I’m not one of those people that have wanted to be archaeologists since they were children, hoping to uncover sarcophagi and sacrificial goat remains in playground sandboxes. But I was still an erudite child, and one of the many things that interested me were ancient societies. As I have said before, Horrible Histories books were probably my main source of information as regards the latter, but I liked other archaeology-related books as well. Back home in Italy for a week, I have been doing some personal archaeological excavations, reading the bookshelves in my old bedroom as if they were stratigraphic layers, and one of the archaeology-themed books I have unearthed stands out in particular—Chris and Melanie Rice’s How Children Lived, illustrated by Sergio, and first published by Dorling Kindersley in 1995.
In the book, we meet sixteen children, each from a different time and place (left). Because everybody loves lists, here they are, all sixteen of them:
1. Hori, a scribe’s apprentice from Ancient Egypt, who sleeps on the roof of his family’s mud-brick house when it’s too hot;
2. Lysander, a potter’s apprentice from Ancient Greece, who needs to be careful that his dog Cerberus doesn’t barge into the workshop and break all the pots;
3. Miao, a handmaiden at the Chinese Emperor’s court in 130 BC, who likes to sneak all the way up to the top of the palace when nobody’s looking and admire the view on the nearby city;
4. Vitalinus (right), who amuses Roman legionaries camped in Germany by play-fighting with his friends with a wooden sword;
5. Asa (below), a Viking girl who loves ice-skating and wears a brooch in the shape of her father’s ship;
6. Bilal, a merchant’s slave crossing the Sahara with his master to reach the Timbuktu market, in 1400 AD;
7. Sancho, a page to a Spanish knight with dreams of becoming a knight himself;
8. Giovanna, an accomplished young lady from Renaissance Florence, who plays the lute, sings, and sits for portraits with her siblings;
9. Xochitl (above), an Aztec farmer girl who makes tortillas and cotton textiles with her mother;
10. Kumar, the elphant keeper’s son at the Mughal court in seventeenth-century Agra, who likes to treat his favourite elephant, Gajpati, with cooked rice, and who idolises a wrestler by the name of Jag Sobha;
11. Ichiro, an aspiring samurai in Edo-period Japan, who is also learning to compose poetry;
12. Wiliyati (right), an eighteenth-century Australian Aborigine, who enjoys lizard hunting and demonstrates the various uses of a boomerang;
13. Pierrette, a Parisian street urchin from the time of the Revolution, who enjoys puppet shows and cobbling together enough money to buy bread;
14. Anna, a nineteenth-century station master’s daughter living near Liverpool, whose father also teaches her to take care of the family’s finances;
15. Ohe-Tika-wi, a Dakota Native American girl who is skilled at treating buffalo skin so that it can be made into clothing;
16. Jack, a shopkeeper’s son from Roaring Twenties New York, whose sisters teach him to dance the Charleston.
How Children Lived is by no means a perfect book, but it does have a lot of cool ideas, and the potential to shape a child’s mind in an interesting way.
For one thing, it avoids a lot of stereotypes. Though some of the children have very exciting lives (I’m thinking, in particular, about Ichiro, the would-be samurai, and Sancho, the aspiring knight), the book emphasises humble day-to-day activities and settings. In other words, you won’t find anything about pyramids, or Aztec sacrifices, and even the Roman kid, Vitalinus, lives far, far away from Rome, in a little military camp on the Rhine. Though the spectacular and the monumental were no doubt important parts of people’s lives in the past, it is unlikely that they featured normally in them. By showing this, How Children Lived not only makes the children more relatable, but also demonstrates that unspectacular lives can also be interesting. It is also refreshing that the Aztec chapter avoids all gruesomeness and grossness that one usually finds in children’s media that has to do with the Aztecs–from their appetite for creepy crawlies to the human sacrifice. These things were indeed a part of Aztec life, and many children do love to learn about them, but, since they would get this stuff anywhere else (again, Horrible Histories, I’m looking at you), it’s good that at least one source exists that reminds them that Aztec life was not all about blood and guts.
