Introducing short interviews with SSCIP members featuring bioarchaeologist Neha Dhavale

I just posted a short interview on the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past website with my PhD student Neha Dhavale researching infant and child growth during the intensification of agriculture in Southeast Asia:


To showcase the research and the multidisciplinary nature of SSCIP we will be featuring short interviews with our members. Our membership’s research covers a variety of approaches to the study of childhood in the past, from osteology, archaeology, history, literary studies, sociology, psychology and more, and includes all different time periods and places in the world. In these interviews we aim to cover the breadth of our members from postgraduate students to senior academics in the field.



Our first interviewee is Neha Dhavale, who is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Otago and has very recently joined the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past.

Q. Tell me a little bit about your research?

For my PhD I am investigating childhood skeletal growth at the prehistoric site of Ban Non Wat, Northeast Thailand. I am interested in exploring the question of health change with the intensification of agriculture over the time period from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. Infant and child growth is a particularly sensitive indicator of health or stress in the past of whole populations. The general bioarchaeological model of health change with the intensification of agriculture posits that there was deterioration in health over time. I am particularly interested in this research question as recent work by my supervisor (Sian Halcrow) and others have found that in Southeast Asia there is little evidence for deterioration in health during the intensification of agriculture.

Q. How did you get into your field of research and why?

As a part of my Master’s degree in Archaeology at Deccan College in Pune, India, I focused on assessing the health and disease of a medieval Indian skeletal sample from Hansi, North India. While assessing the children from this site, I developed an interest in exploring childhood health in prehistoric contexts.

Q. Why did you join SSCIP?

As a young researcher in the field of childhood bioarchaeology, membership of SSCIP provides me with a good platform to engage with scholars from different disciplines researching children.

I have already gained benefits from SSCIP through attending the recent ‘For the Love of Death’ conference, Philippines, which was partly sponsored by SSCIP (see previous story here). At the SSCIP session on the osteoarchaeology of juveniles, I had the opportunity to share my work with other academics researching children from archaeological contexts, and got very useful feedback from people in the field.

Q. What is on the future horizon for your research?

After I finish my doctoral study I intend to continue studying childhood health in the past. In particular I would like to explore how the changing social definition of childhood and cultural behaviour affected children in the past.


Source: Introducing Short Interviews with SSCIP Members

I think the reason why I am scared to write this story on gender discrimination in academia is precisely why it is needed

—– Since posting this I’ve been asked by numerous people for a hashtag so they can share their own stories: #NoMoreAcademicSexism —–

I’ve been thinking and worrying about how to write this story for quite some time.

This is for fear of backlash from writing a personal story for lack of anonymity and from general anxiety about my particularly bad experience of discrimination over the past couple of years. I also fear negative responses to writing a feminist story or critique, which I have experienced in the past when posting online. Gender- or sex-discrimination and sexism are important issue is in academia, and have been highlighted recently through major news stories of overt discrimination and sexism, especially in science. An example of a story that has received major attention is Nobel Scientist Tim Hunt stating in his keynote for a conference that women in laboratories “fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” Gender-related discrimination is not the only type of bias that plagues academia, and discrimination related to age, colour, sexuality, and disability exist, and often intersect with each other.

There is a general consensus that women are underrepresented in academia in senior positions because of sexism and sex discrimination. Many women (and men) in academia also feel that if they speak up about sex discrimination that it will have negative repercussions for them. But why should it? Feminism isn’t a dirty word. Feminists do not hate men, they are not “feminist killjoys” whining about every good thing that may happen to men. Feminists are aware that there is inequality between the sexes and attempt to resolve this. Full-stop.

I have forced myself to get over this anxiety of doing this story, or more correctly to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. To offset this fear somewhat, instead of writing about my experiences in story form and therefore risking anonymity, I want to share a list of observations and events that have occurred to others and myself in academia, which indicate gender-discrimination or sexism, and sex-related bullying. These instances happened at academic institutions in New Zealand and internationally. A lot of these revolve around pregnancy, and motherhood, a time when sex discrimination becomes most apparent for women. I am not including all of the stories I have heard as it would make this piece too long! So although stories on sexism in academia such as that of Tim Hunt may seem like isolated events, they are not. I haven’t gone out and asked for these stories, these have simply been relayed to me in passing, so I don’t think that I have a biased view of gender-bias! Interestingly, for a lot of the cases it is women who are being discriminatory.

