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Archaeologies of Childhood

What was childhood like in the ancient world? Everyone was a child once, but experiences of childhood differ widely across time and culture. The exhibition “Archaeologies of Childhood: The First Years of Life in Roman Egypt,” opening November 14 at the Kelsey Museum, looks at material from Egypt under Roman rule and tries to show what childhood was like in that particular place and time.

It may be hard to imagine childhood without all of the things we have come to regard as necessities for children. But 2,000 years ago in Egypt under Roman rule, children grew up in a world very different from our own. Infant and child mortality were high, health care and education very limited, natural dangers abundant, and child abandonment and child slavery simple facts of life. Yet childhood in Roman Egypt also has many points of contact with our own understandings of it. And, just as now, there was no single experience of childhood in Roman Egypt: wider factors like status, ethnicity, and gender, as well as individual circumstances, made for varying experiences of childhood. Thanks to the University of Michigan’s rich holdings in material from Roman Egypt, we can see what children looked like, how they learned and played, and what the expectations and concerns about their lives were in a North African culture nearly 2,000 years ago.

Objects from Karanis

This exhibition features artifacts from the University of Michigan excavations at Karanis, a Roman-period town in the Egyptian Fayum. From 1924 to 1935, the Michigan team uncovered thousands of artifacts of daily use at Karanis, and these items provide an unparalleled look at life in a farming community in Roman Egypt. Many of the objects in this exhibition, including toys, dolls, articles of children’s clothing, images of children, protective amulets, and educational tools, come from the context of homes at Karanis, offering significant insight into how children grew up in an ancient culture.

Regular visitors to the Kelsey Museum will already be familiar with the richness and diversity of the material from Karanis, but “Archaeologies of Childhood” shows a new side of the Karanis material, including artifacts never before exhibited. The visitor to the exhibition will see not only much that is familiar among the artifacts on display but also artifacts that have no parallel in our culture, underlining both the similarities and differences between ancient experiences of childhood and our own.

A Range of Artifacts

“Archaeologies of Childhood” takes the visitor through a series of stations devoted to different aspects of childhood in Roman Egypt. Representations of children, juxtaposed with remains of what children wore, give an idea of what children looked like. An assortment of protective images and amulets shows the kinds of dangers children faced and strategies the Egyptians adopted for dealing with them. The education of children, neither widespread nor compulsory, is illustrated through toys and artifacts of learning. A large display of toys and games shows the range of pastimes open to children in Roman Egypt and examines the serious aims that often lay behind simple “child’s play.” Images of the child god Harpocrates show how children informed Egyptian spirituality. Text and graphics suggest the range of documents from Roman Egypt relating to childhood in the Papyrology Collection of the U-M Library, curated by Professor Traianos Gagos. These papyri include household accounts showing expenses for child-raising, census declarations, birth certificates, letters and documents about adoption and education. A group of objects from a specific find at Karanis allows the viewer to ponder relationships between child-related artifacts (like toys) and other household objects.

Wider Archaeological Issues Explored

Indeed, the Karanis material is used to explore wider issues of the archaeologies of childhood in the ancient world. We often associate the word “archaeology” with digging for artifacts, but this is only part of the work of archaeology, which is also the study of materials, contexts, relationships, the wider analyses of regions through survey, and the use of a variety of theoretical approaches and methodologies to understand the past. All of these aspects of archaeology can tell us much about ancient childhood. In a broader sense, investigating ancient texts, digging through archives, and excavating museum storage are also forms of archaeology that inform our understanding of ancient childhood.

Childhood in the ancient world is a relatively new area of study for scholars—the evidence for childhood is often hard to identify and its significance has often been neglected. The material in this exhibition is part of exciting new research by U-M faculty and students to recover knowledge of childhood in Roman Egypt. This exhibition draws on the ongoing research of Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology (IPCAA) student Karen Johnson, who examined the cloth dolls from Karanis and is currently working on a dissertation exploring archaeological approaches to childhood in the Roman period, using the Kelsey Museum Karanis material.

Central to current research on ancient childhood is the question of whether “childhood” as we understand it existed at all or whether it is a modern invention. French cultural historian Philippe Ariès proposed the latter in his landmark 1960 book Centuries of Childhood, in which he argued that it was only in the last few centuries that children were separated to some extent from the adult world and that family structures developed around children and their education and care. Scholars have continued to refine Ariès’s thesis and explore its applicability beyond early modern Europe. The Karanis material provides a useful complement to Ariès’s European focus. The children of Roman Egypt lived in an adult world, where play was often preparation for adult activities, with relatively few concessions to the specifics of childhood.

Mummy CT-Scan Featured

The exhibition also features material from last year’s project to CT-scan a child mummy from Roman Egypt in the Kelsey Museum. Readers of the Kelsey Museum Newsletter will remember the preliminary report of this project, the result of research by U-M Engineering undergraduate Grant K. M. Martin carried out with the generous cooperation of the U-M Hospital Radiology Department. The exhibition features graphics showing new details of the mummy CT-scan (although the mummy itself is not on display).

The scans show the body of a child perhaps 4 or 5 years of age, probably a boy. The body is attached to a wooden framework, suggesting that it might not have been in good condition when embalmed; the body cavity itself is crushed down by the weight of the yards and yards of linen used in the mummification process. Using the scan data, Grant Martin created a life-size resin model of the mummy’s skull, which features prominently in the exhibition. Further examination of the scans seems to confirm initial suspicions that the mummified child did indeed have six fingers on its left hand. This condition may well have been the result of genetic complications from the highly unusual rate of brother-sister marriage in Roman Egypt, a phenomenon rare in human history and the reasons for which in Roman Egypt are still not entirely understood.

As with any Kelsey Museum exhibition, “Archaeologies of Childhood” is very much a team effort, involving U-M students in the exhibition process as part of our teaching mission. As mentioned above, the research of IPCAA graduate student Karen Johnson has greatly informed the concept of the exhibition, while Engineering undergraduate Grant Martin’s mummy project forms one of its centerpieces. Amanda Paige, who recently received her BA from U-M as a concentrator in Ancient Civilizations and Biblical Studies in the Near Eastern Studies Department, provided ideas, enthusiasm, and insight into the conception of the exhibition. The range of material involved has required careful conservation under the direction of Kelsey Conservator Suzanne Davis, assisted by Near Eastern Studies graduate student Stacy Davidson (one of the first students accepted into the U-M’s newly reformulated Museum Studies Program), and recent IPCAA Ph.D. Molly Swetnam-Burland helped prepare the mummy for its trip to the hospital last year. The exhibition benefits from a creative and unusual design by our exhibition preparator Scott Meier, featuring bright colors and child-friendly viewing angles and text. Scott has been assisted through the summer by U-M LS&A undergraduate Rob Stephan (who will be working on Karanis material in an independent study project this year), now also joined by U-M undergraduate David Clark (who has worked on many Kelsey exhibitions). Our registrarial and photographic needs have been taken care of by Robin Meador-Woodruff and Sebastián Encina, with assistance from Kate Carras, our texts as always edited by Peg Lourie. Todd Gerring has graciously handled our publicity, public programs, and logistical arrangements, while Laurie Talalay has provided docent education connected with the exhibition. Finally, Janet Richards has provided essential curatorial support and organization, drawing on her own recent experiences with her exhibition “Individual and Society in Ancient Egypt.”

“Archaeologies of Childhood: The First Years of Life in Roman Egypt” will open with a lecture by Emily Teeter of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, at 5:30 p.m., Friday, November 14, in Angell Hall Auditorium D. A reception follows at the Kelsey Museum.

—Terry Wilfong, Exhibition Curator