A surge of interest in the archaeology of childhood is revealing details of the skilled and sometimes back-breaking work that youngsters performed hundreds to thousands of years ago.
Their tasks included mining salt and forming bricks. Some children were already learning to create clay vessels by the time they were six years old. Researchers presented several of these findings at a meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) in Barcelona, Spain, earlier this month.
Artefacts and skeletal remains that provide details of child labour from so long ago are still relatively sparse. But scholars are showing more interest in the subject, says archaeologist Mélie Le Roy at the Mediterranean Laboratory of Prehistory in Europe and Africa-UMR 7269 in Aix-en-Provence, France, who was one of the session organizers.
“In the next years,” she says, “we will find more and more evidence that children were participating early in their lives in economic society.”
Worked to the bone
Researchers paid little heed to children in the archaeological record until recently. But in the 1990s, more archaeologists began to examine the role of women in the past. That led some scientists to start studying other overlooked groups ― including children.
Recent work suggests that some prehistoric youngsters toiled in harsh environments, including mines. Researchers excavating the ancient salt mines of Hallstatt, Austria, have discovered a child-sized leather cap dated to 1000–1300 bc, along with very small mining picks, says archaeologist Hans Reschreiter at the Natural History Museum of Vienna. This suggests that children were working in these mines at least two centuries earlier than scientists had thought.
To confirm this, Reschreiter and his colleagues plan to test the heaps of human excrement found in the Bronze Age section of the mine for sex hormones, which younger children would lack.
But ancient child labour wasn’t always so back-breaking. When Le Roy analysed a jumble of skeletal remains from prehistoric tombs in France, she found three baby teeth with cylindrical grooves. Such abrasions form when people use their teeth for repeated, forceful stretching and softening of animal tendon or plant material, Le Roy says. The material was probably used for sewing or making baskets, she adds1.
The teeth belonged to two children between the ages of one and nine. They date to 2100–3500 bc, making them among the oldest evidence for children engaged in skilled labour. Le Roy is about to start surveying human remains from more than 30 French burial sites from the same time period, and expects to find more evidence of young children at work.
Leaving their mark
Other researchers are looking to artefacts rather than skeletons for information on child labour. When archaeologist Steven Dorland at the University of Toronto, Canada, examined ceramic shards from a prehistoric village in what is now southern Canada, he saw minuscule fingernail marks in the fifteenth-century debris. The size of the indentations showed that kids aged six or younger were forming clay vessels2.
In some modern-day communities, only pots of a certain quality make it to the kiln. But at Dorland’s site, youngsters’ misshapen starter pots were also fired. “It shows children in those societies had a certain level of social value,” he says.
Even after the advent of written records ― which can document the presence of youngsters in the workforce ― archaeological evidence can provide powerful illumination of the role of children. Bricks and roof tiles excavated from a Lithuanian castle, dated to between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, still bear the fingerprints of their young creators.
Analysis of the prints’ ridges suggests that children between the ages of 8 and 13 made more than 10% of the recovered building materials, said archaeologist Povilas Blaževičius at the National Museum of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius during his EAA presentation.
Lithuania lacks written sources about children in the historical workforce, Blaževičius says. That leaves physical traces as the only evidence of their efforts there centuries ago. “When we have fingerprints of a child inside a pot, we definitely show that a child formed it,” he says. “For me as an archaeologist, it’s another way to find children in past societies.”
Nature 561, 445-446 (2018)
Updates & Corrections
Correction 21 September 2018: The picture caption incorrectly stated that the image was of Bronze Age children: it's an illustration of Iron Age kids. Also, the affiliation for Mélie Le Roy should be the Mediterranean Laboratory of Prehistory in Europe and Africa-UMR 7269.
Le Roy, M. Ardèche Archéol. 35, 12-18 (2018).
Dorland, S. G. H. J. Archaeol. Sci. Rep. 21, 298–304 (2018).