Some experiences of sexism and sex discrimination in academia:

  • A woman kicked off a large research fieldwork project for being pregnant.
  • Someone putting a cover over a women breastfeeding in an academic common room without her approval.
  • A woman being discouraged to make a complaint when she felt sex discrimination was occurring.
  • Being called a bitch for not smiling and saying hello to a male work colleague and getting no apology because there was “no evidence that it happened”
  • A woman told to step down permanently from an academic committee because of maternity leave.
  • A candidate being asked her marital status during an interview for a postdoctoral position.
  • A woman being continually asked if she wanted to continue on an external university women’s organisation committee after having a baby.
  • Having a Departmental ‘policy’ without wider consultation of staff inhibiting children entering the premises.
  • A woman being discouraged from bringing children to a marae (Māori meeting place) visit, when it was culturally totally appropriate.
  • Women being called unkind and rude for behaviours that are tolerated if men do them.
  • Junior male colleagues with little track record being given precedence for academic committee positions over women who do have the track record.
  • Women at a University women’s leadership course being told, “you need to shake hands [at upcoming event] as this is what men do”.
  • People gossiping that a potential candidate for a job may have been in the early stage of pregnancy, and this was viewed negatively in terms of her ability to do the job.
  • A colleague of a pregnant academic informing the Head of Department about the pregnancy before she was required to do so based on her work contract.
  • A PhD student being asked to finish her degree before her baby was due when she was only very early in her candidature and hadn’t completed her required one year long clinical postings.
  • A female student hearing sexist and homophobic jokes most days during a long period of fieldwork.

I want to say that I am very thankful for very supportive mentors, and many good colleagues and support staff. My PhD supervisor was extremely supportive of my family and I during my studies and later as a colleague. I have also seen very good practice by some leaders at my University. For example, a job selection panel chair reminded people to allow for “breaks” in people’s career related to childcare responsibilities and that this should not be held against them when assessing their ability for the job. I have also had good support from a couple of senior academic men in the Department, who sympathise that being a parent and an academic is not the easiest of tasks.

If only the good experiences outweighed the bad. My hope is that in the future my daughters don’t have to experience this type of discrimination in their careers.


The baby ‘helping’ me clean and reconstruct a late Iron Age burial of a newborn infant, from the site of Non Ban Jak, Northeast Thailand (taken by my 10-year-old daughter)

SSCIP session on the osteoarchaeology of juveniles at the recent For the Love of Death conference, Philippines

Simon Mays and I just did a short story on the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past sponsored session on juvenile bioarchaeology at the For the Love of Death conference held at the University of Philippines. Here is a synopsis of the conference and session, which included my PhD student Neha Dhavale’s work on infant and child growth and the intensification of agriculture in prehistoric Thailand.


Dr Simon Mays has just come back from a successful osteoarchaeology conference organised by the University of the Philippines. We share his comments about the conference and the SSCIP sponsored session.

“Last week I attended a two-day conference in Manila, entitled ‘For the Love of Death: Human Osteoarchaeology in South-East Asia and the Pacific’, organised by Rebecca Crozier and the Archaeological Studies Programme of the University of the Philippines.  There were 20 oral presentations and eight posters from workers from nine different countries. SSCIP sponsored a session of four oral presentations on the osteoarchaeology of juveniles. The first of these, authored by Natthamon Kongkasuriachai of Chang Mai University, dealt with an important group of prehistoric cave burials from Thailand. Jessica Pena, of the University of the Philippines, studied taphonomic changes in immature skeletal remains from a cave site in the Philippines. A paper authored by Adam Lauer, of the University…

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There needs to be a cultural shift to accommodate children at conferences, and here are some ways to achieve this

Why are children at conferences such an important issue?

