The collection of papers in this special issue of Childhood in the Past edited by Francesca Fulminante showcase research on infancy and childhood with sophisticated theoretical and methodological approaches to this topic. This issue represents a significant contribution to understanding the role of children and childhood during the transition to urbanization in Europe through the lens of multiple approaches, including bioarchaeological, archaeological, cognitive developmental (palaeoanthropological), sociological and historical research on infants and children, using a variety of new analytical techniques. This issue moves chronologically from the consideration of cognitive development during prehistory to the nineteenth-century urban environment. Check it out!
Megan is a PhD student in the Department of Anatomy, University of Otago researching the historical experiences of infant death.
Tell us about your research
My PhD is focused on infant death in Dunedin, New Zealand between 1850 and 1940. I’m using historical resources as well as the physical memorialisation of these babies (gravestones, markers etc) to identify how parents chose to remember their lost child. There were massive changes in infant mortality rates, medical care and fertility during this time and I’m trying to discern if this had any effect on how infants were grieved for if they died.
What is it that drew you to this research?
I have always been interested in history and biology, and somehow I managed to find a field that lets me research both! When I completed my Honours project, which was research into the provenance of a set of infant remains, I really felt like I had more work to do so I applied for a PhD.
What are your career goals and aspirations?
Ultimately I want a career that lets me continue to learn, but what that career might be I’m not sure yet.
What are you most proud about so far in terms of your achievements?
Shining a light on some untold local stories. Women and children have typically been neglected in historical accounts, and my research is doing something to rectify this. While my focus is specifically on the infants, it really is a story of ordinary families going through something rather extraordinary (by modern standards). Some of the fathers that lost infants were prominent Otago men and while their life stories are well known, this is one aspect that is rarely talked about.
What is one thing that you have found surprising while researching your focus?
The idea that infants of the past were objects with no ability to affect the world around them! When reading literature on this subject, there seems to be an idea that in times of high fertility and high infant mortality, infants were somewhat replaceable and parents would not openly grieve for their lost child. In historic Dunedin, this is absolutely not the case! It’s clear that women and their families felt a wide range of emotions after the loss of a child, and the internment of these children reflects that.
What is one thing about your research you want people to take away with them?
Not to take for granted the advances we’ve made in hygiene and medicine! We enjoy the low maternal and infant mortality rate today because of advances in obstetric and paediatric medicine, antisepsis, vaccinations, and infant nutrition.
Personal Reflections By Amanda Hoogestraat, Twitter @AmehAnthro
On my recent tour of museums in the UK, I saw small reminders of children in the exhibits featuring past societies. Children were obviously a part of every community, but are underrepresented in museum collections. There is a museum devoted to childhood in both London and Edinburgh, but perhaps other museums should consider adding more children’s items to their collections for a more balanced representation of life in the communities it displays.
For many of the museums that had childhood material culture, shoes or cradles were the only items on view.
Four out of the 55 museums that I visited had children’s skeletal remains on display; usually infants and mostly with an adult skeletons nearby. Rarely did I see older children.
However, it was the toys that interested me the most; to see how the cherished play items were very similar to those of today.
I also observed how visiting children interacted with the exhibits, especially at museums not designed specifically for them. Some of these museums had created play areas pertaining to a display nearby.
Surprisingly, the British Motor Museum was a place that had children’s programs and school tours.
I think everyone enjoys seeing items from a childhood different from our own lives or from our own childhoods. It reminds us that across time and location, children were an integral part of the society.
Recently researchers have made an unexpected discovery of a mummified foetus while CT scanning a 2300-year-old mummy known as Ta-Kush currently held at the Maidstone Museum in Kent. This coffin was labelled, “A mummified hawk with linen and cartonnage, Ptolemaic period (323 BC – 30 BC).”
The high resolution CT scan results have recently been presented at the Extraordinary World Congress on Mummy Studies in the Canary Islands last month. The authors argue that the foetus was about 23-28 weeks gestation and had anencephaly as shown by underdeveloped skull bones.
To me, this begs the question as to whether the several other Egyptian ‘hawk’ mummies curated around the world are actually tiny babies. Further investigation of this baby and others will shed light on the social responses of grief and loss of those born too young to survive.
Watch here on YouTube Mummy ‘bird’ mystery
Contribution by Krista Amira Calvo @trowel_and_bone
At the beginning of the 20th century, the remains of 1500 girls and young women were recovered from the DeLiefde cemetery in Amsterdam. After preliminary literary research into the collection, I became intrigued. I felt their remains would tell a story that paralleled historical documentations of illness, social status, and the fate of orphans in the past. What I did not anticipate was the startling percentage of the individuals uncovered did not survive beyond the age of four.
