RA Sanders and SG Sheridan.  (1999).   "'All God's Children':  Subadult Health in a Byzantine Jerusalem Monastery."    Abstract, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Supplement 28:239.


Exhumation of crypts associated with a large urban Byzantine monastic site in Jerusalem (St. Stephen’s) has yielded over 15,000 human bones, a quarter of which are those of children.  The purpose of this investigation was to reconstruct a morbidity and mortality profile of the subadult remains.  Age was estimated using dental eruption, long bone length, and epiphyseal fusion; auricular surface morphology was analyzed for sex determination.  Nutrition and disease patterns were also investigated.

Subadults aged 7 months in utero thru 18 yrs were found (n=3,004 bones).  The average age at death was between 2-3 yrs, with a sharp decline after age 6 yrs.  None of the auricular surfaces analyzed (n=52) appeared female, although it should be cautioned that the 'default' morphological pattern for this feature is male. No cases of subadult cribra orbitalia were found (n=24).  However, when dental and skeletal ages were compared, bone growth showed a significant (p<0.05) lag behind dental eruption.  Periosteal lesions on 9 long bones were found, as were 5 cases of deciduous dental caries, and 1 greenstick fracture.
In summary, the children reached peak mortality at an age associated with weaning.  Those that survived showed little evidence of nutritional deficiency (cribra orbitalia), however the lag between their dental and skeletal maturity hints at some environmentally-induced physiological stress. The low incidence of systemic infectious lesions, carious lesions, or trauma such as fractures, suggests a relatively healthy lifestyle.

The role of the subadults in this monastic community remains a mystery.  Historical accounts speak of the presence of oblates (young monastics) in Byzantine monasteries of the Near East, however there are significant precautions against accepting individuals under the age of 5 yrs.  Many monasteries of the period had an associated orphanage, and it is possible that St. Stephen's was no exception.  However, though numerous texts are available for the site, there is no mention of such a function.  It is also possible these remains represent children raised in the surrounding community, buried on the monastery grounds due to its location near the bones of a martyr (St. Stephen).  Further analysis of the historical records, as well as comparison of the childhood health patterns to those of the adult segment of the community should help establish the genesis of these children at this urban Jerusalem monastery.

* This research was supported by the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the University of Notre Dame's Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts.


Top of page