It is well known that women are disadvantaged at conferences. Women are generally underrepresented at academic meetings, and research has shown that they are less likely to be invited speakers and in other positions of leadership such as chairing sessions, due to their inaccessibility into men’s research networks.

Recently I have seen an increasing number of stories and comments about the problems that caregivers face when going to academic meetings, and some suggestions to create opportunities for caregivers to attend local and international conferences. Clearly accessibility of conferences is an equity issue, with the ‘burden’ of childcare often falling on women. You may find that your parental leave is over (if you are in a country or institution that has maternity leave), however, it remains very difficult for caregivers to leave their infants and children until they are older. Being unable to attend conferences is extremely disadvantageous for women in their academic progression. Conferences are a way to promote your research, to get feedback on your work, to explore the latest advances in the field, and most importantly to engage with colleagues and form relationships that can often lead to collaborations and other research and service opportunities.


Although this equity issue is becoming more visible, in reality, we have a long way to go to break down the barriers for caregivers to attend conferences.


The best conference attendance with one of my children was a small Wenner-Gren supported workshop on Childhood in the Past held in Galway, Ireland. When I received the invitation to be a participant I told the organisers that I was expecting a baby in three months time and she would be 6 months old when the conference came around. This was no issue and the workshop organisers were very supportive.


Logistically and financially conferences are very difficult for caregivers. In my excitement on the invitation to the Wenner-Gren workshop I didn’t quite remember the challenges I had traveling with the first baby on my own. It was a total of 45 hours of travel from New Zealand to Ireland, with about 30 hours being in the air. Unfortunately, Emirates did not seem to give preference to babies being in the seats that bassinets can be attached, and for some reason unbeknown to me the travel agent had not requested that seat, and I was told at check-in that these were not available to me. At least I had a sling that my baby could sleep in on my front. Needless to say I am NEVER flying with Emirates again.


The conference was amazingly inclusive of me my baby. I think this worked for two main reasons: it was small and I could look after her while being in the workshop room with her, and the group of women were all very supportive.





Our Wenner-Gren Workshop Attendees, Ireland, October 2014, Photo courtesy Jaime Koshyk



The ‘grandmother’ of the Archaeology of Childhood, Kathryn Kamp, with my daughter at the Wenner-Gren Workshop, Ireland, October 2014, photo courtesy Jaime Koshyk


When my youngest daughter was about 12 weeks old I attended the inaugural Early Career Meeting and workshops organised by the New Zealand Royal Society in Wellington, about a 2 hour flight from my hometown. Personally I gained got a lot out of the conference through the interactive workshops and discussions. I must admit that during the keynotes and lectures when the baby was awake I spent a lot of time standing in the corridor peaking through the backdoor of the conference room swaying a windy and unsettled baby. Other than one well-known woman in the New Zealand science community who approached me and gave her form of ‘support’ by simply saying “well done” and walking off, what struck me was that during all the workshops we had on mentoring, research development, and the research journey, with prominent people talking about women in science and academia in general, it was only at the end of the second day that one of the speakers dared to talk about the “Elephant in the Room” and referred to the baby in the audience. This woman talked about her “broken career” with multiple maternity absences and childcare responsibilities and the obstacles that this posed for her, including the fact that she didn’t have a chance to attend many conferences for years.


Traveling and attending conferences is hard with children and it is a gender equity issue that isn’t recognised enough. Although inclusive conferences won’t cause an overall cultural shift in sexism within academia, there are certain ways to lessen this significant obstacle for women and caregivers. Here are some points that conference committees and organisers may consider:


  • Have your conference on weekdays. This has also recently been proposed by Victoria Bateman an economics historian using the #endweekendconference hashtag. Having a weekday conference means that for the local participants their normal childcare arrangements are available.
  • If you are organising a bigger conference look into offering free or user-pays childcare at or near the venue. Also make sure that the burden of other babysitting duties doesn’t fall on female graduate students. This is an equity issue in itself, with the burden of care and pastoral roles in academia being held by women. Also as a conference goer don’t be afraid to ask about childcare options.
  • As well as offering student awards and grants for conference attendance, offer family care grants to help researchers offset the cost of childcare. An excellent example of this has been instituted by the American Association of Physical Anthropology’s Committee on Diversity Women’s Initiative offering the Family Care Award Committee for Diversity for their 2016 conference.
  • Include in your advertising and programmes that you are a baby and family-friendly conference. This is a very simple, but effective way that you can encourage the attendance of caregivers.
  • Make sure that the accommodation you recommend is family friendly.

