Where are the children?

Carenza Lewis, Preceptor in Archaeology at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and former member of Channel 4’s Time Team writes about evidence of - or lack thereof - children and childhood in the archaeological record.

Children are a thorny subject for archaeologists. That statement might be taken to refer to the near impossibility many of us face in attempting to achieve a reasonable work/life balance faced with the conflicting demands of families and a profession which is often more like a religious vocation that a nine-to-five routine. But actually it pertains to the fact that archaeological evidence for sub-adults is very difficult to find, identify, or understand. One of the most interesting conferences I’ve been to recently addressed exactly this issue.

Anyone working in a university archaeology department cannot fail to be aware of the vast number of conferences that one could go to: in the department at Cambridge, the notice boards are always brimming with announcements of forthcoming events in every possible part of the world on every imaginable topic. One could happily spend all one’s time just going from one conference to the next, but attractive as this might sound, most of the time, of course, I’m far too busy to attend more than a handful – usually ones I’ve been asked to speak at or have been involved in arranging.

But when, a few months ago, I saw an announcement for a conference on the archaeology of infancy and childhood, to be held in the University of Kent, I was immediately interested. As a parent whose research lies mainly in medieval rural settlement, I’ve long been struck by how rarely children feature in archaeological reports of village excavations of the Middle Ages – despite the fact that we know such places were full of children. I offered to talk at the conference about this, or about Time Team sites which have involved children – and ended up agreeing to do both. Normally, this would have been a fairly challenging undertaking, but in this case it was nearly made completely impossible, rather ironically, by my nine-year-old who broke both (!) arms, in three places, falling off his bicycle two weeks beforehand. Luckily, despite needing surgery, he healed quickly.

Roman child’s bracelet found by Time Team at Yaverland on the Isle of Wight, 2001.

It was actually the Time Team presentation, scheduled for the Saturday evening after eating, but before wine slot, which gave me the most trouble. This was partly because I’d intended to prepare it in the fortnight running up to the conference – during which I actually ended up spending most of my time being nurse! Mainly, however, it was because there really have been so few instances when Time Team sites have yielded any evidence pertaining to children – despite having dug more than 150 sites over the 13 years the series has been running. That in itself demonstrates the nature of the problem – evidence that can be firmly linked to children is rare. Of the scores of skeletons we’ve excavated, I could just about count the number of those that were children on the fingers of one hand. A Bronze Age boy, discovered near the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Winterbourne Gunner in Wiltshire; a young girl buried in the graveyard of the leper hospital near Winchester; a small baby interred within the hillfort at Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, and another popped into the ground beside the church at Nether Poppleton near York.

We have not done much better when it comes to finds: a Roman baby’s bracelet turned up at Turkdean in Gloucestershire, another on the Isle of Wight (see picture above), while items such as the bone die we found at Cirencester could have been played with by children – but equally well could have been used by adults.

Interestingly, it was one of the most tenuous links I talked about which stimulated the most animated discussion – the significance of smooth stones, usually white quartz, in relation to death or burial, particularly of children. This had been discussed by Mick Aston and myself at Flag Fen when several such stones stood out incongruously in the black peaty matrix surrounding a trackway leading to a low island surmounted by a barrow. The same idea cropped up again at Wittenham Clumps, where the baby’s head was surrounded by a halo of small, mostly smooth, light-coloured stones.

The invisibility of children in the archaeological record is by no means unique to Time Team. However, the last 15 years have seen a considerable increase in interest stimulated by the rise of feminist and gender archaeology, reviewed for this conference by Becky Gowland, which is beginning to improve our knowledge. Many post-graduate and post-doctoral researchers studying children spoke at the conference. The issue of the low numbers of children’s remains in cemeteries, which does not reflect the high child mortality rate normally found in pre-modern societies, was addressed by several contributors. Ann Haentjens presented data from the Attic Iron Age of Greece, where only a tiny proportion of recorded burials are of children, and Dawn McLaren talked about the lack of Bronze Age child burials in Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

Several explanations were offered for this invisibility of child remains, often ascribed in the past to the inability of smaller bones to survive in the ground. Jo Buckberry suggested that this is by no means invariably the case, but suggested instead that children’s graves, which are often shallower, are more likely to be disturbed: her work shows that the numbers of children can be dramatically raised by including disarticulated bones and charnel assemblages in analyses of cemetery populations.

