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Child labor at Avondale Mills in Birmingham, Alabama, 1910

New Discoveries Show Child Labor is an Ancient Curse

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Archaeological trends go through waves which are often inspired by the ripples of current social concerns. With many activists raising awareness of women’s and children's rights, it is almost of no surprise that the archaeological community has seen rising interest in the role of children and child labor in prehistoric societies. And it is being revealed that children were often doing jobs that today's fully-grown adults leave to machines.

Prehistoric Child Labor

Archaeologist Povilas Blaževičius recently presented the sometimes shocking evidence of his team’s discoveries at the National Museum of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius during his European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) in Barcelona, Spain. He disclosed that six-year-olds were “salt mining, brick laying and making clay vessels,” according to an article about the scientists findings in Nature.

Wooden shafts of pickaxes and other tools for salt mining from the Hallstatt culture. Museum Hallstatt, Austria. (CC BY 2.5)

Wooden shafts of pickaxes and other tools for salt mining from the Hallstatt culture. Museum Hallstatt, Austria. ( CC BY 2.5 )

The in-depth study of children in history was somewhat neglected until the 1990s when archaeologists began examining the roles of women and children in society. Archaeologist Mélie Le Roy from the Mediterranean Laboratory of Prehistory-UMR 7269 in Europe and Africa in Aix-en-Provence, France, was one of the session organizers for the project and told journalists the team expect that they “will find more and more evidence that children were participating early in their lives in economic society.”

The Tea Pickers. Child Labor in 19th century Japan. The above photo was accompanied by these words written in 1897: "...In 1894, Japan exported FIFTY MILLION POUNDS OF TEA… labor of picking of this immense crop is performed largely by CHILDREN...". (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Tea Pickers. Child Labor in 19 th century Japan. The above photo was accompanied by these words written in 1897: "...In 1894, Japan exported FIFTY MILLION POUNDS OF TEA… labor of picking of this immense crop is performed largely by CHILDREN ...". ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

Archaeologist Hans Reschreiter at the Natural History Museum of Vienna was also involved in the study and explained that “researchers excavating the ancient salt mines of Hallstatt, Austria, discovered a child-sized leather cap dated to 1000–1300 BC, along with very small mining picks.” This suggests children were “working in these mines at least two centuries earlier than scientists had thought.” Reschreiter and his colleagues will examine "human excrement” discovered in the Bronze Age part of the mine for sex hormones, which younger children wouldn’t have had.

Leather shoes from the Hallstatt culture, 800-400 BC. Museum Hallstatt, Austria. (CC BY 2.5)

Leather shoes from the Hallstatt culture, 800-400 BC. Museum Hallstatt, Austria. ( CC BY 2.5 )

A Global Situation

Elsewhere around the world, “small fingerprints from eight through 13-year-old children” were found on more than “10 percent of the bricks and tiles of a medieval Lithuanian castle” according to archaeologist Povilas Blaževičius when speaking to reporters at archaology.org. He said “When we have fingerprints of a child inside a pot, we definitely show that a child formed it… For me as an archaeologist, it’s another way to find children in past societies.”

The Guardian recently published an article about the discovery of desert graves in Amarna, Egypt, “of the ordinary Egyptians who lived and worked in Akhenaten’s city and never got to leave.” 105 individual skeletons excavated at the ‘North Tombs Cemetery’ in 2015 were studied Dr Gretchen Dabbs of Southern Illinois University, who found that “90% of the skeletons have an estimated age of between seven and twenty-five years, with the majority of these estimated to be younger than fifteen. Essentially, this is a burial place for adolescents.”

A juvenile burial under excavation at the North Tombs Cemetery, Amarna, Egypt. Photograph: Mary Shepperson/Courtesy of The Amarna Project

A juvenile burial under excavation at the North Tombs Cemetery, Amarna, Egypt. Photograph: Mary Shepperson/Courtesy of The Amarna Project

In France, archaeologist Mélie Le Roy of the Mediterranean Laboratory of Prehistory–UMR 7269 found “three human baby teeth 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, according to the archaeology.org article.

And, showing that children in prehistoric communities held important cultural and community value, archaeologist Steven Dorland at the University of Toronto, Canada, analyzed ceramic shards from a prehistoric village in what is now southern Canada discovering “six-year-old and younger fingernail imprints in the 15th-century debris.” Among the recovered artifacts at this site, youngsters’ “misshapen starter pots” were also fired, which shows children in those societies had “a certain level of social value,” said Dorland.

How Much longer?

Child labor is defined today by the International Labour Organisation as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” It is truly heartbreaking to think that in our current paradigm of high technology and communications, where we know what is happening on the surface of Mars in real time, that child labor still exists as one of the greatest social hurdles to human rights worldwide. As the modern world became more aware and horrified by the prevalence of child labor, the accounts of child laborers worldwide has “dropped from 245 million to 168 million between 2000 and 2012” according to an article in The World Accounts .

Young girls working in the brick kilns of Nepal. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Young girls working in the brick kilns of Nepal. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Poverty and the lack of education are considered as the main causes of Child Labor and in an ideal world, our children, our future, should be given the opportunity to have childhoods and to develop their interests, skills, talents and abilities in positive, safe environments; not working in factories, fields and mines without pay, in less than human conditions. The fact we are still aspiring to this, even with 6,000 years of practice, is disgraceful.

Top image: Child labor at Avondale Mills in Birmingham, Alabama, 1910   Source: Public Domain

By Ashley Cowie

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