A couple of years ago, I was staying with my eldest daughter who was eight years old in Manchester, UK,  at the recommended conference accommodation, which was a Hall of Residence. After staying there for 2 nights I was told by management that I had to leave as they didn’t allow children in the building due to “safety issues”. I could only find alternative accommodation miles away from the University so I couldn’t interact with any of the other conference goers in the mornings or early evenings and ended up paying over 600 pounds for alternative accommodation and transport to and from the conference. I’ve have, however, had very good experiences at other University Halls. For example, Grey College at Durham University was very accommodating of my daughter and I when I stayed there while on a research visit.

  • When organising a conference venue consider their facilities for babies, e.g. are there baby changing facilities or separate areas that can be used for caregivers and babies?




Infanticide in the archaeological record: sense or sensationalism? (Or: No, I’m not an ‘over-emotional’ mother and archaeologist)

A cursory look through the bioarchaeological literature for explanations of infant death in the past may leave you with a view that infants were being purposefully killed and buried in community cemeteries or simply tossed away in high numbers (e.g. Mays 1993, Mays and Eyers, 2011, Smith and Kahila, 1992).


But what is the likelihood that these accounts are accurate? Here I want to take an analytical look at the bioarchaeological evidence and arguments for infanticide. Some of my views on childhood in the past have been criticised for being clouded by my status as a mother within a ‘Western’ culture. Sometimes I feel that my interpretations are dismissed and put down to my ‘personal’, ‘irrational’, ‘hyper-emotional’, ‘ethnocentric’ thoughts on infancy. One example of this type of experience was at a conference when a senior academic after viewing my poster ‘mansplained’, “you must realise that childhood wasn’t a rosy experience like it is now where you come from. They weren’t wrapped up in cotton wool!”. I wonder if he would have said that if my infant wasn’t attending the conference, the result of no childcare options for participants (dockristy touches on this issue of inclusive conferences for caregivers in her recent blog post).


Infanticide is the intentional killing of infants. Legally, “infanticide” can refer to the deliberate killing of any infant under the age of 12 months (Kellet, 1992). Here I use the term for intentional infant killing around the time of birth, as this is the time in which it usually occurs. Infanticide has been practised in a wide range of cultures through time, and has been argued in some anthropological texts to be an adaptive strategy to environmental, economic, and social circumstances since the Pleistocene era (Hausfater and Hrdy, 1984:xxix).


Common methods for disposing of unwanted children in non-Christian cultures were exposure or drowning without subsequent burial or with covert burial (reviewed in Gilmore and Halcrow, 2014). Some of the motives documented for infanticide include poverty, and if a baby was born with a physical deformity or was “weak”. The sex of infants was also an important factor in infanticide practice for many cultures.


What evidence are these bioarchaeological studies using to inform their interpretations of infanticide? For most papers their main evidence cited for infanticide is a peak rate of mortality around the age of full-term gestation (the perinatal period of about 38-41 weeks gestation) (e.g. Mays 1993, Mays and Eyers, 2011, Smith and Kahila, 1992).*


However, we know from modern age-at-death information that it is normal to see a high rate of infant death at around full-term gestation (see Halcrow et al. 2008 for a review of this evidence). Birth is the most crucial time in a baby’s and mother’s life. Birth and the first few days of life are a dangerous time for a baby with the risk of mortality being extremely high (Kelnar et al., 1995:1). Birth complications, maternal health factors and the risk of disease are likely to have increased the incidence of perinatal deaths and stillbirths in the past. Postpartum dangers include trauma, pneumonia due to infection of the amniotic cavity (Redfern, 2007:185), and respiratory distress syndrome, particularly for pre-term or low birth-weight perinates, owing to the immaturity of the lungs. Environmental hazards for the newborn include infections, bathing in contaminated water, and tetanus due to the use of dirty instruments (Kelnar et al., 1995:6-8, Redfern, 2007:185).


