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






Stressed-out mums and demanding children: understanding the maternal – infant interface at the beginnings of agriculture

Modern society is rooted in a dependency on agriculture. Although this is often thought to be a positive human development, the transition to agriculture-based societies had substantial negative impacts on human health, many of which continue to affect millions of people today. The bulk of these negative impacts are borne by the most vulnerable in society – mothers and children.

Recent research in the Arica region in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is giving us new insight into how the roots of this transition to agriculture in prehistory affected human society, in particular mothers and their infants. Our research collaboration between the University of Otago in New Zealand, the University of Tarapacá Chile, and Durham University in England is using a multidisciplinary approach to reveal a picture of stresses associated with food shortages, and their possible connections to premature death and vitamin deficiencies in newborn babies.


The Atacama Desert is well-known for the earliest evidence in the world for deliberate mummification of the dead, predating Egyptian mummies by more than two millennia. The intricate funerary rituals associated with the pre-agricultural Chinchorro people of this area were largely focused on infants and children. This has led some to hypothesise that it was a social response to high rates of foetal, infant and maternal death in these populations. Historically, archaeological research in the Atacama has focused on these pre-agricultural mummies, but recent research has highlighted periods of increasing infant mortality later in prehistory – during the transition to agriculture. The ultimate causes of this increase in stress, however, have eluded archaeologists.

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The project took a two-pronged approach to this problem, studying changes to diet using chemical signatures in bones and teeth, and assessing their health impacts by looking for signs of pathology on the skeletons of early agricultural populations. Published recently in the International Journal of Paleopathology, and covered here, an Early Formative Period site just transitioning to agriculture (3,600-3,200 years before present) showed that all the infants have evidence of scurvy (nutritional vitamin C deficiency). Interestingly, so did an adult female found buried with her probable unborn child. First author Anne Marie Snoddy says “In addition to contributing to knowledge of the interplay between environment, diet, and health in the Ancient Atacama, this paper provides the first direct evidence of potential maternal-foetal transference of a nutritional deficiency in an archaeological sample”.

This study also used new methods for analysing diet and stress using the chemistry of bones and teeth, these also reveal a picture of early-life stress recently published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and covered by Forbes.  “The preservation of mummies in the Atacama gives us an unprecedented opportunity to use tooth chemistry to look at prehistoric infant experience. We have chemical evidence of stress from tissues which form even before the infant is born, showing how the mother’s health is impacting her baby” says author Charlotte King. This work contributes to an understanding of the sensitive relationship between the health of the mother and infant in the past, including the maternal-infant transference of stress signals and micronutrient deficiencies.


Halcrow Anne Marie Snoddy Custom

Anne Marie Snoddy doing her palaeopathological analyses in the Museo Universidad de Tarapacá San Miguel de Azapa, Arica, Chile.


The research is giving new insight into human adaptation to one of the harshest environments in the world. The Atacama Desert experiences less than 2 mm per year of rainfall, making agricultural resources very vulnerable. However, the marine environment is remarkably rich, owing to the upwelling of the cold Humboldt ocean current, resulting in an abundance of marine mammals and fish. Chemical analysis is showing that the people of the desert buffered themselves against the vulnerability of their agricultural resources by continued reliance on these marine foods. Even so, periodic food shortages from El-Niño events in the area were likely, and the skeletal evidence for vitamin C deficiency is interpreted as being related to these events.

A version of this story was originally published here.




Snap-shots of research: Personhood of perinates in the past

This month we are featuring Dr Tracy Betsinger who is an Associate Professor from SUNY Oneonta. Prior to joining SUNY Oneonta, Dr. Betsinger held a post-doctoral research position with the Global History of Health Project at Ohio State University.


Tracy working on a perinate from the post-medieval Drawsko collection, Poland (while pregnant with a fetal skeleton shirt on!).

Tell me a little bit about your work:

I’m a bioarchaeologist interested in patterns of health (in general) and infectious disease, particularly treponemal disease, the effects of cultural factors such as status and urbanization on health, and the relationship between mortuary patterning/treatment and identity/personhood, especially among perinates. I work on materials from a variety of contexts, including prehistoric populations from eastern Tennessee and medieval and post-medieval populations from Poland.

