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Τhe babies of Astypalea – 2760 burials in ceramic pots. A Cemetery or a Sanctuary?

Τhe House of Europe in Rhodes and the Association for the preservation of the Architectural and Cultural Heritage of Rhodes have organized a speech of the archaeologist Mrs. Maria Michalaki-Kollia on the issue: “Τhe babies of Astypalea – 2760 burials in ceramic pots. A Cemetery or a Sanctuary? “.

This presentation was also one of our activities consecrated to the promotion of the Greek Culture and Heritage. A large number of photographs, from the scene of the excavations have been projected during the presentation which has been followed by a very interesting discussion with the audience.

Abstracts in English and French are available below:

An Exceptional Discovery of Newborns, Foetuses and Infants’ Enchytrismoi in the Island of Astypalea, in Greece: Babies’ Cemetery or Sanctuary? (First Approach)

Abstract: This is a very important set comprising currently 2754 enchytrismoi, that essentially contained bones of newborns, foetuses and infants, with three cases of twins and some cases of very young children up to three years old. This discovery is the result of rescue excavations of two adjacent plots in the region of Chora, the ancient and current capital of the Island of Astypalea. In the deepest layers, the enchytrismoi (or pot burials) were laid in bedrock pits and covered by stones. However, a large quantity of vases were laid freely on top of each other, forming two or three layers in some areas, while in other locations small structures of stone and compacted soil were built above them. In an area of the excavated zone, especially in the inferior part of the slope, enchytrismos pots were so concentrated and apparently carelessly accumulated that they were heavily damaged. According to the study of the ceramics, the occupation of this site spans the end of the Geometric period to the Roman period. The vases used during the oldest periods (Early Geometric and Archaic periods) were primarily hydriai, with or without decoration, chytrai (cooking pots), and some pyxides, oinochoai and amphorae. In subsequent periods (Classical, Hellenistic et Roman periods), nearly all of the pots were amphorae from several origins.

In most instances, the baby was introduced in the vase thanks to an opening of the belly, which was then recovered with a sherd, either from the same vase or from another one. This opening is generally round or ovoid, rarely trapezoidal and was performed with a saw, a knife or a gimlet. In the oldest enchytrismoi, when hydriai, pyxides or chytrai were especially used, the baby was inserted through the mouth of vessel. The neck was always blocked with a stone, that was cut to penetrate inside it, and a potsherd was laid on the lip.

According to the 845 cases of enchytrismoi that have been opened and analyzed up to now by the Department of Anthropology at the University College London (UCL), it appears that the majority of the babies, about 77%, died approximately at the time of their birth. 9% were foetuses or premature babies, dead at 24 and 37 weeks. 14% were infants, twins and little children who reached the age of 1-3. Most babies were put with the head toward the neck, while in a few cases it pointed toward the bottom, probably to symbolize the position of the baby in the uterus.

Interestingly, no furniture is found in general, with a few exceptions, which seem to correspond to babies dead after six months, according to the study of ancient texts. On the contrary, some burned offerings were found in places of the excavated area, with animal remains and seashells.

This exceptional quantity of enchytrismoi for little children raises the question of whether this site was a cemetery of babies or a sanctuary, since the discoveries do not take place in the area of the common necropolis, but outside of the city and in the axis of its precinct. This group could consequently be connected to two inscriptions from the Chora site that deals with goddesses of childbirth, Artemis Lochia and Eileithyia. However, a chronology problem remains about this custom of burying babies in a special location and over such a long period. Another question is also to know which Greek or foreign populations started this ritual, at the same time as the capital of Chora, which was first inhabited at the end of the Geometric period.

Un ensemble exceptionnel d’enchytrismes dans l’ile d’Astypalee, en Grece Conclusion

L’ensemble extraordinaire des enchytrismes d’Astypalee, au-dela de son grand interet du point de vue ceramologique, ouvre de nouvelles pistes a la recherche anthropologique, comme a celle des pratiques funeraires concernant les morts immatures ; le site s’offre en outre a un grand nombre d’etudes pluridisciplinaires, paleopathologiques, demographiques, sociologiques et autres.

Cette trouvaille nous a permis de discerner et de comprendre certains aspects des moeurs funeraires que les textes gardent sous silence, d’aller plus loin que ces derniers, et par l’etude des donnees archeologiques elles-memes d’essayer de comprendre ce qui s’est passe dans la societe d’Astypalee comme un cas particulier parmi les societes anciennes.

Pour l’avenir il faut esperer : la continuation et l’achevement de la fouille, la mise au jour de la partie inferieure du mur et son identification, l’etude de la provenance des vases et leur chronologie exacte – pour connaitre le debut et la fin de l’utilisation de ce site –, la poursuite de l’etude des squelettes, et surtout l’interpretation des analyses sur les dents – qui donnera probablement des reponses sur le sexe –, et enfin la decouverte eventuelle d’autres inscriptions ou d’autres trouvailles importantes. Tout cela devrait nous permettre d’interpreter cet ensemble hors du commun, si etrange et unique en son genre dans le monde entier, a ce jour.

La conclusion la plus simple semble de penser que ce site, qui a accueilli ce nombre exceptionnel d’enchytrismes, pourrait effectivement appartenir a un lieu sacre, a un sanctuaire dedie a Artemis Lochia ou les femmes venaient deposer leurs nouveau-nes et leurs nourrissons morts, pour les mettre sous sa protection et pour leur assurer le passage dans l’au-dela (puisqu’ils etaient exclus du royaume d’Hades), et selon les termes de W. Deonna, « dans l’espoir que l’enfant mort [puisse] saisir une occasion propice pour s’introduire dans le corps d’une femme, se reincarner et renaitre »132.

En meme temps, ce sanctuaire a pu etre destine aux femmes apaides, celles qui avaient perdu leurs enfants et qui, considerees comme impures, devaient se purifier pour etre reintegrees dans la societe.

Le voeu, en vue d’un prochain enfantement, d’avoir un enfant sain et vivant serait adresse a Eileithyia, deesse de l’accouchement, qui alors n’aurait peut-etre plus sa place sur ce site. Ce serait la raison pour laquelle les deux inscriptions qui lui sont dediees proviennent de l’acropole, l’une avec le nom de la pretresse, l’autre mentionnant une action de grace. En revanche, Artemis qui aimait que ses sanctuaires se trouvent pres de la mer, des fleuves ou des marecages, comme Lochia, pourrait avoir son temple pres de ce site, ou les nouveau-nes morts lors de l’accouchement seraient quant a eux consideres comme des offrandes a la deesse.