published on 08 January 2013
This paper stresses the importance of distinguishing between different categories of children in order to better understand their changing lives and their shifting relations with the adult world. The example is taken from the Mesolithic burial/settlement site of Skateholm at the southernmost coast of Sweden. By contrasting grave content and spatial arrangement of the site it is argued that the inhabitants recognised differences between infants (<1 year), younger children up to seven years, and older children between about eight to thirteen years. The children seem to have started to engage in the adult world by the age of seven or eight, and by the age of around fourteen years, their graves are inseparable from those of the adults. Individuals of the intermediate age-group, between the ages nine to thirteen, are completely missing among the burials. It is suggested that their absence is not singularly due to lower mortality rate, but rather that this age-span constituted a socially distinct transitional phase between childhood and adulthood.
The archaeology of children and childhoods has grown quite vast during the past decade. From previously having been a neglected subject the young ones are getting better represented in our narratives of the past (although yet limited in relation to other mainstream topics). Research on children and childhood has also matured in a methodological and theoretical sense. While the pioneer studies tended to take the concepts of ‘children’ and ‘childhood’ more or less for granted, more recent research recognises the quite substantial variations in how young individuals are perceived in different societies. The child is not as easily a defined category as it may seem at first glance. From a social point of view, there is no fixed age when ‘children’ become ‘adults’. Further, the content and meaning of ‘childhood’ is fluid and tends to vary according to, for example, gender, sex and lineage. When discussing social implications of age in prehistory, ‘children’ are perhaps better perceived in terms of a life course perspective that focuses on culture specific thresholds and stages in a person’s life. Such a perspective bypasses the problematic binary view of ‘children’ and ‘adults’ and allows a wider discussion of different children as well as the possibilities of multiple and parallel courses of life. In most modern societies chronological age is the chief aspect regulating a person’s life, which does not necessarily have to have been the case in small scale prehistoric communities. The different thresholds in a person’s life may rather depend on an intricate matrix of individual corporeal, mental and social properties. How such different facets intersect with, for example, sex/gender, lineage and status is normally a key to understanding a particular society as a whole. As such, a study of the first steps of the life course need not be particularistic and only concern children per se.
Journal of Childhood in the Past, No 5 (2012)