In other instances, the absence of children can be seen to be due to their being buried in different places to adults. Sally Crawford showed how some early Christian child burials in places such Raunds and Worcester tended to cluster together within cemeteries. A link between child burial siting and watercourses or wet sites was raised by Marshall Becker, studying Etruscan Italy, and Grete Lillehammer discussing the stray find of five infant skulls in a bog in south-western Norway. Most poignantly, Eileen Murphy described the ‘Cilliní’ cemeteries in Ireland where stillborn and unbaptised babies were required to be buried, away from consecrated graveyards, well into the early part of the last century, emphasising the grief experienced by parents facing the loss of these children.

The differential treatment of dead newborns (which are often impossible to distinguish from stillbirths) within burial traditions was apparent in a range of other papers, including Raimund Karl, considering the Dürrnberg bei Hallein from the Late Iron Age period of Austria, where neonate burials are found not in cemeteries but within houses, and Mike Lally, looking at the southern British Iron Age.

Despite the relative paucity of skeletal evidence for children, it is still the case that these remains do provide the most tangible evidence for children in the past, and many speakers used this evidence to examine patterns of child mortality and child health. Tracy Prowse presented research from 1st to 3rd century AD Italy where, despite a sunny climate, 15% of children had rickets and the population was significantly shorter than in the C19th. Iraia Arabaolaza looked at 19th century Wolverhampton where 9% of juveniles suffered from rickets, but tooth enamel hypoplasia and cribra orbitalis were also prevalent, all pointing to the impact of high levels of dietary deficiencies and poor living conditions of Victorian urban industrial populations.

The proto tower house at Castle Carra, Co. Antrim, during excavation in 1995 under the direction of Declan Hurl. After it had gone out of use as a tower house, it was used as a ‘cillini’ cemetery, where unbaptised babies were buried, away from consecrated graveyards. Photo: Eileen Murphy.

In rather happy contrast, Stig Welindor reported on analyses of 17 milk teeth found in the walls of a log-house (1350-1650AD), showing them to be in perfect condition, with none of the enamel hypoplasia or cavities which would have indicated poor diet or childhood illnesses. These teeth, of course, may well have come from children who survived to adulthood.

Other papers also considered aspects of the nature and experience of childhood in the past using evidence other than skeletal remains. I looked for evidence for children’s play in the English medieval rural countryside by correlating descriptions of games in literature and art with excavated site plans of minor features within medieval villages, while Lynne McKerr looked for evidence for children’s toys and equipment from medieval Ireland, for which the lack of evidence is notably at odds which the importance given to the care of children in the 7th century law tracts.

Much light is also being shed on the experience of childhood by new scientific techniques such as stable isotope analysis: Mandy Jay presented unexpected results from Wetwang Slack in East Yorkshire which suggest that breastfeeding may have been avoided, while Pam Macpherson’s research on Anglo-Saxon sites from Newcastle on Tyne and Lincolnshire indicates that children moved around rather more than has previously been supposed, but that they were fed less in the way of animal protein – meat and dairy products – than adults from the point at which they were weaned until they entered puberty.

The question of the status of children was also examined by several contributors. The idea that children’s remains were treated casually or disrespectfully was rejected by all speakers who considered this issue, and several speakers stressed evidence showing parents to have cared deeply about their children and to have indulged childhood as a special stage of life. Sally Crawford highlighted instances of prestigious burials of children in Anglo-Saxon England including one at Raunds, where the only burial within the church is an infant, while Cynthia Bradley showed that a group of 20 children killed violently alongside other occupants of their settlement in 13th century Sand Canyon Pueblo in South West United States had (until their death) been part of a group occupying a religious centre. Traci Ardren, however, highlighted the more dubious benefits for children of having high status conferred upon them in her review of child sacrifice in ancient Meso-America. Children here were considered a particularly powerful sacrificial offering of food to the fertility gods, with the tears of the children’s parents considered a good sign, symbolising longed-for rain. Like Eileen Murphy, she stressed the agony of the grief suffered by the parents who lost their children. The importance of children, both to their parents and to their communities despite (and perhaps even because of) high mortality rates was a strong undercurrent of the conference.

All in all, it was an excellent weekend, and there were many other papers I haven’t space to mention here. However, what really came through all was the dynamism of this area of study. Children – and childhood – are, certainly, still difficult to understand from the archaeological record, but it is clear that progress is now being made. As much as anything else, it’s clearly important that the profile of children should be raised, so that the significance of small pieces of evidence can be recognised, and the presence and possible role of children considered more often by excavators and analysts of the archaeological evidence. Given that everyone who’s ever lived has once been a child (and that in the past as much as half the population never made it to adulthood), a majority of the humans who populated the planet in the past were in fact children.