From Amsterdam Het R.C. Maagdenhuis en het St. Elisabeth-gesticht by Ir.R. Meischke
The orphans that are the focus of my research, all females between the ages of two and 13 years, spent their final days in the Maagdenhuis Roman Catholic Orphanage for Girls from 1850-1900 (1). During my time spent in the lab with these orphans which number over 200 individuals, I was able to weave a narrative for the group of girls and young women who suffered greatly, and gain a more holistic view of care in the past in underfunded facilities that served as homes for the impoverished, orphaned and abandoned.
How did so many girls’ lives get cut short? In 19th century Netherlands it was common to lose one or both parents. Life expectancies were low, maternal mortality rates were high, and the population was plagued with epidemics of diseases such as smallpox and cholera (1). To address the growing number of orphaned children, the Dutch government passed a series of laws, one which ensured that any orphan under the age of 23 was placed in the care of a family member if one could be located (1). Family members were all too happy to bring an orphaned boy into the home, with their ability to someday provide for the family being a very appealing factor (1). However, this was not the case for far too many girls, leaving them abandoned and left to their own devices.
Place in society played a large role in the survival of the orphaned. The accessibility of better care due to high financial standing led an overall better quality of life and better survival rates. However, the orphans who were placed in underfunded institutions often suffered from malnutrition, rickets and other illnesses related to vitamin deficiencies, and infectious diseases such as leprosy (1). Diseases such as these leave markers on bone that can tell a story of hardship and suffering, and give us clues about health and community care in the past.
The standards of living in 19th century orphanages in the Netherlands were often atrocious. Poor hygiene conditions and tales of abuse weave a harrowing story of childhood experiences. This project was sobering, seeing that multitudes of imperative data that have historically been overlooked due to the lack of focus on children and young adults. The dearth of knowledge that could have otherwise been applied to current forensic casework involving children has left a void in methodology that must be filled in order to more accurately address life in the past on multiple levels (2).
From Amsterdam Het R.C. Maagdenhuis en het St. Elisabeth-gesticht by Ir.R. Meischke
Children are sensitive to their environment, and their remains leave many clues about population fertility, mortality, stress, and disease. My work attempts to continue to advance the bioarchaeology of childhood. We cannot make assumptions that children in the past had the same social experiences as they do in our current society. Thus, the bioarchaeology of childhood must be approached using both an assessment from the skeletal remains and the cultural context to create a better foundation for understanding care and the experiences of the young in the past.
 Beekink E, van Poppel F, Liefbroer AC. 1999. Surviving the loss of a parent in a
nineteenth-century Dutch provincial town. Journal of Social History, 32(3): 641-669
 Lewis, ME. 2007. The bioarchaeology of children: Perspectives from
biological and forensic anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Throughout history we have been obsessed with the ‘other’, the ‘weird’ and the wonderful. This is epitomised in the history of ‘freak shows’, which date back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century. From this time people with unusual physical characteristics often became objects of public curiosity and were shown throughout Europe and beyond. Some of the people shown had growth syndromes (e.g. dwarfism and gigantism), growth defects (e.g. ectrodactyly, or ‘split hand‘ / ‘cleft hand‘ and microcephaly), albinism, and the very rare syndrome of hypertrichosis, sometimes called “werewolf syndrome”, which results in excessive hair on the face and body.
One ‘object of curiosity’ is the “Boy of Bengal” whose heads remain on display at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of London. He was born in rural Bengal in the late 18th century. His parents exhibited him publically around India, and in private gatherings. Unfortunately the boy died at the age of four from a cobra bite.
During the 18th and 19th centuries there was an increase in medical interest in these conditions, which resulted in these people being studied, and sometimes displayed in medical forums. These people often continued to be objectified after their death through the preservation of their bodies, or parts of their bodies, in museums and clinical settings.
The boy’s grave was robbed and body dissected by as salt agent from the East India Company, and his skull was given to the the British surgeon Everard Home who had expressed interest in his condition.
This condition is now known as Craniopagus parasiticus, which is a form of parasitic twins. Parasitic twins form when a fertilised egg does not split properly, and one embryo maintains dominant development at the expense of its twin. This process is the same as the development of conjoined twins but there is an underdevelopment of one of the twins.
It could be argued that today there is still a type of grotesque fascination of ‘oddities’, evidenced with the interest that people have with these types of historic museum items such as the Boy of Bengal. We also see a continuation of the intense interest in people with unusual physical conditions today, prime examples include conjoined twins making world news and being the subjects in reality TV shows.