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Identifying infants and children in the archaeological record

Funerary practices offer one of the most direct means of access to social constructions of personal identity. If particular items are found to be buried only (or never) with infants or children, this forms an important part of our reconstruction of the profile of infancy or childhood in the particular society.

Note, though, how difficult it is to determine precise age of infant skeletal remains.

Note also that the objects in infant or child burials are direct evidence for the particular burial: they may have more to do with burial rites, than with objects ‘used’ in life by the children. See below on the problem of identifying the uses of many figurines.

Infants often appear absent from cemeteries. A range of historical and ethnographic parallels provide possible reasons for this. Scott 1999: 115-7 notes the practice in Roman Italy of burying the new-born under the eaves of the house. On p.117 she cites the ancient Greek practice of burying infants below the house, to enable their soul to enter the next child born to the household.

In the large late Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC) town at Lahun, Petrie uncovered infant burials in boxes beneath the floors of houses. There is no written evidence to account for this, and the historical and ethnographic parallels can only make us aware of the range of possible social and individual motivations behind the practice. Baby burials have also been recorded at the New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC)settlement at Deir el-Medina, on the West Bank at Thebes.

Meskell 1999


Birth mortality rates

Death of women and babies at birth was very probably far more common in ancient times than at present. Consider the following statistics cited by Scott 1999, 30-32:

Present day mortality rates for women at childbirth: 1 in 15 (Africa); 1 in 50,000 (Norway)
Present day mortality rates for new-born infants: 9 per 1000 in Western Europe; 100-250 per 1000 in Chile, India and Zambia
Estimated mortality rates for new-born infants in early medieval England: 100 per 1000



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