Heartbreaking Archaeological Discovery: Earliest Case of Child Abuse

By: The Scribe on Friday, May 31, 2013

Sadly, not all discoveries in archaeology are of the “amazing!” and “how fascinating…” variety. Sometimes we learn a little more about ancient times and are saddened by the truth of the past. It’s easy to idealize ancient cultures, because most of what’s left behind presents a one-sided picture of ancient society. Aside from the remnants of war, the ugly bits of everyday life aren’t as easily found or seen.

kellis toddlerOne of those heartbreaking discoveries has come to light in the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, at a 2,000 year old burial of a child. The body, buried in what’s known as the Kellis 2 cemetery, displays signs of what may be the earliest known case of child abuse in the archaeological record—and the first case ever found in Egypt.

The Dakhleh Oasis town of Kellis has been continually occupied since Neolithic times, making it a key site for understanding the archaeological record of the area. The cemeteries located near the oasis are also highly valuable in that they’re allowing scientists to examine the early beginnings of Christianity in Egypt.

The body of the 2 or 3-year-old child, buried during a Romano-Christian period, was buried according to early Christian mortuary practices. Burial 519, as it was first known, seemed like a typical burial until lead researcher Sandra Wheeler and colleague began to notice fractures on the skeleton—arms, collarbone, and elsewhere.

Although other child skeletons have shown skeletal trauma, “this is the only one that had these really extreme fracture patterns”, says Wheeler. X-rays and other procedures on the skeleton showed additional fractures on the ribs, pelvis, back, and forearm. The injuries were also at different healing stages when the child was buried, suggesting strongly that the trauma was repeated and nonaccidental.

And while researchers can’t say with absolute certainty that the fractures are diagnostic evidence of child abuse, one set of fractures on the child’s upper arms—fully broken bone, on each arm—would have taken significant force to create. Researchers have been able to deduce through modern clinical knowledge that in order to create those types of breaks, someone would have had to grab the child’s arms and used them to violently shake the toddler.

Other injuries, such as those to the ribcage and spine, were likely the result of direct blows to the body.

collarbone fracture (credit--Sandra Wheeler)Did the abuse cause the child’s death? Archaeologists and researchers are not certain, though the collarbone break shown above may have contributed to it.

One good piece of news out of this discovery is that the child in Burial 519 was the only child skeleton (out of 158!) in the cemetery to show evidence of abuse, suggesting that child abuse was not a normal practice in this ancient community. Rather, all other evidence confirms the common belief that Egyptians highly valued children as members of society.

Carbon dating shows that the cemetery was in general use between 50 and 450 A.D., during a Roman period in Egypt—Romans had quite a different concept of children, and were not afraid to use corporal punishment. It’s possible this abuse case may have been a result of Roman influence, but we may never know for certain.

(Research on this case will be published in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Paleopathology.)


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