How did you get into your field and why?

My interest in perinatal mortuary patterning was a fortuitous happenstance. While working with a colleague, Dr. Amy Scott, on post-medieval Polish materials, we noted the fairly large number of perinatal remains, many of which were well preserved (several with the tympanic rings in place!). We were examining other mortuary patterns at the time, when we decided to investigate the perinatal mortuary pattern to determine whether it matched older subadults or was distinct in some way. We also explored what this might mean in terms of their personhood and identity. The more I began to research perinates, perinatal mortuary patterns, and ontology, the more intrigued I became. I shared my research with a cultural anthropologist in my department (Dr. Sallie Han) whose research is focused on pregnancy and we found much common ground! The result of this was a four-fields anthropology of fetuses, initially an American Anthropological Association session and now a soon-to-be in-press edited volume.

What is on the future horizon for your research?

More recently, I have begun exploring perinatal mortuary treatment with the prehistoric populations from Tennessee. This work is just beginning, but I’m hoping to explore perinatal mortuary patterns/personhood temporally and geographically in the region and dovetail that information about what we know is going on health-wise in East Tennessee. My colleagues (Dr. Michaelyn Harle, Dr. Maria O. Smith) and I have only completed some general assessments of perinates, but so far, there seems to be a consistency in their treatment with older subadults and across time and space. We are planning more nuanced analyses of their mortuary treatment and are hoping to analyze remains for bacterial bioerosion with the hopes of identifying stillbirths from live births.

Take a sneak peek at our new resource on the “Bioarchaeology of Childhood” coming soon to Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies

We have a forthcoming large annotated bibliography on the Bioarchaeology of Childhood coming soon to Oxford Bibliographies online. Take a sneak peek here. This will be useful to all bioarchaeology and human osteoarchaeology students, and academics for research and teaching. Please contact me here to request a personal copy.

Note that this is now published online

Halcrow, Siân E.; Ward, Stacey M. “Bioarchaeology of Childhood.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies. Ed. Heather Montgomery. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.


To Achieve the Impossible: Research and study leave with children

Recently, there has been a study published by researchers at my own University on the experience of Research and Study Leave (RSL) or sabbatical for men and women. It found  that families are negatively affected to taking RSL with international travel due to childcare requirements and associated costs.

I am lucky that I am in a permanent position and at a University that supports RSL. I am also ‘lucky’ that I have recently sold my house. The small proceeds from this have allowed me to pay for my 2- and 11-year-olds airfares and childcare, which has thus far cost over NZ$15,000, plus continued payment of daycare fees to keep the enrollment of my 2-year-old at our University childcare.

What I am truly lucky for is the child-centered cultures that I work in and the amazing colleagues and students I have who accommodate them. The best place in accommodating my children has been in Thailand and Laos where friends and my local nanny have been absolutely fabulous. I have tried to plan this stint of fieldwork so as my 11-year-old is away at a time that includes her school break and to work around a visiting fellowship to the UK at the end of the year. However, this timing has also meant that it is HOT and hard for my kids. My 11-year-old misses her friends, but she has been extraordinarily self-motivated at doing her schoolwork each day (even in the weekends) working on her maths, reading and writing. I actually have to tell her to stop doing it at times so she gets out of the house!

Research highlights thus far have been working on the human remains from the Plain of Jars site in Laos excavated under the direction of Dougald O’Reilly and Louise Shewan. This site is under consideration for World Heritage Status and has gained archaeological interest from researchers around the world. I have also been continuing with my data collection from the infants and children from a Thai Iron Age site (see my post from early this year). This season I have found several very pre-term infants. This is of significance in indicating poor maternal health in this past population, and further supports our developing model of health change during this turbulent time of agricultural and social change.

IMG_3259Our visit to the Plain of Jars site 1.


IMG_2969A 24-26 week old foetus from the Iron Age site of Non Ban Jak, Northeast Thailand.


