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Burials at Night. Children from Ancient Civilizations

Archaeological evidence excavated from what is known as Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, suggests that the Sumerians and Akkadians, the first civilized people, cared for their children; although evidence also suggests that first born children were often sacrificed. Further, the Sumerian code of laws, ana ittisu, which stated laws such as the fact that parents could give up children when it suited them, makes it difficult to interpret the ancient society’s concern for children. These contradictory ideals, which apply to many of the societies discussed here, illustrate the extent to which parental love is both dynamic and complex in the ancient world.

Evidence of Parental Concern

It is clear from the artifacts and writings left behind that Egyptian children were warmly cared for. Young children from all social classes were treated equally until school age. The tombs of children were often found with mummified pets to go with them on their journey to the afterlife. Premature infants, as well as their umbilicus, were also mummified. This practice leads historians to believe that Egyptian parents hoped that their infants would go on to be nourished through the umbilical cord, grow, and live the life they were meant to live. The Egyptians called the soul of a child ba, a bird with a human head.1

In ancient Egypt abandonment and infanticide were rare. In fact, the Egyptians were well known for rescuing abandoned infants. The Egyptian code of law implicitly made provisions for the protection of the unborn. For example, parents were required to include abandoned infants as heirs to an estate.2 Additionally, murder of children was punished in such a way as to incite the community. When a murder of a child occurred, particularly if the parents were the offenders, the murderer was required to “embrace the murdered children in [his or her] arms for three days and three nights”.3 Other ancient civilizations punished child murder similarly. For example, the Hittites in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) required a man to replace any child that he had killed, while the Franks fined those who committed infanticide. The penalties varied depending on the age and gender of the child. Unnamed newborns, for example, commanded less of a fine than a child older than ten years of age or a pregnant girl.4

Among Minoan-Mycenaean families, children of commoners were buried in caves or within the home, perhaps because parents hoped that the children would be reincarnated again into the same family. Alternately, noble children, like their parents were buried within tombs and often dressed in elaborate gold costumes.5 While these practices indicate that Minoan-Mycenaean parents commemorated the deaths of their children, as with many other ancient societies, they also legalized abandonment. For instance, if a woman was separated from her husband and he did not accept the infant as his own, legally she could expose the child.

The Etruscans, generally described as an immoral, scandalous society, commonly left behind depictions of loving, familial relationships in burial monuments. Children, and adults, were cremated and placed in house-like tombs with all of the accoutrement of a comfortable home (clothing, lighting, food, etc.). Pictures of Etruscan children could also be found carved into a mother’s sarcophagi.6

Among the ancient Karelians (of Finland), people believed that the soul flew from the body in the form of a bird or butterfly. To prevent the deceased from returning home, the family of those buried within a cemetery would place a lopped off tree as a barrier to the home. It is believed that huge tombstones served the same function: to stop the dead from haunting survivors (who may have felt guilty because of their survival). Alternately, burial in the home suggests that the spirit was being summoned back into the body. Like many other ancient cultures, the Karelians buried their dead with items they might need on their journey, such as tools. Other burial practices included painting girls’ coffins red and boys’ coffins blue.7

In ancient Japan evidence exists of the child as a symbolic focus in mortuary practice. Mizoguchi demonstrates this phenomenon using two cemetery sites during Fukuoka Prefecture in the Northern Kyushu region of Japan: Nagaoka and Kuriyama during the Yayoi period (3rd to 1st century BC). In Nagaoka cemetery younger children were buried in jars and often placed inside adult pits or pits for older children, which reflected structure within the society. Over fifty percent of those buried in this manner were infants. Multiple children interred with one adult indicated that a family died together. Or perhaps, as practiced in other cultures when the care giver of the children died, infanticide was committed. Another explanation for these multi-generational interments is that the children were buried with ancestors so that they may be cared for in the afterlife. Interestingly, the visual arrangement of the burial grounds was constructed to facilitate the perception by mourners of a sense of community as the view of graves was widened as the funeral procession approached. At Kuriyama children were treated as adults, and entombed in jar burials. Clusters of burials indicated familial grave sites and a focus on the household unit. Kuriyama, contrary to the cemetery structure of Nagaoka, was arranged so that the mourner’s gaze would be drawn to the last grave. Children selected to be buried in this cemetery were thought to be successors to a group leadership.8

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