Recovering the Stories of Children in the Past at SAA 2016 (Part I)

This past week, I have been lucky enough to be enjoying the sunshine of Florida, rather than the snow and freezing rain of Michigan at this year’s Society for American Archaeology Meeting. While there were many fantastic presentations and posters at the meeting (many of which were overlapping, sadly), I wanted to highlight one in particular because I think it is a topic that deserves more attention. This will be in two parts due to the length of the writeup!

When we talk about the past, there is an assumption that we are talking about adults. In the past, this usually meant adult males, with adult females considered to be their own separate conversation. While the gender/sex issue has been for the most part resolved and we recognize both in our research now, we still are primarily talking about adults. Age is important, and not just the biological age, but the social stage of life the individual is participating in because it structures their behavior and interactions with others. Think about the world around you- there are different expectations and patterns of behavior that we expect from a five year old, a married 35 year old, or a retired 70 year old. We need to begin critically thinking about children in the past- when did they become considered adults, what was the difference in behavior or expectations before reaching adulthood, and how is their experience different from that of adults?

In the symposium titled “ON THE MOVE: ARCHAEOLOGICAL APPROACHES TO CHILDREN AND CHILDHOOD”, childhood was explored through the physical remains and burials of both adults and children in the past.

Tracy Prowse—Patterns of Mobility during the Iron Age and Roman Periods in Apulia, Italy.

In her research regarding migration and mobility of populations in Roman Italy, Prowse found that the majority of texts and inscriptions relating to this phenomenon never mentioned children or women moving with the men. In order to determine whether this was happening, she compared two skeletal populations- the first was from Roman Vagnari, and dated from the 2nd to 3rd centuries CE, and the second was based on Iron Age sites from the same region dating from the 7th to 4th centuries BCE. She is able to do this by examining oxygen isotopes found in dental enamel in the 1st molar- when your teeth develop around 3 years old, the enamel traps oxygen isotopes from the water you are drinking. Your teeth become a record of where you lived when your teeth were developing. Based on this, she determined that of 45 individuals at Vagnari, only 4 were not born locally, and at the Iron Age sites, 6 of 20 individuals were not local. She argues that there is consistent evidence from this for childhood migration, due to a range of reasons from slavery, stationing of legions, government colonization, resettlement, persecution and more. She concludes that by using stable isotopes, we can identify women and children, and include them in the narrative about migration.

Holly Hunt-Watts—Children of the Revolution: The Rise of Rickets in Urban Societies in 19th-century England

The Industrial Revolution started around the mid 18th century, which caused a shift in labor of both adults and children. By 1750, 30% of children aged 10-14 working either in agriculture, mines or factories. Hunt-Watts examines 7 post-medieval sites across England, including 2000 individuals with variation in socio-economic status. She conducted an analysis of the different types of vitamin deficiencies found in the skeletons of children, and discovered that all social levels in this period experienced scurvy (vitamin C deficiency). However, the upper classes were more prone to rickets (vitamin D deficiency). In order to examine this further, she compares historical documents like medieval texts and even cookbooks against the skeletal data, and concluded that historical documents support that this issue became more common with wealthy classes during industrial period.

Jonny Geber—“Children in a Ragged State”: Seeking a Bioarchaeological Narrative of Childhood in Ireland during the Great Famine (1845–52)

Geber analyzes the skeletal remains and documentary evidence of children from the Kilkenny Union Workhouse, which was an institution meant to provide relief during the Great Irish Famine. The workhouse opened in 1842, and was overall a degrading situation that punished people for being poor. Geber assesses the skeletal remains for markers of famine and social conditions, growth retardation, high infant death and respiratory diseases- all point to poor health of mothers and children, as well as detrimental living conditions. He argues that suffering was institutionalized in the workhouses, and decisions like separating families from one another added a level of stress to the environment. He examines not only the physical, but the possible psychological and emotional trauma that would have been felt by the children in this period. Geber concludes that we need to examine events and institutions like this from a child’s perspective as they are often forgotten victims. The Great Irish Famine and the living conditions in the workhouse would have been damaging to their health- physically and emotionally.

Sian Halcrow, Nancy Tayles and Gail Elliott—The Bioarchaeology of Fetuses

Halcrow, Tayles and Elliott argue that fetuses are a relatively overlooked part of bioarchaeology, and we need to assess what information we can glean from their burials and remains. Health and mortality of the fetus, the unborn child, is important because it can give us insight into overall health of the population and the status of women. They argue that fetal/maternal health is one of the most sensitive measures of population health given increased energy requirements during pregnancy. We can examine dental enamel defects in their adult and baby teeth to see evidence for breastfeeding and stress. Additionally, we need to consider the grief and emotion behind the death of a fetus, and how mortuary treatment of these individuals varies from that of the general population. They conclude that although there is increased recognition in bioarchaeology for the importance of children, the potential of fetuses has not been explored, and can answer central questions of past population demography.

Stay tuned for part II tomorrow!


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