University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Ur Project: December 2015


January 8, 2016

Where are all the children?

Focus on 32-40-29 (U.17820), B15695 (U.1211), 87-28-21 (U.3169), B15708 (U.1252)

Children comprise between 40% and 65% of most documented social groups from foragers to industrialized nations, and as such, can be expected to have created portions of the archaeological record (Baxter 2005).  At Ur, we have many child burials, but artifacts used by children, or made by children seem to be missing.  This may be due more to an oversight by archaeologists, because children rarely produce the objects, they just use them. Most artifacts that have been linked to children are of a small size, crude manufacture, or similar to items used as children’s toys in modern cultures.  Many of these objects are assigned a ritual purpose by archaeologists, mainly because we do not know what they were used for.  Babylonian and Assyrian texts describe the life cycle of humans as follows: a child at the breast, a weaned child, a child, an adolescent, an adult, and an elderly person (Nemet-Neja 1998).

Children at the breast are well represented in artistic scenes, like figurines, or reliefs.  Amulets of demons such as Pazuzu and Humbaba have also been correlated with keeping evil spirits away from pregnant women, babies, and young children.  The images below are objects found at Ur, a woman nursing a baby and two Pazuzu masks/amulets.

Left: Penn Museum Number 32-40-29 (U.17820) showing a woman nursing a child, Top: Penn Museum Number B5695 (U.1211) a Pazuzu amulet or mask, and Bottom: British Museum Number 1924,0920.95 (U.1753) a Pazuzu amulet or mask.
Left: Penn Museum Number 32-40-29 (U.17820) showing a woman nursing a child, Top: Penn Museum Number B15695 (U.1211) a Pazuzu amulet or mask, and Bottom: British Museum Number 1924,0920.95 (U.1753) a Pazuzu amulet or mask.

The weaned child, child, and adolescent stages are hard to identify in the archaeological record.  As an adolescent, male children were usually apprenticed to a job, normally that of their fathers while female children learned how to take care of the home, or became priestesses.  The artifacts from these stages of life are more than likely the same as the adult artifacts.  So, what artifacts may resemble the life stages of a weaned child and a child?

At Ur, we have some objects that may be linked to children.  Usually miniatures of objects used by adults have been assigned to ritual purposes, but based on context; these may in fact be children’s toys.  The pictures below show some of the possibilities, based on context (all except the sheep are from Diqdiqqeh), as well as what we think of children’s toys today.  These all are pierced on one end, possibly for a string so the object can be pulled.  Three of the four objects are wheeled, or would have been wheeled, also showing the object was mobile.

From Top Left to Bottom Right: Penn Museum Number 87-28-21 (U.3169) Model Boat with pierced bow. British Museum Number 1924,0920.124 (U.1629) Model chariot showing wheel attachment. British Museum Number 1930,1213.330 (U.14461) Sheep on wheels. Penn Museum Number B15708 (U.1252) Model Chariot, showing horses and having axles for wheels.
From Top Left to Bottom Right: Penn Museum Number 87-28-21 (U.3169) Model Boat with pierced bow. British Museum Number 1924,0920.124 (U.1629) Model chariot showing wheel attachment. British Museum Number 1930,1213.330 (U.14461) Sheep on wheels. Penn Museum Number B15708 (U.1252) Model Chariot, showing horses and having axles for wheels.

Children’s toys may also be constructed out of perishable materials, and as such, not preserved in the archaeological record.  Dolls could be constructed out of reeds, weapons out of sticks, or objects out of unbaked clay.  Other objects could be figurines of horses and riders, as Brad Hafford discussed last month. Children have always been a significant portion of the population, and they have influenced both economic and subsistence activities as workers and supporters of their parents’ work (Wileman 2005). Children are rarely credited with creating material culture, only using it, and as such have been largely ignored by archaeologists.  Artifacts that have been identified as children’s toys have also been labeled as ritual objects because of their small size.  These miniature objects or representations of artifacts used by adults serve important roles in the socialization of children. These artifacts give children the opportunity to mimic and practice adult social roles and physical tasks in the context of their peer groups (Baxter 2005).  All societies have children and they should not be regarded as passive recipients of adult material culture.  It may be hard to recognize children’s objects as such, but the possibility should be considered and the digitization of these objects is helping to study these issues at Ur.

Works Cited

Baxter, J. 2005. The Archaeology of Childhood: Children, Gender, and Material Culture. AltaMira Press.

Nemet-Nejat, K. 1998. Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Greenwood Press.

Wileman, J. 2005 Hide and Seek: The Archaeology of Childhood. Tempus.


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