Hide and Seek: Skeletons of Anglo-Saxon and Roman children go on display in Cambridgeshire

| 01 February 2016

Starting in East Anglia and moving across England, curators are using a child’s footprint from a million years ago, bones and 20th century toys to trace the archaeology of childhood

A photo of a child skeleton
© University of Cambridge
The exceptional grave goods found at a site from 5th or 6th century Oakington had an unusual accompanying body. Child burials from Anglo-Saxon times are rare: despite kids outnumbering ancient adults and the high infant mortality rate of the time, archaeologists think children were buried differently, their fragile bones often swallowed up by the soil.

© University of Cambridge
Nearly half of the 128 burials discovered in the town, which lies north of Cambridge, belonged to under-12s, while more than a quarter were under six.

© University of Cambridge
“The skeleton is of an individual we would regard as a child,” says Jody Joy, a curator at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology who wants to re-examine the shifting phase between childhood and becoming an adult throughout history.

The coffin of a one-year-old Roman child© University of Cambridge
“But she has been buried as if she were an adult. It was dangerous being a child in the past.

This sledge is made from a horse's jaw© University of Cambridge
“From prehistory until the Victorian period, 30-50 per cent of children did not survive to adulthood. Disease, germs and household accidents all took their toll.”

This flint tool was used by children© University of Cambridge
Children’s stories, say Joy, are “difficult but not impossible” to find in museums. On display for a year, the skeleton lies near a sledge made from a horse’s jaw, the remains of a medieval puppet and the coffin of a one-year-old Roman child, scrutinised as part of a concerted effort to research some of the curious available evidence of growing up during those periods.

This 20th century doll has a ceramic face, hands and feet and a fabric body© Private collector
A miniature bow, according to one of its excavators at another site in Cambridgeshire, could have been a ritual object, symbolising the importance of archery to Bronze Age people.

Children's handcuffs© University of Cambridge
“I can’t help wondering whether it was made for a child, perhaps to help them practice the art,” says Joy, pointing out its careful craftsmanship and tiny measurements (its length is 45cm), potentially designed for use by young shooters.

The Cambridge Lent Assizes of 1843 include the sorry tale of 13-year-old Thomas Bradley, from Cambridgeshire, who was sentenced to 15 years' transportation to Australia for setting fire to stacks of corn and straw© Museum of Cambridge
“The bow is made of antler. I have always been intrigued by its size.

© University of Cambridge
It is too small for an adult to use and yet it was carefully made. When strung, it could well have fired miniature arrows.”

This Roman roof tile contains a child's footprint© Wendlebury Gate Stables, Network Rail and Chiltern Railways
Illustrations from the 1400s show that children enjoyed the less violent pursuits of sledging and skating. “But we want to show that evidence for the lives of children can be found beyond the obvious,” says Joy.

© University of Cambridge
“Ongoing research, new discoveries and excavations help us develop our understanding of children’s lives. Each new discovery can enrich our understanding of what life was like for children in the past.”

Ceramic figures found in a box on top of the coffin of the Roman child© University of Cambridge
The Roman child is a less recent recovery: 26 years ago, the infant in the exhibition was found in a lead coffin far larger than their body required, slammed shut by a wooden box full of ceramic figures. Consumption, malnourishment, death by drowning, head injuries and household accidents were among the reasons recorded by the coroner for fatalities across the centuries, the research team say.

  • Hide and Seek: Looking for Children in the Past is at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology until January 29 2017.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

© University of Cambridge
A baby walker from around 1790© Chatteris Museum
Marbles found in Peterborough© University of Cambridge
Tin toys from the 1930s-1950s© Chatteris Museum
A Roman silver snake bracelet found in Northamptonshire© Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery
Three museums to explore the history of childhood in

West Wales Museum of Childhood, Pen-ffynnon
Take a stroll down Memory Lane to see toys from the past. A timeline includes more than 100 years of exhibits and there are themed displays of of dolls, teddy bears and dolls houses.

Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh
Toys and games of all kinds from many parts of the world, ranging from dolls and teddy bears to train sets and tricycles. Watch the street games of Edinburgh children of the 1950s and find out how children have been brought up, dressed and educated in decades gone by.

V&A Museum of Childhood, London
The UK's largest collection of toys including dolls, dolls' houses, puppets, games, optical toys and automata, including a significant children's costume and nursery equipment collection. Artefacts range from the 16th century to the present day.
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