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).

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

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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.

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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.”

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