Saturday, October 1, 2011

lessons from cave art: kids are part of the family, too

There's an interesting article in the Guardian about the participation of young children in creating cave art.

The article is a wonderful example of the archaeology of childhood and children. We often claim children are invisible in the archaeological record, but of course that isn't true. I think we overlook the significance of indirect evidence for children, but here is some very direct evidence.

I'll admit, though, that when I read the article, I wondered if the journalist or the archaeologists were parents. Some of the statements were a bit odd, as if the authors were surprised to find that children were a part of their family's day-to-day lifestyle.

The research shows us that children were everywhere, even in the deepest, darkest, caves, furthest from the entrance. They were so involved in the art you really begin to question how heavily they were involved in everyday life.

"To be honest, I think there were probably very few restrictions on what children were allowed to do, and where they were allowed to go, and who they were allowed to go with.

"The art shows us this is not an activity where children were running amok. It shows collaboration between children and adults, and adults encouraging children to make these marks. This was a communal activity."

I'm not sure why this would be a surprise. What else would kids do while the parents made art/made dinner/cleaned the cave/gathered food/etc? Do we expect all families, past and present, to have the same kind of disconnect we do in the industrial world, where children are sent to daycare/school, while their parents pursue separate adult lives? If you've ever tried to take on any task with young children in the house (you know, like making a snack, or peeing?), you know that young kids want to be with you all the time. My five-year old daughter wouldn't, and couldn't, be left behind on the talus slope while I wandered into the deepest chambers to mold some clay.

Industrial societies tend to separate work from family, religion from daily life, children from adults. Most of us segregate children in schools while we work, keep them in church daycare while we worship, and consider art a subject in school, or the focus of a nursery project, not an integrated aspect of family life. But our attitudes are not descriptive of the majority of people, past and present, and we should be aware of that.

Another quote that caught my attention:

The majority of the drawings are flutings covering the walls and roofs of the many galleries and passages in the complex. One chamber is so rich in flutings by children it is believed to be an area set aside for them. The marks of four children, estimated to be aged between two and seven, have been identified there.

"It suggests it was a special place for children. Adults were there, but the vast majority of artwork is by children," said Jess Cooney, a PhD student at the university's archaeology department."It's speculation, but I think in this particular chamber children were encouraged to make more art than adults. It could have been a playroom where the children gathered or a room for practice where they were encouraged to make these marks in order that they could grow into artists and make the beautiful paintings and engravings we find throughout the cave, and throughout France and Spain. Or it could have been a room used for a ritual for particular children, perhaps an initiation of sorts."

This is very interesting. Yes, it could be a specific ritual place for children. At the same time, it could just be a place where people hung out. (There's no information in this short article about where this chamber is relative to the outside, or what evidence it produced for daily living.) By the end of the day, my children's imprint on our house is certainly far more visible than that of the adults. That's why we have an evening clean-up session, and I keep the permanent markers out of little hands. I'll be interested in learning more about the context of this chamber, and what makes the archaeologists believe it is a ritual area.

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