Children in the Archaeological Record

Today we begin our Little Lives blog series for New Zealand Archaeology week. Welcome! Come and join us as we shine a light on the children of colonial times, whose stories so often don’t get told in the history books… Today Dr. Peter Petchey starts us off with some insight into the children in burial grounds we work with in the Southern Cemeteries Project.

One of the more challenging aspects of Victorian life was death: the Victorians lived with death far more immediately and regularly than we do. Not only were death rates much higher (for reasons that Hallie will explore in the next blog), but the deceased were also usually kept at their homes, from where funeral processions started for the graveyard. And in the colonial period infant mortality was very high…

How did people respond to this? Were they resigned to the regular death of their children, or did it affect them deeply? This is one area where our research is shedding light on early settler life (and death). At St. John’s Cemetery near Milton, we investigated 25 graves, which held the remains of 11 adults, 1 adolescent, 4 children and 10 infants. Two of these graves were double burials, with two infants. That is a staggeringly high proportion of very young people. In this blog post I will explore how we found these graves, what we found, and what we can tell about people’s feelings at the time.

Finding the unmarked graves at St John’s, Milton

The rear of St. John’s Cemetery before the excavation. There were a few scattered headstones, but most graves were unmarked, and we found 16 graves beyond the back fence.
Photo: Peter Petchey

Finding the unmarked graves of these people was not too difficult, as we knew approximately the original (1860s) boundaries of the cemetery. We carefully removed the topsoil to expose the clean clay underneath, and the graves appeared as rectangular discoloured areas in the clay, caused by the mixture of the clay and topsoil when the graves were originally dug and filled.

What we are looking for: the outlines of two graves (the rectangles with more gravel in) exposed when the topsoil has been scraped off. Photo: Peter Petchey

Even at this point we could get an idea whether we were investigating an adult or a child: an adult’s grave will typically be about seven feet (2 metres) long, while an infant’s grave is usually half that. Infants and children will also usually be buried shallower than adults, so we needed to dig very slowly when we investigated these graves.

What did we find?

All of the infants and children that we investigated were buried in small wooden coffins, and most were miniature replicas of the coffins that the adults had. All but two were what we still recognise as a coffin shape: the single break form with narrow head and feet, and wide across the shoulders. Most were covered in black fabric, and six also had embossed metal ribbon decorative strips (I described this type of adult coffin decoration in an earlier blog post).

The coffin decorations of adults (left), young children (middle) and infants (right) at St. John’s Milton. The similarity of decoration shows us how children and adults were equally mourned in colonial society. Image: P. Petchey.

Clearly these children were being buried in the full funerary fashion of the period: they were being mourned in the same way as older deaths in the community. The coffins were probably custom made by the local undertaker for each individual, and it is notable that the decorative metal strips were available in infant/child dimensions: adults’ strips were often around 2 inches (50mm) wide, while children’s strips were ½ to 7/8 inch (12 to 22mm) wide. Two children’s coffins even had miniature cast iron coffin handles, one set 2 ½ inches (63mm) and one set 3 inches (75mm) wide. These were not wide enough for an adult’s hand, but their purpose would have been to adorn rather than carry the coffins.

I mentioned above the double burials: these are where we found two coffins in the same grave, in each case with one on top of the other. These were difficult to investigate, as the coffins had squashed together in the past 140+ years, but by slow and careful excavation we could see that in both cases two wooden coffins covered in black fabric had been placed in the grave, one directly in top of the other. There was no soil between the two, and in each case the larger coffin had been placed under the smaller coffin. From the archaeological evidence we therefore can determine (with reasonable confidence) that in each case two very young siblings died within days of each other and were buried together. The double tragedy that each family suffered was marked in the typical funerary tradition of the period: these were not anonymous infants but were seen and mourned as members of their community.

Peter Petchey, 27th April 2020

The following blog entries in our Little Lives series will explore reasons why these children died so close together…starting tomorrow, when Hallie will be taking us through how bioarchaeologists study children and what we can learn from their skeletal remains...

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