moved away from the opening as if something had gotten inside in antiquity.
As I continued to dig, though, lying down in the dirt, my head mostly inside the amphora itself, moving dirt away from tiny bone pieces and searching for more--my nostrils filled with ancient ash and well, trying not to think of what else--I found more skull, but at the eastern end. This was the even more recognizable forehead region and my theory now shifted to two possible babies in the grave. Now there was anatomical connection to the bones at least, and this one proved to be a near complete skeleton. The skull, however, was crushed down and instead of facing NE as I had thought at first, it had been facing upwards, and the weight of time and sand had pushed it down into a very small area.
No matter what, infants are extremely difficult to excavate, since their bones are so tiny and not yet fused, making the normal 206 human bones into something in the neighborhood of 270. Many of the bones don’t look ‘right’ since they aren’t yet really developed. I’ve dug a lot of bodies, but it’s always saddest to dig a baby. It’s scientifically interesting to see the bone development, but it’s also depressing to think of infant mortality.
This baby was buried with care and, I think had been shown care and attention in its short life. It (you can’t determine the sex of a child from his or her bones) was not completely alone in its journey to the afterlife. My student excavator spotted a glint of green and pointed it out to me. Here was a tiny bead of copper, corroded, but complete. And as I swept with a small brush, I found another, and then a black stone bead as well. They all came from the area of the baby’s left wrist, undoubtedly a bracelet s/he wore. And then, as I was completing the excavation and removing the final pieces of the skull and upper body, I noticed another glint, this one red. It was a very pretty carnelian bead. There were no other beads, but the baby had been wearing this solitary necklace, a token of affection no doubt from the parents.
My final interpretation, in accord and cooperation with our bone specialist in the field, was that, in the decomposition of the skull, its collapse and the wash event that made the harder surface at about its level, some of the small pieces of the cranium washed down to the western end of the pot, and that this was a single baby burial. The baby was between three and six months old, wearing a one-bead carnelian necklace and a three-bead copper and stone bracelet. It was buried probably in the Late Roman period, after the occupation of the building.
It’s sad, but we remember the people of the past most when we are confronted directly with them and not just the things they’ve left behind. I show here a picture of the burial, not as a thing of weird curiosity, but as a reminder of our own frailty and human concerns.