Lecture probes why hundreds of ancient baby skeletons were placed in well

A cult of infant sacrifice, plague or military disaster — these are just a few of the explanations for why a well in Athenian Agora contains 450 infant skeletons from 200 B.C.

On April 19, anthropologist Maria Liston will share her theories during a free lecture titled, “Short Lives and Forgotten Deaths: 
Infant Skeletons from the “Baby Well” in the Athenian Agora.” The talk begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Paulus Lecture Hall at the College of Law.

By studying the presence and absence of trauma to skeletons, Liston explores possible causes of death.

“I love being able to figure out something about how people lived in the past, or add something to our knowledge of some event,” Liston says. “By studying skeletons, I am studying the actual people who experienced what we think of as the past, and their lives are reflected in their bodies.”

Ever since the mass infant grave was discovered in 1932, there have been many theories about how the infants died, including famine, a massacre during an attack on Athens, an undocumented plague and a large-scale infanticide.

While the reality may include a combination of these explanations, Liston argues that studying the “baby well” requires a fresh look at the causes of infant mortality in antiquity.

“When talking about antiquity, we often refer to infant mortality and short life expectancies, but rarely see the actual evidence for it,” she says. “I hope this lecture will give a new perspective on the lives and deaths of the youngest members of society.”

Liston is an associate professor and chair of the anthropology department at the University of Waterloo. Her lecture is co-sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America and the Willamette University Center for Ancient Studies and Archaeology.

ASL interpretation is available upon request.