IMG_2978Our “super-nanny”.

The most difficult place we have been this year for accommodating children was the US for two major conferences. Childcare was US$200 a day plus extra expenses. Neither of the conferences provided childcare services, which I would have been very happy to pay for. Thank goodness for two local moms at the first conference who traveled to the store to buy us some groceries while we were stuck in a food desert! Despite the expense, both conferences have been extremely beneficial for my research. I have established new collaborations, been invited to visit universities, and they were invaluable for me to keep up-to-date with recent research developments in my field. I was also able to support two of my students who attended the conferences.

I’m happy that my RSL so far has been possible with my children. Without the ability for international travel I can’t do my research or attend major conferences. However, next time I will try to be more realistic about my plans with the kids. They are enjoying their time in Southeast Asia but the logistics and financial issues are a lot of pressure.

We are off to the UK in September until December for my fellowship to work with colleagues in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham. Another place with supportive colleagues! I’m looking forward to the next adventure!

IMG_3315The two-year-old helping me re-box some archeological human remains.

IMG_2971.jpgThe 11-year-old hiding in our bedroom for some quiet space to do her school work under the mosquito net.


Is this really a 5,000 year old mother and baby?

A recent story of a 4,800-year-old ‘mother’ cradling a baby has been pulling at the heart strings of people worldwide with sensationalist headlines such as “Mother’s enduring love for baby revealed as 5000-year-old fossil found” and “Fossil of 5000-year-old mother cradling baby found in Taiwan”. But is this story everything it’s really cracked up to be?

An archeological team working at a Neolithic site near the city of Taichung since 2014 has unearthed “48 sets of remains”, presumably the number of individual graves, representing the earliest burial site in Taiwan. One of these burials has been described as a mother and baby. However, the news accounts provide little information as to why the researchers believe this to be the case, apart from the placement of the baby with the adult female and the turning of her head to be “looking at her baby” (Figure 1).

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 4.44.59 pmFigure 1: The 4800-year-old “mother and baby” found in Taiwan (source: Reuters)

It is likely that if a female and newborn baby is found in a burial context that they died during childbirth (see my earlier post on fetuses in archaeology). Childbirth is the most critical time for both a mother and baby. This has even led some archaeologists to argue that higher mortality rates of young adult females compared with males represent the hazards of childbirth in the past.

The baby has been described as a foot and a half (about 46 cms), which is about the size of a newborn baby. However, looking at the photos and the videos from the news stories the baby looks too big to be a newborn. The only bones present seem to be from the waist-up. Looking at the relative size of the hands of the archaeologist cleaning the bones and the upper body of the baby (Figure 2), it may be that the size cited is for the upper body, supporting that the infant is older than a newborn. It is difficult to see the cranial bones to assess their development to infer an age-at-death. The cranial bones look thicker than a newborn, but it is unclear as it appears there is some concreted soil adhering to the surface of the bones. Given that this infant seems older than a newborn it is unlikely that they were mother and child.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 2.47.40 pmFigure 2: Archaeologist cleaning the ‘mother-baby’ burial (photo: Reuters video).

In a small Neolithic community there may have been some kind of relationship between the adult female and the infant, or they may have only been buried together because their deaths coincided. Using a cross cultural example, in the Anglican burial tradition babies were interred with non-maternal women in instances of coinciding death (Roberts and Cox 2003: 253).

To assess if there is a biological relationship between this purported mother-baby pair, ancient DNA analyses could be undertaken, but this is difficult with preservation issues in tropical contexts. We should also keep in mind that a mother-child relationship is not always biological.

The fact that the adult female had her head turned to her left may be the result of the burial environment, as some bones can shift in open spaces such as coffins, or from the weight of soil on the bones. Further research looking at the positions of the bone could give more insight on the mode of burial.

We will have to await the scientific presentation of the findings from this site to evaluate the likelihood for this purported mother and baby.

