7 Amazing Glimpses into the Ancient Lives of Children
Over the centuries, historians have told us in detail about the rise and fall of civilizations, the leaders and rulers of our world, dramatic battles and magnificent monuments, but the history of children and childhood has been strangely absent.
The invisibility of children in history and archaeology is sometimes attributed to the scarcity of historical records relating to children, and artifacts that once belonged to them. Perhaps too has been the view that children are somewhat peripheral to the most important historical subjects.
In the last few decades, however, an understanding of childhood through the ages has begun to emerge, and researchers have started to shine a spotlight on this vital aspect of human history.
The archaeological and historical record provides opportunity for the exploration of numerous aspects of childhood – an ancient, ceramic baby bottle, a child-size weapon, tiny fossilized footprints, child ‘doodles’ in medieval manuscripts, nursery rhymes, and mythological tales – they all have stories to tell about the children of our past.
Here, we examine seven amazing glimpses into what life was really like for children throughout history.
Ancient Egyptian ‘Boy Scouts’
Never before has ancient childhood been researched so systematically than in the mass of 7,500 ancient Egyptian papyrus documents that originate from Oxyrhynchos in Egypt, a large town of more than 25,000 inhabitants, which flourished around 500 BC. The research revealed that in Roman Egypt, 14-year-old boys were enrolled in a youth organization in order to learn to be good citizens, similar to modern-day Boy Scouts.
Only boys born to free-born citizens – be they Egyptian, Greek or Roman – were entitled to be members of the town's youth organization. For boys, the transition from childhood to adult life started with enrolment in the 'gymnasium'. Some started working before reaching their teens and might have served an apprenticeship of two to four years.
Slave children could also become apprentices, and their contracts were of the same type as the boys of free-born citizens. Slaves lived with their owners, while free-born children generally lived with their parents. But life was different for slave children nonetheless. Documents show that children as young as two were sold and separated from their parents.
Fayum portrait of a boy during the Roman occupation of Egypt (public domain)
Bred for Battle: How Spartan Boys Became Warriors
Historical documents reveal just how the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta because almost entirely dedicated to the art of war.
At the age of seven, Spartan boys would be taken from their families and enrolled in an institution known as agoge in which they would go through a rigorous physical education and survival skills. The boys were purposefully underfed so that they would have to become adept at stealing food without getting caught. If they did get caught, they would be severely punished. This was likely to teach the boys to develop stealth skills which would be important as soldiers. Furthermore, they would be regularly beaten and flogged to increase their ability to endure pain.
They were only given one garment and they were not given any shoes so that the soles of their feet would become tough. It was said that bare-footed Spartan warriors could outrun any shoe-clad Greek citizen of another city-state.
The Spartan education system is unique in being entirely focused on preparing a city for war. The education system was very narrow compared to the education systems of other city-states, but its uniqueness and focus was successful, at least for a while, in creating an austere soldier city which could stand against almost any opponent, even the mighty Achaemenid Persian Empire in 480 BC.
Three Spartan boys practicing archery (public domain)
A Skip, Hop and Jump: Children’s Footprints in History
At a unique site in the Upper Awash Valley of Southern Ethiopia, researchers discovered children’s tracks that were probably made by the extinct human ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis (600,000 to 200,000 years ago), occurring next to adult prints and an abundance of animal tracks congregated around a small, muddy pool. They had been preserved by ash flow from a nearby volcano. Stone tools and the butchered remains of animals suggest the adults had been out hunting, and the children came with them.
The child tracks are thought to have been made by children as young as one or two, standing in the mud while their parents and older siblings got on with their activities.
“The findings create a unique and momentary insight into the world of a child long ago. They clearly were not left at home with a babysitter when the parents were hunting,” said researchers Matthew Bennett and Sally Reynolds from Bournemouth University. “In the harsh savannah plains of the East African Rift Valley, it was natural to bring your children to such daily tasks, perhaps so they could observe and learn.”
Child footprints in Ethiopia shed light on the lives of prehistoric children. Source: EmotionPhoto / Adobe Stock
Drawing in the Past: Medieval Child Doodles
Children of the Middle Ages were not too different from the children of today – they enjoyed playing and learning and expressing their imagination through drawings and scribbles. This is highlighted in a remarkable 14th-century book from a Franciscan convent in Naples, which contains child ‘doodles’ in the margins.