Unsurprisingly, this high rate of infant death around the time of birth has also been found in the archaeological record throughout the world and during different time periods. In the majority of the prehistoric Southeast Asian sites I have worked on we find a high peak of mortality occurring around the time of birth. Other sites with this type of age distribution include Argolid in the Aegean (Angel, 1971), Roman period Britain (Mays, 1993), Southeast Europe (Boric and Stefanovic, 2004), mediaeval and post-mediaeval England (Lewis and Gowland, 2007), post-contact indigenous populations in North America (Owsley and Jantz, 1985), Roman period Egypt (Tocheri et al., 2005), and many more. Were all these cultures at these different time periods killing their infants and then burying them overtly within community cemeteries? I think not. I am not arguing that infanticide never existed in the past. However, these were often discrete events with the dead babies disposed of covertly.


IMG_0879Probable mother and newborn death from the ‘Neolithic’ site of Khok Phanom Di, Southeast Thailand. This site had a infant death representation of over 40% of the cemetery sample.

P1010598A ‘foetal’ (preterm) birth from the site of Ban Non Wat, Bronze Age, Northeast Thailand. If a live birth, this baby wouldn’t have lived for long after birth because of its immaturity.


One of these bioarchaeological papers that has interpreted the practice of infanticide is based on the Yewden Roman villa site at Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, England, which became somewhat of an archaeological “celebrity”, showcased by the BBC in 2010 (Mays and Eyers, 2011). The Hambleden site has been identified as a sophisticated “two corridor” Roman villa (Percival, 1990:531). It was first excavated in 1912 by Alfred Heneage Cocks, who reported the discovery of 103 burials, 97 of which were small infants, buried under courtyards or walls on the north side of the site (Cocks, 1921). The infant bones were recently rediscovered in a museum archive after almost a century.


Mays and Eyers (2011) have compared the perinatal age-at-death distribution pattern to other sites that have been interpreted to have an ‘infanticide’ type mortality profile. Other than that there is nothing in the mortuary or archaeological information to suggest that infanticide was probable. The burials at Hambleden are inconsistent with what is known about Roman infanticide practices. As discussed, exposure or drowning were the most usual methods employed, in which case we might expect to find infant bones as haphazard scatters in middens, remote areas of the landscape, or in wells or waterways as has been the case in Scandinavia (Wicker, 1998:215).


An understanding of the historical and ethnographic information on infanticide practices and burial, the historical or other contextual information associated with the site, infant burial practices, and mortality pattern data information is essential for assessing the likelihood for infanticide. It remains that the most parsimonious explanation for cemeteries with a peak of infant death around full-term are the result of a normal age-at-death pattern.


Why then is there a preoccupation or fascination with this idea of infanticide in the past? Were people in the past seen to be of lower moral status and therefore more likely to kill their babies? Could this continued focus on arguments of infanticide stem from an anthropological legacy of the 19th century of exploring ‘dark’, ‘primitive’ cultures, who were seen to lack intelligence and emotion?


Certainly more critical engagement with the literature on infanticide motives, practices, contextual burial information, and medical literature on the causes and timing of normal infant death offers a good approach to review evidence of infant death in the past. Even a mother with a mind ‘clouded’ by breastfeeding hormones and a ‘rosy’ view of childhood can look at the empirical evidence.


*Smith and Kahila (1992) also include preterm and post-perinatal infants in their “perinate” age category. The preterm infants probably died a natural death, as is likely without modern medical intervention. In historical and modern accounts, infanticide often occurs soon after birth, so the individuals who died in the post-perinatal period were also less likely to be the victims of infanticide.


