To be a Child in Roman Aventicum (1st-3rd c. AD): Evidence on Health, Disease and Feeding Practices from Bioarchaeology  

FNS CoRe Project 2016-2019

  • Description

    Childhood is both a biological stage in the human life and a cultural construct. Until the application of gender-based approaches to archaeology in the 1990s, children were considered ‘variables’ rather than ‘cultural actors’, on the periphery of past societies. For long, studies on ancient childhood relied only on the standard testimonies of literary, archaeological evidence and iconographic sources. Currently, the development of bioarchaeology, a scientific research field provides ground-breaking information through the study of the biological remains of children. The importance of these remains lies on the fact that they provide direct evidence of children’s lives in the past, offering new data on the influence of cultural and environmental conditions to their health status, as well as on socio-cultural attitudes towards their care. In particular, ancient feeding practices, which are directly affected by the culturally determined beliefs and behaviours of past societies, can considerably add to our understanding of ancient childhood, infant mortality and the ability of a population to secure the survival of their offspring. Although currently an increased interest in the study of ancient childhood is evidenced, work on children’s biological remains is still limited, and researchers conducting pioneer bioarchaeological analysis often note the paucity of comparative data. 

    The proposed project aims at filling this gap through a bioarchaeological study of non-adult individuals, which will also include the application of the method of stable isotope analysis for the reconstruction of infant feeding practices. It will consist of an interdisciplinary study of a set of cemeteries from Roman Aventicum/Avenches (1st-3rd c. AD), where the traditional data sets of documentary evidence (literary, epigraphic and iconographic sources), and archaeological evidence (burial context and associated material), will be combined with anthropological data (study of the skeletal remains with emphasis on non-adult individuals, recording of pathological conditions on the bones, reconstruction of non-adult mortality, and stable isotope data for the reconstruction of breastfeeding and weaning patterns, with special emphasis on health hazards associated with the type of food introduced after cessation of nursing).


    The aim of this interdisciplinary project is to serve as an exemplary model for a specific geographic region of the former Roman Empire by offering comparative data in order to understand the causes of infant health and disease and their possible relation to feeding practices. The interdisciplinary of the project is expected to provide a holistic investigation of how socio-cultural beliefs influenced feeding practices and consequently how these practices are associated with the observed results, adding considerably to the ongoing scientific debate on ancient childhood in a wide temporal and regional context.

  • Publications
    • Bourbou C., Dasen V., 2018. "Enfance en péril. Les maladies infantiles à l'époque romaine". Archéologia no. 564, 58-65.
    • Bourbou C., 2017. "Être un enfant à Aventicum". Aventicum-Nouvelles de l' Association Pro Aventico no. 32, 10-12.
    • Bourbou C., 2017. "A new project investigating Roman infant feeding practices in Switzerland". Newsletter of the Paleopathology Association, no. 179.
    • Bourbou C., Dasen V., Loesch S., 2016. "Bon pour les uns, fatal pour les autres". Universitas.
  • Team
    • Prof. Véronique Dasen, University of Fribourg
    • Dr. Sandra Lösch, University of Bern, Institut of Forensic Medecine
    • Dr. Chryssa Bourbou, Ephorate of Antiquities of Chania, Hellenic Ministry of Culture
  • Contact

    Prof. Dr. Véronique Dasen