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Infant Archaeology:
From material culture to culturally graded processes of maturation

Kirsi Lorentz

Trinity College, Trinity Street, Cambridge, CB2 1TQ
Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, CB2 3DZ
E-mail: kol20@hermes.cam.ac.uk
           kirsilorentz@hotmail.com

No viable society can exist without children. Theoretical discussions forming the basis for the archaeological investigation of immature individuals have been initiated. However, materially based discussions of children in specific cultural contexts are few. This paper explores material culture as evidence for the conditions of childhoods in Cyprus, from the Aceramic Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age. The body, the object and the context form the sites of analysis. Anthropomorphic figurines, skeletal remains and contextual mortuary evidence form the bodies of data. Rather than studying children as biologically, socially and historically distinct group, it is more useful to explore maturation as a culturally graded process, and age as a form of social difference. The maturing archaeology of children should see itself as part of a wider effort to understand processes of maturation and ageing in the past.

In this paper, the body is focused on as an interpretative location. The body is seen as material culture, as a real material entity shaped and modified by socially constructed knowledge. The investigation of the body in this context involves osteological and palaeopathological analyses of skeletal remains of sub-adults and adults with evidence of childhood conditions, contextual funerary analysis, and the formal analysis of anthropomorphic depictions. In these depictions the bodies of the young may be seen in relation to the adult bodies or, indeed, material objects. Here, the focus is particularly on the depictions.

The infant is the young individual par excellence depicted in the figurine media. None of the depictions show an active child engaged in play, work, or other activities, but rather a passive recipient of activities directed towards it, being born, held, breast fed, cradle boarded. The infants are depicted in relation to adults, for adult purposes, showing the activities and attitudes of adults towards children, specifically as offspring. The chosen activities depicted, by relating the adult and infant bodies, change through time. The Chalcolithic figurine material can be interpreted as showing the adult concern with biological reproduction. The Early/ Middle Cypriot representations of infants and nurture may be seen in the context of rising complexity and arrival of patriarchal influences, and the Late Cypriot figurines can again be interpreted as representations of adult concerns with sexuality, reproduction and nurture of infants.

In the cognised world of the specific communities of prehistoric Cyprus the represented activities related to reproduction and child care seem to have been carefully chosen forming the cognised world - from a diversity of activities available that is the cognisable world. This is perhaps in order to communicate those qualities or activities most appreciated or most central for those engaged in reproductive or child caring activity. 

In the light of the analysis, it appears that there is a transformation of emphasis in the depictions, from the Chalcolithic emphasis on fertility and biological birth, through shift of focus to the nurture of infants and social implications of reproduction and child care during the Early and Middle Cypriot, to the Late Cypriot combination of regulated, conventionalised depiction of fertility, sexuality and nurture. This is particularly interesting in relation to the skeletal and mortuary data, and in view of the theories on rising complexity in Cyprus, and changing perceptions of gender.

In conclusion, it is indeed possible to study the young through the prehistoric Cypriot material culture. It emerges that the anthropomorphic figurines reveal particular, changing understandings of the young, and infants in particular. This unifying feature, the depiction of offspring to be born and nurtured exhibits the adult interest. The child as an agent is absent in these depictions.

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assemblage - the University of Sheffield graduate journal of archaeology 
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