Research Spotlight: The archaeology of childhood

Stock antique ABC blocksGalleries, shops and restaurants built inside restored homes ring the historic plaza of Ranchos de Taos in northern New Mexico. The plaza, once a hub of village life in Ranchos de Taos, is notably absent of children these days. Their families have been driven to the outskirts of the Catholic village by a booming tourism industry that has pushed up property values.

But the children left their mark, says SMU archaeologist Sunday Eiselt, who for three years has led digging crews in some of the homes through her work at the University’s Archaeology Field School at the SMU-in-Taos campus. They’ve unearthed children’s artifacts up to 100 years old, including pieces of clay toys, tea sets, doll parts, clothing, mechanical trains, jacks, marbles, child-care implements, modern plastic Legos, Barbie doll parts, action figures and jewelry.

Eiselt’s interest in childhood artifacts is unique because children are rarely documented in archaeological narratives – particularly in the Spanish borderlands, where they appear as victims of slavery and boarding schools.

Her pilot excavations in 2007 and 2008 revealed patterns that suggest children were integral to the workforce and household economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1930s, the evidence shows, they were drawn from the workforce into the home and pulled as a consumer into the expanding commercial market as well as into the public education realm, says Eiselt, an assistant professor of anthropology in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

Now Eiselt is launching the SMU-in-Taos Childhood Archaeology Project – thanks in large part to community relationships and trust formed over the past few years. A systematic and scientific examination of children’s lives will provide new perspectives on the dynamics of Spanish and American occupation of New Mexico, she says.

“When state resources and institutions are aimed at children’s lives, cultures are irrevocably changed,” she says. “We’re asking, ‘What can the archaeology of children tell us about the transformation of Hispanic Rio Grande communities over time?'” We’re investigating the impact of state expansion on child-rearing and education in the Spanish borderlands by examining childhood on the Ranchos de Taos Plaza.”

Read more at the SMU Research blog