An Archaeology of Children:
Finding Childhoods in the Past
Back in 2000, I was asked by an academic publisher to write a book about the archaeology of children. This followed on from my 1999 Archaeopress publication, The Archaeology of Infancy and Infant Death. Various events put that on hold.
In 2016 I redrafted my manuscript and wrote a completely new book, An Archaeology of Children: Finding Childhoods in the Past.
Below is a preview of the Contents Page and part of the Introduction. If you would like to download or buy a paperback copy, it will available in 2017, not via a traditional publishing house at an eye-watering amount, but inexpensively online.
An Archaeology of Children:
Finding Childhoods in the Past
INTRODUCTION: LOOKING INTO THE PAST
PLAY AND EARLY LEARNING
LEARNING AND ‘APPRENTICESHIPS’ IN PREHISTORY
FORMAL EDUCATION IN EARLY CIVILISATION
DEATH AND BURIAL
CONCLUSIONS: CHILDREN AND CULTURAL INNOVATION
LOOKING INTO THE PAST
From prehistory to antiquity, there are many ways of finding children in the past. The historical element is the easy part, as two centuries of digging up the past around the globe have provided us with a wealth of written records on tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchments and inscriptions, to complement the surviving manuscripts of the ancient writers. Many of these historical records tell us quite directly about the lives of children of different social classes, in different periods, in different places, from ancient Mesopotamia to King Alfred’s England. We see complaints about the decline of teaching in schools and young tearaways causing havoc, in contexts as old and diverse as ancient Greece, Rome and medieval Wessex. The written record lights up the past – but is only one elite aspect of our knowledge of it.
Finding children in the archaeological record is a much more difficult prospect. Only the burial record provides a source of evidence that is anywhere near straightforward. The identification of children’s bones is a relatively secure activity; but trying to link any finds in children’s graves to the children themselves can become a problem fairly quickly. Did the grave goods actually belong to the child? Were they placed in the grave by the parents, and perhaps had nothing to do with the child in life? Other questions test the archaeologist forensically, such as determining cause of death – sacrifice may be recognisable, but death by infanticide can be hard to distinguish from death by natural causes.
The archaeologists who study children and childhood in the past are all too well aware of how their own biases, preconceptions and experiences can influence the interpretation of excavated finds such as grave goods. This issue of interpretation affects the study of all artefacts and material culture that may or may not be associated with children. How do we identify toys, and pets, for example? What are we to make of miniatures, such as miniature figurines of people and animals, in the archaeological record? What evidence should we be looking for to identify the lives and activities of children – how do we find children in prehistory and antiquity? And how we find girls, as distinguished from boys?
The archaeologists who have been working in this field in the past 25 years have come up with many ingenious ways in which the presence and the lived lives (and deaths) of children can be identified, from detecting children’s fingerprints to finding their fossilised faeces to analysing skeletal DNA. It is fitting to be able to pay tribute in this book to the archaeologists whose work on the archaeology of childhood has brought this profoundly important element of the discipline finally to its deserved prominence.
Persuasive interpretations have followed from these archaeologists’ analyses, allowing insights into how children learnt and developed and contributed to their families and communities from early prehistory up until late medieval times. It has become clear that for children especially, learning is paramount, and part of their social existence, whether it be through play, education and work. Learning about the world and their own identity is both the cause and the effect of the child’s engagement with toys and other material culture, and with cultural systems such as schools and apprenticeships. In a sense, material culture (such as artefacts and buildings) and cultural systems (such as traditions of gender and class expectations) create the child and its childhood.
This in turn has allowed a number of sophisticated and important narratives to emerge about the role of children in the past, and what their lives and deaths meant to their families and societies. For some children, their lives were short and their deaths were deliberate. Some children died young of natural causes, and were carefully buried by their families. All these deaths had social meaning and recent archaeological, forensic and criminological analyses now mean that they all offer insights into the world of the past.
Archaeologists have focused successfully on how the socialisation of children and the activities they undertook and the work they did not only played a massive part in how societies functioned and evolved, but also how they had an impact on how the archaeological record itself was formed. The fact that children have agency – the ability to affect the world around them and to affect how they live in it – means that they too affected the deposition of objects in the places in which they lived, from beads and shells to coins and pottery to animal bones and fruit pips. The lives of children are a weft of voices woven into the past which are now being seen and felt, and which make sense of the archaeology we have.
This book tells this story.