In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Archaeology of Childhood

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Professional Organizations
  • Journals
  • Early Publications
  • Infant Feeding and Weaning
  • Childhood Stages, Initiation Rites, and Rituals
  • Socialization: Mothering, Parenting, and Education
  • Children as Social Agents/Actors in Their Socialization
  • Children Learning Crafts and Subsistence Activities
  • Children’s Economic Contributions
  • Children as Social Agents in Play
  • Children’s Identities
  • Spatial Distribution of Children’s Artifacts and Activities
  • Mortuary Analyses of Social Status and Cultural Practices
  • Child Sacrifice
  • Processes of Cultural Change
  • Paleolithic and Holocene Children’s Lives
  • Children in Preclassical Mediterranean Cultures
  • Children in Ancient Mesoamerican Cultures
  • Children in Ancient North American Cultures
  • Children in Ancient South American Cultures
  • Historical Archaeology of Children and Childhood
  • Ethnoarchaeology of Children

Childhood Studies Archaeology of Childhood
Suzanne Spencer-Wood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0141


The archaeology of children and childhood developed from 1980s feminist critiques of the neglect of women’s roles in archaeological analyses, particularly mothering and childrearing. Children are defined as immature individuals within societies, while childhood is the cultural construction and meaning of immature stages of development. Children and childhood cannot be reduced to biological immaturity, because biological stages of development are not isochronic with cultural constructions of childhood stages, which may end prior to biological adulthood. The meaning and even the very existence of childhood as distinct from adulthood is culturally constructed. In many cultures, children as young as two to five years old contribute to household economies, and children as young as five work producing goods for sale and adult profit. Many cultures construct childhood as a set of age grades marked by rituals and initiation rites of passage from one stage to the next. Many cultures also construct other structures and processes for the maturation of children, such as socialization, education, and training. In many cultures, age grades, rituals, and formal education and training are limited to children in elite or relatively wealthy families. Children’s experiences vary within cultural constructions and structurings of the normative childhood process of development. Archaeological theorizing about childhood has extended feminist critiques and corrective research paradigms from women to children. The invisibility of children as well as women has been related to the stereotype of their passivity and the devaluation of domestic life—in contrast to the valorization of men’s public roles. Feminist corrective research on women’s social agency has been extended to shift the viewpoint about children from passive receivers of socialization to cultural actors making significant economic, social, and ritual contributions to families, communities, and societies. Research considers cultural constructions of age grades and socialization through mothering/parenting as important aspects of childhood. Children’s own viewpoints and understandings of their lives and experiences have sometimes been interpreted from archaeological remains. Some researchers argue for the importance of researching childhood and children’s experiences because children made up between 40 and 65 percent of past populations. Therefore, past cultures cannot really be understood without considering children, any more than cultures can be understood without gender. Research on cultural constructions of childhood age grades often finds they are gendered. Further, the socialization of children forms a complex set of processes that are fundamental to cultural maintenance, inter- and intragenerational transmission, and cultural change. Because of this, many argue for integrating research on children and childhood into all of archaeology.

General Overviews

Overviews of the archaeology of childhood are predominantly concerned either with cultural aspects of children’s experiences or with the bioarchaeology of skeletal remains. Cultural overviews argue that children’s experiences are shaped most by cultural practices, but they also often briefly summarize the kinds of information about children’s health and nutrition generated by bioarchaeology. Early-21st-century bioarchaeological overviews discuss ways that cultural practices affect skeletal remains. Kamp 2001 reviews selected research on the Mesolithic through the 19th century about cultural aspects of childhood, organized topically from feminist critiques of neglecting children to cultural constructions of meanings of childhood, along with children’s nutrition, health, work, play, and viewpoints. This article could introduce the archaeology of childhood in college courses. Wileman 2005 argues that feminist calls for making women visible in the past can be extended to call for including children in reconstructions of the past. This book includes detailed examples worldwide, but it emphasizes the Mediterranean and Europe from Neanderthals through Anglo-Saxon England. It covers the widest range of cultural topics of all the overviews. Baxter 2005 is a methodological synthesis of archaeological research in the context of theorizing gender and childhood. It cites previous research arguing that children contributed significantly to the archaeological record because children make up 40–65 percent of documented populations. Baxter emphasizes socialization from Mesolithic through Classical archaeology, with some historical archaeology, ethnoarchaeology, ethnographies, and experimental archaeology. She focuses on children as active participants in their own socialization, and as creators of spatial distributions of artifacts on sites that provide information on “the child’s world” (Lillehammer 1989, see Theory and Method). This work also covers gendered cultural constructions of childhood, mortuary treatments, and evidence of social status, health, nutrition, and mortality. Baxter 2008 further develops Baxter’s critique of the dominant discourse on childhood, and it uses an expanded topical organization to summarize selected archaeological and ethnoarchaeological cultural research. This article is a useful introduction for college courses. Crawford and Shepherd 2007 provides a theoretical introduction and chapters ranging from the ancient Near East to Great Britain, on the basis of a thematic seminar series held at the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity (IAA). Lally and Moore 2011 provides chapters predominantly on child burials, from Egypt to Great Britain and North America. This edited volume developed from the 2005 conference on infancy and childhood in Kent, which led to the founding of the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past (SSCIP). Romanowicz 2013 provides an overview and European case studies that developed out of a workshop on the archaeology of childhood held in Malkocin, western Pomerania, Poland, in November 2012. Roveland 2001 finds children underrepresented in a survey of articles in American Antiquity, 1935–1999. Roveland 2001 is in a book that developed from a session of the same title at the 14th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. Scott 1999 critiques the projection into the past of the Western identification of infants with the low status of women and the domestic sphere, followed by a comprehensive critical review of archaeological, ethnographic, and art history research supporting the author’s theorizing of diversity in the cultural meanings of infancy and infant death. Many of the works listed here contain extensive bibliographies, but thus far there are no published bibliographies (other than this article) specifically on the archaeology of children or childhood.