I also love how clearly and effectively the authors draw a connection between the objects ancient people left behind, and the lives they led. For example, in Lysander’s case, they show a photo of clay toys, and, instead of simply saying “these are the toys that Lysander played with”, the caption reads that these sorts of toys would have been made out of the surplus clay that wasn’t used for pots (left). This leaves your brain free to speculate that the master potter made the toys for Lysander as a treat when he’d been particularly good, or maybe that Lysander himself made the toys in his leisure time–either way, it’s a nice human/humanising touch. Another example: for Xochitl, the Aztec girl, they don’t simply caption a photo of cactus-spine needles with the words “these are the needles Xochitl used to make cotton”. Instead, the caption says that Xochitl was careful not to prick her own fingers wen she used them. No scientific proof of this, and probably no way to prove it, but it makes sense that it would happen.
Most importantly, How Children Lived has a lot of potential for formative existential crises. This book blew my tiny little mind, back when I was eight or nine, when it made me realise that, in many ways, I wasn’t that different from most of these kids, and, that, hundreds of years in the future, a similar book could come out, with two pages dedicated to children from my era—illustrated with photos and drawings of gameboys and calculators and velcro shoes instead of rusty brooches and boomerangs and astrolabes. These thoughts were probably inspired by the book’s last two pages, which show how archaeologists reconstruct past lives from the objects people left behind, and encourage you both to think what you might leave for archaeologists to find in the future (right), and to place yourself on a time line with all the other kids in the book. Of course, by showing me that I wasn’t too different from kids that were around in ancient times, this book also reminded me of my mortality, and the likely inconsequentiality of my life in the grander scheme of things. But, personally, I think it’s healthy to encourage your kids to have existential crises and reflect upon their own mortality as early as possible—it’s character-building, and I don’t mean it in an ironic way. Louis C.K. agrees, and probably expresses it better than I could.
One thing the book should have mentioned but doesn’t is that we don’t know all these things about past lives from archaeology alone: historical documents, and, to a lesser extent, ethnographic work (at least in the case of Wiliyati, the Aboriginal kid) are a huge help.
Also, these kids are a bit too perfect. They are polite, accomplished, sweet. Even the Parisian street urchins are pint-sized saints. But it is a little unbelievable that not one of them has the occasional naughty moment. There is definitely information out there about how naughty children used to be punished in ancient times, and I think, as a child, and in particular as an occasionally naughty child, I would have found that interesting to read. The Aztecs, in particular, left pretty detailed illustrations of the cruel and unusual punishments they would inflict on their disobedient and/or lazy offspring–for example, tying their kids’ ankles and wrists together and pricking them with cactus spines, or holding their faces over a chili pepper fire. until their eyes watered and their nostrils filled with spicy smoke.
This article ended up turning into a review, but mostly the point is that, through How Children Lived, I think I have isolated some of the key ingredients that make good children-aimed archaeology-related media: clarity over where the information comes from (convincing connection between objects and past lives, acknowledgement of the importance of texts and ethnography), emphasis on the humble and the day-to-day, fuel for mind-expanding existential crises, and some nasty stuff (e.g. exotic punishments).
But there is also another thing that is notable about this book, although its target audience may not be able to appreciate it: the very fact that it focuses on children. Children, like the elderly, have long been a neglected demographic within the context of archaeological research–most of the attention goes towards reconstructing the lives of young-to-middle-aged adults. As far as I can tell, children leave as many traces behind for archaeologists to discover as adults do. Perhaps children are studied less frequently because archaeologists tend not to be children themselves, or perhaps the bias results from the same sort of thinking that classifies children’s literature as inferior to adult literature. I don’t know. Things have started to change in the last decade or so: for example, Jess Cooney has done some really interesting work on children’s cave art in prehistoric Europe (tiny hands leave distinctive traces on certain types of caves–and, adorably, some of these traces are so high up that the child must have been lifted up by an adult–maybe a parent, or perhaps some kind of art teacher). But, having been published in 1995, How Children Lived was way ahead of its times. Indeed, perhaps, it provides archaeologists with another reason to study children, beyond simply the fact that it is interesting and important–we should also study ancient children because it is a good way to get modern-day ones interested in archaeology/learning more about the past.