St John’s babes in arms

Today, in Blog 2 of our Little Lives series, Prof. Hallie Buckley, one of our co-directors, talks about how we’ve been looking at the children of St John’s Burial Ground, Milton, and what can they tell us about the community

At the St John’s burial ground in Milton we found a number of graves of infants and young children. A sad reality of the Victorian, pre-antibiotic era, was that many babies born would not survive the vulnerable period post-birth of exposure to infectious diseases in the community. Also, when mother’s weaned their babies off breast-milk (if they were breastfed at all) these babes in arms were at further risk of death from infectious diarrhoea and malnutrition. The colonial period was a dangerous time to be an infant or child.

Infant and child sickness were a sad reality of Victorian life and often depicted in art of the day. Picture: “The physician’s verdict”. Oil painting by Emile Carolus Leclercq, 1857. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In our work investigating the health and disease of people from the past in other parts of the world, the burials of babies and children, are the most poignant. The earthly remains of the little ones can tell us a lot about the overall health of a community in the past. They’ve even been described as the ‘barometers’ of the rest of the society, as they are so sensitive to change. When a new born baby dies it is usually the result of inborn weakness caused by something like not having enough nutrients from the mother while in the womb. When an older infant succumbs the causes are more from the outside environment, such as infection. So if we see a lot of new babies in a burial ground, for example, we can begin to understand what sorts of issues were faced by the community as a whole.  For this reason it really important for us ‘bone people’ to be able accurately determine the age of the infant or child when they died.

Working out how old children are in the archaeological record

We do this by assessing how developed the bones and teeth of the infant/child are. Our skeletons begin to develop in the womb from about 8 weeks after we’re conceived. The bones of our limbs like our thigh bones, begin their growth from a cartilage model which gradually turns into bone (or ossifies). Those tiny bones slowly increases in length and width over time to eventually look (almost) like a full-grown thigh bone. For really young babies we measure the length of their limb bones and match up that measurement to a chart showing how long bones tend to be at certain ages. These charts are created by clever (and patient!) people who measure bones in thousands of living babies to get an idea of how infants and children develop. The young bones of children don’t look quite like fully grown adult bones – there are extra bones (or epiphyses) that develop mostly at the ends of the bones to form the joints. Once the limb bone has finished its growth in length, these will fuse to the long shafts of the bones, to make the adult bone shapes we’re more familiar with.

Simplified diagram showing how the shape of the femur (thigh bone) changes as your grow. These changes are what we use to work out the age of children in the archaeological record.

Getting back to our little ones… the other thing we do to establish their age is look at the development stage of the teeth. Did you know that our baby teeth actually begin to develop inside our jaws when we are still our mother’s womb? These are called ‘deciduous’ teeth because we shed these teeth during childhood once our adult teeth begin to erupt- like a deciduous tree sheds their leaves in autumn. All of our teeth begin with the forming of the crown first (the white parts that you brush) and then the roots which are stuck into our jaws. Once the crowns and part of the roots have formed the crown will ‘erupt’ through the gums and then we can use them to chew food.

These stages of tooth formation and eruption occur at know ages; for example the deciduous teeth erupt from 6 months old starting with the front incisors and finishing with their little molars which erupt by 2 years of age. The permanent teeth begin erupting at 6 years of age with the first molar behind the second baby molar, then the rest of the deciduous teeth are shed as they are replaced by the permanent ones. The so-called ‘wisdom tooth’ erupts around 18 years of age-but this can vary. Again because people have recorded all these stages and made charts of them we can estimate the ‘dental age’ of a young baby or child quite precisely.

Dental development charts like this one by AlQahtani et al. (2010) might look complicated, but for bioarchaeologists they’re incredibly helpful in allowing us to work out the age of children from just their teeth.

Children in St John’s

At St John’s we found 15 individuals who had died before reaching adulthood but only 13 graves! In two of these graves we found that more than one youngster had been buried at the same time. For example, Burial 20 had one individual who died at around 15 months of age (20A) buried in their own coffin above a child of 3 years of age (20B). For both of these cases we only had the teeth to estimate their ages as their bones did not survive…

Hallie Buckley, 28th April 2020

In our next blog post we’ll go into more detail on the double burials, and try to bring the lives of these children more vividly into focus…

References used:

AlQahtani SJ, Hector MP, Liversidge HM. 2010. Brief communication: The London atlas of human tooth development and eruption. Am J Phys Anthropol. 142(3):481–90.

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