  • Baxter, Jane Eva. The Archaeology of Childhood: Children, Gender and Material Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2005.

    NNNMethodologically organized synthesis of archaeological literature about the Mesolithic through historical periods, contextualized in cultural anthropology. Focuses on children’s social agency in socialization and creating “the child’s world” through spatial distributions of artifacts on sites. Includes definitions, development of the field, theoretical approaches, material culture, spatial patterns, adult representations of children, and mortuary and skeletal analyses. The conclusion argues that children need to be researched as social actors at all sites.

  • Baxter, Jane Eva. “The Archaeology of Childhood.” Annual Review of Anthropology 37 (2008): 159–175.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.37.081407.085129

    NNNShort, selective summary of the literature, suitable for upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses. Critiques Western universalizing assumptions that childhood is biological, and argues childhood is culturally constructed. Critiques the marginalization of children in archaeology. Combines archaeological and ethnoarchaeological studies by research topic, including rites of passage, economic and social roles, sacrifice rituals, spatial behaviors, socialization, and a focus on children’s identities.

  • Crawford, Sally E. E., and Gillian B. Shepherd, eds. Children, Childhood and Society. IAA Interdisciplinary Series: Studies in Archaeology, History, Literature and Art 1. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1009562531188

    NNNFollowing a theoretical introduction, chapters include the liminality of ancient Near Eastern children’s footprints in clay; children in Early Bronze Age funerary ritual; status of children selected for burial in Archaic western Greece; a child’s cache at Assiros Toumba, Macedonia; Roman childhood and sexual attitudes toward slave children; transitions to adulthood in early Icelandic society; and questions about the status of children in early Anglo-Saxon multiple-burial ritual.

  • Kamp, Kathryn A. “Where Have All the Children Gone? The Archaeology of Childhood.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 8.1 (2001): 1–34.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1009562531188

    NNNCritique of the invisibility of children in archaeology, due to projections of Western conceptions of childhood as a time of play and learning in the home with mothers. Covers changing historical constructions of childhood, archaeological identifications of childhood stages and initiation rites, health and nutrition, childrearing practices, enculturation and learning, work, play, the meaning of childhood, and the child’s viewpoint. Focuses on prehistoric archaeology.

  • Lally, Mike, and Alison Moore, eds. (Re)thinking the Little Ancestor: New Perspectives on the Archaeology of Infancy and Childhood. British Archaeological Reports International Series 2271. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2011.

    NNNChapters address categorizing children; the potential of the osteology of infancy and childhood; analyses of child burials of Etruscans, prehistoric Austrians, and bog bodies; Roman Egypt; the Bronze Age; and Anglo-Saxon, medieval, and post-medieval Britons, as well as childhood identity and community in Neolithic England, the divine power of childhood in ancient Mesoamerica, and ideology and ancient Pueblo children in the southwestern United States.

  • Romanowicz, Paulina, ed. Child and Childhood in the Light of Archaeology: Studies. Wrocław, Poland: Wydawnictwo Chronicon, 2013.

    NNNChapters include an overview of the subfield of the archaeology of childhood; experimental archaeology of Paleolithic children’s flintknapping; perceptions of children in the Villanovan culture of Tuscany (Italy), in Iron Age Willenberg culture (Prussia), and in Mid– to Late Iron Age Latvia; a comparison of gender identities in child burials in complex societies; toys as indicators of social status; and toys in medieval Silesia and late medieval towns.

  • Roveland, Blythe E. “Archaeological Approaches to the Study of Prehistoric Children: Past Trends and Future Directions.” In Children and Anthropology: Perspectives for the 21st Century. Edited by Helen B. Schwartzman, 39–56. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444390537.ch1

    NNNA survey of articles and reports in the journal American Antiquity from 1935 to 1999 found that research on prehistoric children has been underrepresented and unproblematized. A few articles compared children’s and adults’ grave goods or looked at skeletal evidence of malnutrition, disease, and cannibalization of children. Others discussed whether miniature artifacts and depictions of children were toys or symbolic ritual materials. Roveland argues that researching children is important because they made up at least 50 percent of prehistoric societies.

  • Scott, Eleanor. The Archaeology of Infancy and Infant Death. British Archaeological Reports International Series 819. Oxford: Archaeopress, 1999.

    NNNIncludes feminist critiques of the Western devaluation of infancy as unworthy of research, and addresses increasing the archaeological visibility of women and children, the importance of infancy and parenting in early evolution, cultural constructions of childbirth from the prehistoric agricultural “baby boom” to medieval practices, and archaeological detection of infanticide or child sacrifice. Summarizes research on infant burials from Neanderthal to medieval periods.

  • Wileman, Julie. Hide and Seek: The Archaeology of Childhood. Stroud, UK: Tempus, 2005.

    NNNIntroductory critique of neglect of children, and discussion of difficulties of archaeological evidence. Worldwide overview ranges from Neanderthal burials through modern diversity in children’s experiences. More on Old World than New World. Organized by topics: childbirth, upbringing practices, toys, domestic spaces, education, work, burial practices, children as warriors, deities, divineness and sacrifice, abuse, slavery, prostitution, massacres in war, and rites of passage through age grades.

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