Bacterial bioerosion of bone may help identify stillborn infants from the past

New research using novel microscopic investigation of bacterial bioerosion of archaeological bone has shown that you can differentiate between stillborn and post-newborn babies. This was most exciting to me as offering a means to contribute to the debate of the interpretation of infanticide in the past, through an investigation of time of death.

Bioerosion is the removal of mineralised substrate through the action of organisms, and has been found to be the most common form of microbial attack of archaeological bone (Figure 1). The author of this new research, Tom Booth from the Natural History Museum, notes that although it was once believed that soil bacteria caused most of this bioerosion in bone, it is the gut microbia that is responsible for corpse putrification that causes this process. Based on the findings that it is the bacteria inside the body that produces this bioerosion, the author thought that this could be useful for assessing different mortuary treatments of the body.

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Figure 1: Transmitted light micrograph of a human fresh bone transverse femoral thin section (top) demonstrating perfect microstructural preservation and a typical archaeological femoral section (bottom) where the internal microstructure has been extensively altered by bacteria (from Booth et al., 2015).

To investigate if there is any relationship between bacterial bone bioerosion and funerary treatment, Booth undertook a microscopic analysis of human bones from European prehistoric (4000 B.C. – A.D. 43) and British historical (A.D. 43 – present day) sites. These two assemblages were used as they have been found to have different funerary practices, with the historic period sites practicing burial soon after death, whereas the prehistoric sites have more variable mortuary practices, sometimes including postmortem modification. E.g. Booth and colleagues’ work that found evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain using this microscopic method has recently received media attention.

This research shows that irrespective of burial environment, including antiquity or soil type, there was immaculate histological preservation of almost half of the neonatal samples. This is interpreted as the result of sterility of stillborn infant intestinal tracts resulting in the bones being unaffected by the process of bacterial tunneling. In addition, most (12/15) of the unbioeroded newborn samples are from historical cemeteries where most of the other samples had been extensively bioeroded. A previous experimental study by White and Booth using pigs found that bone from stillborn neonatal carcasses had immaculate histological preservation due to the intrinsic sterility of newborn infant intestinal tracts.

Booth found that the soil type had no relationship with bacterial bioerosion. There was evidence for variation in bacterial bioerosion among the later prehistoric assemblages argued to be “consistent with the knowledge that these individuals were subject to variable early post mortem treatment that exposed the bones to diverse levels of bacterial attack.” Bacterial bioerosion in the historical assemblage was high, consistent with that expected within bones of intact bodies that had been interred soon after death.

The use of this novel method to differentiate stillborn vs post-newborn infants can contribute to extending our knowledge of the cause of death during the most crucial time for mother and child in the past, and may also have useful applications for the study of cultural beliefs around stillbirth and post-neonatal death.


Booth, T. J., A. T. Chamberlain and M. P. Pearson (2015). “Mummification in Bronze Age Britain.” Antiquity 89(347): 1155-1173.

Fetuses in bioarchaeology

The concept of fetuses in archeology probably brings to mind poignant images of the tiny bones of a baby in the pelvic cavity of a female adult skeleton, although finds such as these are actually rather rare. In practice, many bioarchaeologists apply the description of ‘fetus’ to babies from bioarchaeological samples identified as younger than 37 weeks gestational age (e.g. Halcrow et al. 2008; Lewis and Gowland 2007; Mays 2003; Owsley and Jantz 1985). However, there are problems associated with estimation of age-at-death of these babies, who may indeed be fetuses, but also may be premature births, or small-for-gestational age full-term births. If the medical definition of a fetus as an unborn baby is applied (Forfar et al. 2003; Halcrow and Tayles 2008; Lewis and Gowland 2007; Scheuer and Black 2000), the in-utero skeletons would seem to represent the only finds in archaeology that can be confidently identified as fetuses. However, even an apparent in-utero fetus may in fact have been a neonate mortality, illustrating the care with which research in this field needs to be completed.

