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S. Williams Shifting Burial Practices

     It becomes very clear how important someone is to society when they are laid to rest. Whether that individual is cremated, dropped down a well or dedicated a mausoleum, their farewell says a great deal about his or her place in a community when patterns and trends arise in burial practices. Athens, again, has provided a wealth of information for archaeological evidence of burial rituals for infants and older children.

     The most interesting changes happened in relation to the Themistoclean wall, built in the Classical period. The manner in which the graves begin to cluster suggests that even in death, the children of every age mattered in Greek Antiquity.

     Sanne Houby-Nielsen recognized the significance of children in Classical Athenian society by the way the city was shaped by child cemeteries.[1] Houby-Nielsen has analyzed 2,000 child burials from the years 1100 B.C. – 0 B.C. A period of the most drastic changes was 720 B.C. to 400 B.C., which saw the rise of the city-state. During this time, more strict age categorizations were considered when burying infants and young children. These burials were so significant that their formal settings often affected the urban landscape of Athens. I summarize her findings here.

     Children were divided into three age categories that were also distinguishable in burials. Infants comprised newborns to one year olds. Small children comprised children one to three or four years old. Older children consisted of children three and four to ten years old. After this point in time, children were indistinguishable from adults in burial traditions. This is understandable in a society where people either died young or started the duties of adulthood at an early age. When it came to the grave goods buried with the deceased child patterns emerged.

     The older the child the more grave goods were deposited with the burial. It also seems that the death of older children needed more purification than the death of a newborn.[2] For this reason, the older the child, the more purifying lekythoi were deposited in or displayed above a child’s grave. Conversely, the older child was thought better able to fend for himself. For an older child, fewer food and drink supplies were deposited in the grave.[3] In fact, the grave goods that accompanied the child could often determine the age of the child. Infants were often provided with vessels for food and beverage. While the Athenians may have been unclear of what happened in death, they seem to have believed that the babies would still need food. Small children were given toys such as balls or little dolls. Older children were not given toys or food vessels. Instead, they were often buried with the paraphernalia of the trade they would have chosen if not cut down so early in life.[4] This practice suggests that the child’s lost potential was of great significance.

     The frequency of child burial rose and fell throughout Athenian antiquity. In the periods leading up to the Classical period, formal child burials were performed, and these were intermixed amongst the burials of adults. As time passed, the number of child burials began to increase. However, in this time children were still inhumed in small graves. Also, during this time, children were beginning to be buried in medium sized storage jars. The jars were then covered and closed with a large stone, a potsherd, or even a vase. The grave itself was still often covered with a stone slab. It is during this time that many deceased children started to be provided with food in small vases.

     In the period from 720 B.C. to 400 B.C. the most significant changes occurred. The need to distinguish the age of the deceased became even more pronounced. In this time, the specific distinctions between the types of grave goods given for each age group became most apparent. Beginning in 500 B.C. more and more children of one to four years old were buried in terracotta basins. From 300 B.C. to the year 0 B.C. children were more often cremated.       



[1] Sofaer, Children and material culture. - Child burials in ancient Athens - Sanne Houby-Nielsen p. 150–160.

[2] L. Beaumont, "Constructing a methodology for the interpretation of childhood age in classical athenian iconography," Archaeological Review from Cambridge 13, no. 2 (1994). p. 83-90.

[3] R. Vollkommer, "Mythological children in archaic art: On the problem of age differentiation for small children," Periplous: Papers on Classical Art and Archaeology Presented to Sir John Boardman  (2000).

[4] Sofaer, Children and material culture. p. 150.

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