NOTE: Part of this blog post has been taken from our work in the following papers (all references cited can be found within these publications):

Gilmore, H. and S. E. Halcrow (2014). Interpretations of infanticide in the past. J. Thompson, M.P. Alfonso-Durruty and John Crandell (eds). Tracing Childhood: Bioarchaeological investigations of early lives in antiquity. Florida: University of Florida Press. 123-138.

Halcrow, S. E., N. Tayles and V. Livingstone (2008). “Infant death in prehistoric Southeast Asia” Asian Perspectives. 48 (2): 371-404.

See also Gowland et al. (2014) who offer an excellent re-evaluation of evidence for infanticide in Roman Britain.

Gowland, R. L., A. Chamberlain, & R. C. Redfern (2014). “On the brink of being: re-evaluating infanticide and infant burial in Roman Britain” Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 96: 69-88.

My work with babies – today and from prehistory

I often hear phrases such as: “I don’t know how you do it” and “your children must be very flexible with your job”. These well-meaning remarks often play on my anxiety as a mother and an academic who has the added challenge of having to undertake fieldwork and data collection overseas. I study human remains from archaeological sites and have worked in Thailand since 2002 and also in Laos, Cambodia and Chile. Because all the skeletal material from these projects are curated locally I do most of my fieldwork and data collection overseas.

I have just come back home to New Zealand after a stint in Northeast Thailand doing data collection from infants and children from an Iron Age site with my two children in tow, a 22-month-old and 10-year-old. Most of my research in bioarchaeology involves working with infants and children. Just as this age group are sensitive indicators of population health today, so too are they good indicators of cultural and health change in the past.

As a parent, I need to balance my professional work with childcare, which for me means packing up my two children for weeks or months on end and re-introducing them to the different languages, cultures, foods, smells, and exotic flora and fauna!

This really is a great opportunity for my children to experience other cultures and languages, but presents some rather major challenges for both me and them. This means leaving family and friends and sometimes missing school, and sporting and our own cultural events. For example, this year we spent Christmas in Thailand, which was of a non-event in a way.

Here are some photos from the early days of my fieldwork in Thailand at the archaeological site of Ban Non Wat, Non Sung Province, Northeast Thailand, which has an unusually long time span from early agricultural development through to the late metal ages (3,800-1,500BP).


Excavation of a ‘Bronze’ Age child from Ban Non Wat, 2003


Excavation of an ‘Iron’ Age adult burial, 2003


Over several excavation seasons at Ban Non Wat a total of about 700 individuals were excavated with about one-third of these aged less than 15 years. This site is very important for documenting the biological and demographic changes that were occurring in the region with the intensification of agricultural practices. The general bioarchaeological model of health change posits that with the introduction of agriculture there is a deterioration of health as a result of the increase of sedentism and population density, leading to more insanitary living conditions. However, my work and others from mainland Southeast Asia is challenging this Neolithic Transition model, which is mainly based on bioarchaeological investigation in North America and Europe. What we are finding is evidence for a very late and swift heath and demographic transition in the Iron Age. This is particularly exciting as it fits nicely with archaeological evidence at this time period for an intensification of wet rice agriculture, and changes in water management and socio-economic systems.

My recent data collection season was focused on the the site of Non Ban Jak, which is geographically very close to Ban Non Wat. This site is particularly important because it presents the best preserved collection of Iron Age burials in the region and has a very large proportion of infants represented (potentially half of the skeletal collection). At present we have over 145 individuals represented at this site, and have just secured significant funding for future excavation and analyses of the human and cultural material at this site.

The baby was petrified of the nanny for much of the time this season working on these remains, so my work plan had to be flexible. I worked solidly during her afternoon naps and the evenings, and when she was distracted by the 10 year-old. Sometimes she ‘helped’ washing stones beside me.


The baby ‘helping’ me clean and reconstruct a late Iron Age burial of a newborn infant from the site of Non Ban Jak, Northeast Thailand. Photo by Paige Halcrow (10 years old).

With the extension of research at this site, and further research opportunities planned in the region, my fieldwork with infants and children – both past and present – will continue into the future.

Over the years I have developed a general response for when people ask me how I do it. I reply: “It is challenging, but I wouldn’t change my family or my work for the world.”