Generally little bioarchaeological research considers fetuses. For example, some growth studies and demographic analyses do not include preterm infants because of lack of comparative fetal bone size data (e.g. Johnston 1961). Also, the attention afforded to purported evidence of infanticide, based primarily on the reported high number of perinates in some skeletal assemblages (see my previous blog story on this), has deflected interest away from the contributions that fetuses can make to understanding bioarchaeological questions, including maternal health and disease and social organization from mortuary ritual analyses (Bonsall 2013; Faerman et al. 1998; Gilmore and Halcrow 2014; Mays and Eyers 2011; Mays 1993; Mays and Faerman 2001; Smith and Kahila 1992).

It is believed that approximately 3 in 10 pregnancies are spontaneously aborted, with the majority of these occurring in the first trimester, most being the result of genetic abnormalities (Fisher 1951). First trimester fetuses are very unlikely to be recovered in the bioarchaeological context. Bone development does not start until approximately six–eight weeks gestational age, and any bone formation prior to the second trimester would be unlikely to be preserved because of the low level of mineralization, and/or would be extremely difficult to identify in an archaeological context. The only first trimester fetus reported from an archaeological context is from the Libben sample, Ohio, a Late Woodlands site occupied 8th-11th century AD (White 2000: 20, see figure 1). There are published instances of preserved fetal individuals from the second trimester, e.g. the well-preserved fetus of 20 weeks gestational age from the Kellis 2 site, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt (Wheeler 2012: 223). Owsley and Jantz (1985) have found three fetuses younger than 28 weeks gestation at Arikara sites in South Dakota. Hillson (2009) has also reported the findings of fetuses as young as 24 gestational weeks from a large Classical period infant cemetery at Kylindra on Astypalaia, in Greece.

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Figure 1. Fetal skeletal material from the prehistoric Libben site, the smallest burial ever recorded (from White et al. 2011: 329). The long bones measure less than 2 cms.


Types of fetus burials

Differentiating burial types has the potential to contribute to research on maternal health, and the cause of death for the mother and child in the past. For example, a premature birth is more likely to indicate poor health and/or nutritional status of a woman, compared with a baby who died around full-term from obstructed labor. Distinguishing the type of fetal death and burial, whether the baby was full-term, or a pre-term or small-for gestational age baby, in conjunction with evidence of stress and diet and of both the mother and baby may give insights into overall health in past populations (Figure 2).


Halcrow Fig. 8 copyFigure 2. Infant jar burials from the Iron Age site of Noen U-Loke, NE Thailand. Left: full-term infant, approximately 40 gestational weeks (burial 100); right: pre-term infant, or ‘fetus’, approximately 30 gestational weeks (burial 89). (Photograph courtesy of C.F.W. Higham)

In-utero fetuses

If the skeletal remains of a baby are found crouched in a fetal position within the pelvic cavity of an adult female, the mother likely died while the fetus was in-utero, before or during labor. The pregnant woman may therefore have died due to pregnancy or labor complications (Lewis 2007: 34). There is very little evidence for in-utero fetuses in the bioarchaeological context. Approximately 20 cases of pregnant or laboring females (i.e., interred with fetal remains in-situ) have been published in the archaeological literature, being argued to represent complications from childbirth (e.g. Ashworth et al. 1976; Cruz and Codinha 2010; Hawkes and Wells 1975; Högberg et al. 1987; Smith and Wood-Jones 1910, in Lewis 2007; Lieverse et al. 2015; Malgosa et al. 2004; O’Donovan and Geber 2010; Owsley and Bradtmiller 1983; Persson and Persson 1984; Pounder et al. 1983; Rascon Perez et al. 2007; Sjovold et al. 1974; Roberts and Cox 2003; Wells 1978).

The dearth of literature on in-utero fetuses in bioarchaeology may not be due to absence of evidence, but rather from the small bones being missed or misidentified during excavation, or reported only in the grey literature. There are numerous accounts of fetuses being misidentified as animal bones during excavation (e.g. Ingvarsson-Sundström 2003). For example, Roberts and Cox (2003) have reported at least 24 unpublished cases of fetuses from British excavations. There are further instances of fetal bones being found co-mingled with adult burials post-excavation, which may represent a baby in-utero, or a possible mother and baby post-birth burial (S. Clough, pers. comm.).

