Looking at the Moon: Archaeology & Children

Ritual offerings.

My child is obsessed by the moon.

It wasn’t her first word, but it was early, and fervent.

MOON. Before “mama” even. MOON. She points at the sky, finger connecting to the bright crescent. It doesn’t seem to matter if it is full, or a thin sliver, or covered by clouds. MOON. She asks after it several times a day, like a friend or a sibling. Now I look out for it as well, check when it rises so we can go out and affirm, yes, MOON.

I’m not the first person to observe how having children changes the way you think about things. Recently Rumaan Alam noted how his children’s awe (or lack thereof) changed how he sees art, citing beloved John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. In On Looking, Alexandra Horowitz guides us to look through the eyes of “experts,” including a geologist, artist, physician, urban sociologist…and a dog and a child.

My Tamsin is a similar age to Horowitz’s 1.5 year old son—Tamsin is also “blessed with the ability to admire the unlovely.” Touching, tasting, being, tripping, laughing. Horowitz compares her son’s investigation of things found on their walk to a kind of archaeology, “exploring the bit of discarded candy wrapper; collecting a fistful of pebbles and a twig and a torn corner of a paperback; swishing dirt back and forth along the ground.” I instantly thought of Angela Piccini’s Guttersnipe, still my favorite archaeology movie, wherein Piccini deftly weaves a Bristol history around personal experience through the medium of curbstones. Really. Watch it.

Certainly having a child changes the way that you walk down the street, but it also changes the way I think about the past. Tamsin delighted in long afternoons at our allotment, picking and eating raspberries, blackberries, currants (tart!), then apples and a wonderful plum tree and grapes in the yard of the house in Greece we were at this summer. She became much better than her slightly near-sighted mother  at spotting potential edibles, including birds. I’m not sure she’s better than other children at this sort of thing, and I rather suspect not, but I can’t help but think how it might have been incredibly helpful to have a food-spotter lashed to your back as you go along your way.

I realized that I had always thought of children as a burden in the past. The terror of trying to find a warm place for the night, of running out of food, of not being able to keep up with your group after a difficult childbirth…though obviously and sadly these nightmares persist for many people. I had never thought of a baby as a valued sidekick, as a contributing member of the household. The grave goods accompanying a child could celebrate their acumen, their contributions, something more than a parent’s loss.

After finding small caches of socks in books, bananas in couches (ew) and duplo legos in cooking pots, I also think of small finds and deposits I’ve found archaeologically. What an odd collection of small things, it must be a ritual offering….right? Or I wondered how on earth people could have misplaced that obviously valued object, that gold and pearl earring at the bottom of a cooking pit, etc. Now I think of grimy little magpie hands. Probably both are too reductive and mono-causal, but still.

Whether you attribute finds to children or to obscure rituals, these attributions show both our interpretive biases in approaching archaeological remains but also the potential of broadening and changing our archaeological imagination. I have very little in common with people in the past, as I type this blog out on a glowing screen in front of a fire, but small insights from a biological act that I am pretty sure happened in the past—childbearing—helps me think in different ways about their experiences. Yes, my sample is small…but she is growing all the time and she helps me to see things in new and delightful ways.

MOON.

(pssst, I’m quite amateur at thinking about children archaeologically, your first port of call for this expertise online is Sian Halcrow’s The Bioarchaeology of Children)

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Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

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