International Children’s Day: Children and the Past

This International Children’s Day, we take a quick look into the archaeology of childhood, and the study of childhood in the past.

The study of children in the past

Children are an important part of any society, but it’s only very recently that the archaeology of children has become its own distinct field. In the late 1980s and 1990s, archaeologists began to realise that the absence of children as a social category in studies of past societies was a limiting factor. It was from this realisation that the archaeology of childhood was born, and archaeologists began to repopulate our picture of the past with a group which had previously been under-studied and under-represented. The study of children in the past is now a fast-growing discipline.

It’s not without its difficulties, however.

Even the briefest dip into scholarship on the subject will reveal a focus on the ‘invisibility’ of children in the archaeological record, and the limitations this can cause. Graves and human remains, for example, are a valuable source of information for archaeologists. But in the majority of cases, infants and children can appear to be absent from the burial record – or at least significantly under-represented. Many reasons have been suggested for this. Children may have been treated differently from adults, and buried elsewhere. Their skeletons are less robust, and may not survive as well. Children may have been buried in shallower graves, allowing these burials to be eroded away or damaged by ploughing or building work.

Despite difficulties such as these, which can require a shift in methodology, the study of children and childhood in the past is blossoming, and has a great deal of information about past societies to reveal.


What can children tell us about past societies?

In any society, childhood is the period where a culture’s values, morals and views are instilled. At the most basic level, the study of childhood is the study of society. In our modern, western society, childhood is primarily a time of play and learning. In past societies, however, concepts of children did not necessarily match our own – nor did associated tasks, activities and social responsibilities.  The role of children in physical labour or tasks means that the archaeology of childhood may be the archaeology of subsistence or labour. The role of children in the family means that that the archaeology of childhood may be the archaeology of morals, values, and social status. It may be the archaeology of household economy, or of certain household tasks or activities which were almost entirely the remit of children.

The archaeology of children and  childhood gives us insight not only into the lives and experiences of individuals, but into family, household, and society as a whole. It’s vital to the understanding of any past society.

Childhood in the Past Monograph Series

The CHILDHOOD IN THE PAST monograph series is a collection of books from the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past, and published by Oxbow Books. The series covers any aspect of childhood in the past, with a wide chronology ranging from prehistory to the late medieval period and beyond. To find out more, click on the cover images.




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