Bioarchaeologists have reported on cases of purported obstructed labor causing maternal and fetal perinatal death based on positioning of the fetus in the pelvic cavity or the finding of preterm mummified remains in-utero (Arriaza et al. 1988; Ashworth et al. 1976; Lieverse et al. 2015; Luibel 1981; Malgosa et al. 2004; Wells 1975).

Post-birth ‘fetuses’

If a perinate is found buried alongside an adult, with the same head orientation, then the infant has been buried post-birth, whether naturally or by caesarian section (Lewis 2007: 34) (Figure 3). In some contexts it is very common for newborns to be placed on the chest of adult women (presumably their mother) (Standen et al. 2014). To identify post-birth ‘fetuses’ archaeologically, if the majority of the infant remains are in the pelvic cavity of the adult, yet the legs are extended and/or the cranium lies among the ribcage, then the baby may have been delivered and then placed on top of the mother’s (or other adult’s) torso during burial (Lewis 2007: 34). It is argued that as both mother and baby bodies’ skeletonize, the baby’s bones can become settled among the mother’s ribs and vertebrae. This is important to note as these neonates may be mistaken for breech, obstructed labors in the archaeological context (e.g. Willis and Oxenham 2013). Willis and Oxenham (2013) describe an ‘in-utero breech’ presentation of a 38 gestational week fetus from Neolithic Southern Viet Nam. They describe the cranium as “below the mothers right lower ribs” (it is not clear if they mean inside the abdominal/thoracic cavity or inferior to the right lower ribs) and the postcranial skeleton as “extended down toward the mothers pelvis” with the left femur “positioned within the mothers pelvic cavity and a tibia … positioned beside [lateral] the lesser trochanter of the mothers right femur.” They also state the “right pars lateralis [part of the base of the occipital bone of the cranium] was concreted to the anterosuperior portion of the shaft of the 10th right rib of the mother, near the sternal end.” Given this partially extended (non-fetal) positioning and the part of the cranial base being found anterior to the rib cage), it could be possible that the baby was not in the abdominal cavity, but placed on top of the mother’s torso after birth.


Figure 3. Full-term neonate (burial 48) buried alongside an adult female (burial 47) from Khok Phanom Di (photograph courtesy of C.F.W. Higham). This could possibly represent a perinate and mother who died from complications during or following childbirth.

Ancient DNA analyses may be used to assess the relationship of the adult and fetal burials where the fetus has been placed on the purported mother, or the archaeological context is unclear. Lewis (2007: 35) has argued that this is important to distinguish these relationships, as in some contexts, e.g. in the Anglican burial tradition, babies were interred with non-maternal women in instances of coinciding death (Roberts and Cox 2003: 253).

Multiple fetal pregnancies and births

There have been two reported instances of twin fetuses in-utero in the bioarchaeological literature (Lieverse et al. 2015; Owsley and Bradtmiller 1983), with others found in a post-birth context. There has been a recent increase in the interest in multiple births in bioarchaeology, including an investigation of social identity and concepts of personhood through the investigation of mortuary treatment (e.g. Einwögerer et al. 2006; Halcrow et al. 2012). Human twins are rare, with approximately one occurrence for every 100 births (Ball and Hill 1996). However, they appear in the literature more commonly than expected, compared with singleton fetuses (e.g. Black 1967; Chamberlain 2001; Crespo et al. 2011; Einwögerer et al. 2006; Flohr 2014; Halcrow et al. 2012; Lieverse et al. 2015; Owsley and Bradtmiller 1983). This is probably because they are seen as more significant by the archaeologist.