The medieval manuscript covers such topics as astronomy, biblical dates, tables for determining any day of the week between 1204 and 1512, religious sermons, and astrology. But the drawings are the work of mischievous little kids - very similar to what children do nowadays.
The medieval doodles are believed to have been made by a child aged between 4 and 6 years, and depict a human, cow or horse, and some kind of demon or devil.
This is not the only child’s drawing that has been found from the past. In June 2014, a child’s drawings were unearthed on ancient birch-bark texts in the historical city of Vekliky Novgorod in north-western Russia. The document contains spelling lessons and drawings made by a boy named Onfim, who is estimated to have been between 6 and 7 years old at the time. His drawings were made in the mid-13th century.
The medieval child doodles. (Credit: LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 26r.)
Mini Weapons Taught Children Vital Survival Skills
A collection of weapons found at Par-Tee in Oregon, USA were purposely made for little hands to teach children life skills. The Par-Tee site was once home to Chinookan- and Salish-speaking populations.
Archaeologists found a variety of sizes of atlatls (ancient dart-throwing weapons) among the artifacts recovered from the site inhabited from 100-800 AD. They believe that some of the weapons were made to specifically fit the hands of child users.
The researchers believe the reason why adults would have gone to such lengths to create special weapons for children was a practical one – kids needed to learn how to hunt. And before they had bows and arrows, the Native Americans of Par-Tee had atlatls. That means that becoming skilled with using the weapons was important for hunting and therefore survival.
The discovery opened a window into the way ancient people trained their children in essential life skills.
Ancient children had mini weapons to learn skills they would need as adults. Source: Sinisa / Adobe Stock
The Ancient Curse of Child Labor
At the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) conference in Barcelona, Spain, archaeologist Povilas Blaževičius of the National Museum of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius disclosed shocking evidence that in the distant past, young children were salt mining, brick laying and making clay vessels. He found small fingerprints from eight to 13-year-old children on more than 10 per cent of the bricks and tiles of a medieval Lithuanian castle. “When we have fingerprints of a child inside a pot, we definitely know that a child formed it… For me as an archaeologist, it’s another way to find children in past societies,” commented Blaževičius.
But child labor has its roots in the much more distant past. Three human baby teeth were found from two children who were younger than 10 at the time of death sometime between 2100 and 3500 BC. The teeth were marked with grooves usually formed by repeatedly using them as tools for holding plant or animal materials while softening them. The material was probably used for sewing or making baskets.
In Amarna, Egypt, archaeologists also discovered desert graves belonging to ordinary Egyptians who lived and worked in the city of pharaoh Akhenaten. Ninety per cent of 105 individual skeletons excavated at the North Tombs Cemetery had an estimated age of between seven to 25 years, with the majority of these estimated to be younger than 15 years. Essentially, this was a burial place for adolescents, who had carried out hard labor throughout their short lives.
Child labor in the coal mines of England. Source: Morphart / Adobe Stock
Child Heroes of Ancient Greece
A ‘hero’ in Greek mythology usually designates a man whose superhuman exploits and semi-divine parentage make him a person of legend. Heroes were venerated at their own shrines, but adult superheroes were not the only ones honored; deceased young ones were as well, highlighted by the story of Prince Opheltes.
When a bunch of heroes on their way to Thebes came along, looking for directions to a spring of water, they asked infant Opheltes’ nurse which way to go. The lady plopped him down in the grass for a second; while she was looking away, he was killed by a snake. Seers interpreted the death of Opheltes to indicate the inevitable failure of the traveling heroes’ mission against Thebes.
The famous Nemean Games were held in Opheltes’ honor and the winner wore a crown made of wild celery leaves (according to some versions, Opheltes died in a patch of wild celery) to evoke his memory.
To complete his transformation from tragically deceased human child to full, semi-divine hero, Opheltes received a heroic funeral and his tomb received lots of glory in later years.
Discovery of the dead Opheltes -- In clearing beside stream, Hypsipyle kneels beside dead body of infant Opheltes, lying on ground beside snake (public domain)
We have found the children; they were there all along, hidden in plain sight. They were the tiny, resilient creators of history, eventually passing it down to us, the children of the future. In this way, we are the ‘heirs of history’, and we must pass it on as humans have done since our time began, striving to create a better world for the little ones that come after us.
By Joanna Gillan
Top image: A royal child from the Middle Ages. Source: liyasov / Adobe Stock