A Look at the practice of burying babies in ancient storage jars during the Middle Bronze Age
How did people in ancient Canaan bury their dead babies? Many placed their dead babies in storage jars. These were then buried under the walls and floors of a house or, occasionally, placed in a communal tomb. Archaeologists refer to this type of interment as an infant jar burial (IJB).
Beth Alpert Nakhai of the University of Arizona explores infant jar burials in her article “Baby Burials in the Middle Bronze Age” published in the July/August/September/October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Archaeologists have found infant jar burials throughout the ancient Near East, but especially in ancient Canaan. Although the practice of burying infants in storage jars spanned millennia, the custom reached its zenith in the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1550 B.C.E.).
In the ancient world, infant mortality rates were high. A third of children died before their first birthday, and almost half died before their fifth birthday. Nakhai explains some of the contributing factors to this high mortality rate:
Various factors—such as maternal age and health, number of prior pregnancies, mothers’ occupation and socio-economic status, and food insecurity—affected the survival of mothers and their babies. Low birth weight, birth defects, and early weaning imperiled survival. So, too, did physical trauma and acts of violence and abuse directed at pregnant women and at their children. Rampant unsanitary conditions led to the spread of disease, contributing to the high death rate for infants and new mothers.
Since a large portion of the population never made it to maturity in Middle Bronze Age Canaan, we would expect the majority of burials from this period to be those of children. However, this is not the case. Archaeologists have uncovered more adult than child burials. Nakhai identifies this paradox: For whatever reason, many infant burials have not survived in the archaeological record.
During the Middle Bronze Age, the Canaanites chose to bury their dead in a variety of ways. Archaeologists typically find adults in built tombs, burial caves, and pits. Although the most common type of burial for babies was the infant jar burial, not all young children were buried in storage jars. Some children—usually older than three years—were buried in tombs or other graves similar to adults.
Many infant jar burials contained grave goods, items to assist the dead child in the afterlife. The most common grave good is a juglet, a proto-bottle of sorts. Nakhai identifies other objects found in IJBs:
Only a few objects—small vessels (especially juglets), blades, very small ground stone tools, and scarabs—were included in IJBs. Notably absent were weapons, ivory inlay, jewelry, and toggle pins, objects common in other types of Middle Bronze Age graves. In practical terms, of course, the size of burial containers dictated the limited number of objects, their small size, and even their position alongside corpses within burial jars.
Nakhai believes that the placement of infant jar burials—usually within the home—and the inclusion of specific grave goods reflect a desire on the part of dead infant’s mother to care for her child in death, as she would have cared for that child in life. These burials differed from those of adults because the infants had not been fully integrated into society by the time of their deaths. It is possible they had not undergone rites of initiation or integration, and thus they were not viewed as full members of society. Therefore, they were buried in a way that protected them and kept them close to home.
Learn more about infant jar burials in Beth Alpert Nakhai’s article “Baby Burials in the Middle Bronze Age” published in the July/August/September/October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review
Subscribers: Read the full article “Baby Burials in the Middle Bronze Age” by Beth Alpert Nakhai in the July/August/September/October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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