An example of a possible twin burial was found in an Upper Paleolithic site of Krems-Wachtberg, Austria (Einwögerer et al. 2006). The infants from this double burial were identified as twins from their identical age (as estimated from their dentition), same femora size and their simultaneous interment (both estimated at full-term age at death). Interestingly the bodies lay under a mammoth scapula and a part of a tusk and were associated with 30 ivory beads. Einwögerer et al. (2006) suggest, based on this mortuary evidence, that these newborns were an important part of their community. Another case of a twin burial is from the mid fourth-century site of Olèrdola in Barcelona, Spain (Crespo et al. 2011). The two newborns were found at the same stratigraphic level with their lower limbs entwined, indicating that they were buried simultaneously. We (Halcrow et al. 2012) havev also presented an extremely rare finding of at least two and possibly four twin burials from a 4,000-3,000 year old BP Southeast Thailand site, offering a methodological approach for the identification of archaeological twin (or other multiple birth) burials and a social theoretical framework to interpret these in the past.

Post-mortem birth (‘coffin-birth’)

Post-mortem birth or ‘coffin-birth’ refers to the occurrence of fetuses that were in-utero when the mother died and were expelled after burial (O’Donovan and Geber 2010) (Figure 4). This is also talked about by Katy Meyers Emery in her blog story on coffin birth in her blog Bones Don’t Lie. Post-mortem birth by fetal extrusion has been documented in rare forensic cases from the build up of gas within the abdominal cavity resulting in the emission of the fetus (Lasso et al. 2009; Schultz et al. 2005). Lewis (2007: 34-37, 91) and O’Donovan et al. (2009) argue that if fetal remains are complete and in a position inferior to and in-line with the pelvis outlet, with the head oriented in the opposite direction to the mother, then there is the possibility of coffin birth (Figure 3). If they lie within the pelvic outlet, this means that there was partial extrusion during decomposition (Hawkes and Wells 1972). However, partial extrusion could also be the result of an obstructed labor of a baby in the breech position, but this would likely result in extrusion of the lower limbs. Sayer and Dickenson (2015) argue that postmortem fetal extrusion is implausible under some burial conditions and with that decomposition of the baby in-utero would mean that it isn’t likely to be birthed from an undilated cervical canal. This, however, assumes that there was no dilation at the time of death of the mother.


Figure 4. Potential coffin birth (from Appleby et al. 2014)

Social identity

The investigation of mortuary treatment of pregnant women may give us information on social identity related to childbearing and fetuses themselves. For example the discovery of a 34-36 week old fetus cremated with the ca. 850 B.C. “Rich Athenian Lady” led to a recognition that her grave wealth may have been related to her dying while pregnant or during childbirth, rather than primarily her social status (Liston and Papadopoulos 2004).

Research of the archaeology of grief is starting to consider community members’ responses to infant and fetal death (e.g. Cannon and Cook 2015; Murphy 2011). The purported marginalization of fetuses along with infants in the archaeological record, including location and simplified mortuary treatment has led some scholars to interpret that they were of little concern beyond immediate family members (Cannon and Cook 2015). Considering literature on intense grief after miscarriage and infant death starts to challenge the notion that their loss was of little consequence (Murphy 2011).

NB: Part of this story is from the chapter:

Halcrow, S.E., N. Tayles and G.E. Elliott (2016 expected) The Bioarchaeology of Fetuses. In Han S, Betsinger TK, and Scott AB; The Fetus: Biology, Culture, and Society. Berghahn Books. (under contract)


Appleby J, Seetah TK, Calaon D, Čaval S, Pluskowski A, Lafleur JF, Janoo A, and Teelock V (2014). ‘The Non-Adult Cohort from Le Morne Cemetery, Mauritius: A Snap Shot of Early Life and Death after Abolition.’ Int J Osteo 24(6): 737-746.

Arriaza B, Allison M, and Gerszten E. 1988. ‘Maternal Mortality in Pre-Columbian Indians of Arica, Chile’. Am J Phys Anthropol 77:35-41.

Ashworth JT, Allison MJ, Gerszten E, and Pezzia A. 1976. ‘The Pubic Scars of Gestation and Parturition in a Group of Pre‐Columbian and Colonial Peruvian Mummies’. Am J Phys Anthropol 45(1):85-89.

Ball HL, and Hill CM. 1996. ‘Reevaluating “Twin Infanticide”‘. Curr Anthropol 37(5):856-863.

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