Uncovering childhood in museums

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.

Egyptian ‘hawk’ mummy is a human foetus with a fatal birth defect

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).”

Micro-CT scan shows the mummified stillborn human baby. Image: Maidstone Museum UK/Nikon Metrology UK

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

The coffin. Image: Western University

 

 

 

 

 

‘Freaks’ as museum exhibits: the case of the Boy of Bengal

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 handand 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.

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twin

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.

The notorious ‘baby murderer’ from New Zealand

One of the most high profile cases of infanticide was committed by Minnie Dean in the late 19th century, also gaining infamy as the only woman in New Zealand to receive the death penalty for her crimes. During my childhood I heard many different stories of her hideous acts, made even more pertinent given that I grew up in the same small Southland town that these crimes were committed 100 years earlier. The stories revolved around how she murdered infants by piercing their fontanelles (‘soft-spots’ on the top of their heads) with hairpins, concealed them in hat boxes, and disposed of them in rivers. Kids in the playground at our local school used to taunt others by saying, “watch out or Minnie Dean will get you!”

Minnie Dean (1844-1895) was a ‘baby-farmer’ who cared for infants and children in an informal adoption relationship in exchange for money. This type of work was attractive to lower income women in New Zealand at the time, and in other parts of the British Empire. Those she took into care were largely illegitimate children.

Minnie and her husband Charles had financial issues, with records of filing for bankruptcy. After a fire destroyed their home they lived in a very small twenty-two foot by twelve foot house. At any one time there could be up to nine children under the age of three in her care.

In 1889 a six-month-old infant died in her care, and two years later a six-week-old baby died. The inquest from the six-week-old-baby concluded that the death was from natural causes and the other children at her house at the time were well cared for but that their living conditions were inadequate. In an era of high infant mortality (about 100 per 1000 births in NZ), it isn’t surprising that that some of the children would die from illness.

Minnie started to gain even more police interest when it was found that she had been looking for more children to care, as well as attempting, unsuccessfully, to take out life insurance policies on some of the babies.

In 1892 the police took into their care a three-week-old who Dean had adopted from a single mother for £25. The baby was reported to be in a malnourished state.

Then in 1895 Minnie was seen boarding a train carrying a young baby and a hatbox. However, on the return trip she was reported to only have the hatbox. She was subsequently arrested and police searched her property and found the bodies of two babies, later identified as Eva Hornsby and Dorothy Carter, and the skeleton of an older boy (whom Dean later claimed had drowned). An inquest found that Dorothy Carter had died from an overdose of opiate laudanum, commonly used to calm babies at the time.

Before her death by hanging in August 1895, Dean wrote her own account of her life. In total, apart from her adopted children, she claimed to have cared for twenty-six children. Of these, five were found in good health after her arrest (figure below, and Esther Wallis, one of her adopted children), six had died in her care, and one had been given back to her parents. This leaves 14 children unaccounted for.

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There was, understandably, intense public interest around Minnie Dean’s case. Around the time of her convictions macabre dolls in miniature hat boxes were said to have been sold as souvenirs outside the Invercargill courtroom where Dean was tried.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 4.30.47 PM‘Minnie Dean dolls’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/minnie-dean-dolls, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 2-Oct-2014

Later, Minnie Dean’s own defence lawyer Alfred Hanlon wrote:

Sober, home-loving folk from end to end of the country shuddered … when the grim and ghastly story of Minnie Dean’s infamy was narrated by the prosecution. Imagine a being with the name and appearance of a woman boldly using a public railway train for the destruction of her helpless victims, sitting serene and unperturbed in a carriage with one tiny corpse in a tin box at her feet and another enshrouded in a shawl and secured by travelling straps in the luggage rack at her head.

 

After her conviction the New Zealand government made the process of foster parenting more regulated to stop tragedies like this happening again.

In 1994 Historian Lynley Hood published a book, Minnie Dean: Her Life and Crimes, which raises some questions surrounding the fairness of her trial and the facts in the case. Was she a victim of hypocrisy of Victorian society doing the dirty work of caring for unwanted and illegitimate children? One will never truly know, but her name remains part of New Zealand history and grisly folklore today.

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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.

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*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.