Uncovering the Social Child in Mortuary Contexts

Sarah Elizabeth Duignan


Within mortuary archaeology, sub-adult burials are relatively under-explored, with very little understanding about how to categorize particular burials within their unique cultural context. Often we see generalized notions of age identities, with a focus on the individual’s ascribed status, as regulated by the economic influences of their older kin groups and families. Sub-adults, when framed as children, can become a social phenomenon that explores the treatment of the physical body within youth contexts. The experience of childhood is a distinctly social phenomenon that can very between cultures and through time, but often goes unmentioned within mortuary literature. This becomes problematic, as Western archaeologists risk ascribing our contemporary understandings of childhood onto past populations. Our understandings can be altered by insignificant factors, such as the culturally acceptable age for a child to begin walking, or impact more critical understandings of when a child is expected to economically contribute to society. These quiet assumptions also underlie the age estimates made from skeletal remains, which are problematically diagnosed in subadults. Identifying age-related social identities becomes quiet challenging because of this, and studies become limited when they do not seek to delineate socially appropriate age-grades. This paper aims to expand our understandings of varying social roles of children in past populations beyond the contemporary distinctions of childhood in Western contexts. A re-evaluation of mortuary contexts, especially those within cemetery demographics, will allow for a more thorough understanding of the social and economic powers of children in life and in death.


Ethnoarchaeology; Childhood Mortuary Archaeology

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