Rethinking Childhood in Biblical Times: Feminist Archaeologist Offers New Take on Ancient Society

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Illustration of a detail from a relief depicting adult captives hold children's hands during a battle in Assyria in 650 B.C.E.Credit: Yulia Rodman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Kuntillet Ajrud was a tiny way station 2,800 years ago in northern Sinai, but the mysterious archaeology site has been sparking archaeologists’ imagination for decades. Its uniqueness lies in drawings and inscriptions indicating that the residents of the Kingdom of Israel at the time worshipped not one God, but a pantheon of gods.

The discoveries at the site suggest that the Hebrew God had a wife, the Asherah, and the inscriptions indicate that God took different forms: the southern God: YHWH Teman (a reference to Yemen) and the northern God YHWH Shomron (a reference to Samaria).

The most famous drawing at Kuntillet Ajrud – on a pithos, a large clay jar – depicts three figures, two with crowns on their heads and holding hands. Some people interpret them as a visual representation of God and his wife, the Asherah, a view supported by the inscription near the drawing: “YHWH and his Asherah”. Others suggest the picture shows the Egyptian god Bes and his consort.

But researchers paid less attention to the third figure, a woman sitting on a stool and holding something. Generally researchers have thought she was depicted playing a harp. But one archaeologist, Dr. Rona Avissar Lewis, has an alternate explanation, one in which that woman is key to resolving the mystery of Kuntuillet Ajrud. The woman is giving birth, Avissar Lewis suggests.

It turns out that Egyptian depictions of birth feature the mother seated on a similar stool and either holding a mirror or having one held for her. It looks like the “harp” that the woman from Kuntillet Ajrud is holding. And on closer inspection, there is something between the woman’s legs: perhaps an infant being delivered into the world. And the other two figures are Bes and his wife, who also appear in Egyptian birth depictions, Avissar Lewis suggests.

Drawing from Kuntillet Ajrud, an Israelite outpost in Southern Negev, 8th century B.C.E. Credit: Alamy

The way station at Kuntillet Ajrud was also a place where women “on the road” could give birth, Avissar Lewis proposes. Her interpretation makes an adjacent drawing on the pithos, of a cow licking its calf, more fitting.

The rethink regarding the drawings at Kuntillet Ajrud appear in Rona Avissar Lewis’s new Hebrew-language book “Children in Antiquity: Archaeological Perspectives on Children and Childhood in the Land of Israel,” published by the University of Haifa Press, Miskal Yedioth Ahronoth Books and Chemed Books. The book was awarded the Bahat Prize for best Hebrew nonfiction manuscript.

In the book, Avissar Lewis examines the traces of the presence of children at biblical-era archaeological sites around Israel. Her conclusions about their births, their lives and their deaths may be somewhat different from the accepted conception of the role and situation of children at the time.

Researching childhood as a feminist

Initially Avissar Lewis resisted a suggestion by her mentor, Prof. Aren Maeir, that she examine childhood in ancient times as part of her doctoral research.

“I said ‘no,’ I’m a feminist. Why would he want to give me a gender-based topic? Studying women and children is not my thing,” she told Haaretz. “At home, I spoke with my husband [archaeologist Rafi Lewis] and we decided to make a list,” she recounted. “What do we know about children in antiquity? I searched and found nothing, only the odd mention of games. I realized that there was a need and that precisely because I am a woman and a feminist, I should do this research.”

At the very beginning, a leading archaeologist told her that he had been digging in Israel and around the world for 30 years and had never seen a the remains of child at an archaeological site. Asked why, Avissar Lewis had an answer.

Illustration of a figurine of a pregnant woman from the sixth or seventh century B.C.E., found in Tell es-Safi.Credit: Yulia Rodman

“Consider that most excavations were at the acropolis of the cities, and they were usually looking for the palace or temple,” she explained. “That isn’t where children were.”

Illustration of an ink painting on pottery, depicting a mother after giving birth in Egypt, from the New Kingdom era.Credit: Yulia Rodman

The archaeology of households only began in the last 20 years, and it was only then that the subject of children begin to come up. “In addition, most researchers were men. I’m not saying that as criticism. It’s a fact,” she said.

The initial thought that occurs to us about children in antiquity is that they ran around the streets with nobody rearing them, nobody taking care of them, she said. Even now, when we think of traditional societies, we think of the children as being outdoors.

She assumed that too, Avissar Lewis acknowledged, but the more she researched the topic, the more her conception changed. She now thinks, for example, that biblical-era families were about the same size as the average today in Israel, with about three. But infant mortality was very high, so the figure for the biblical period would only represent those who survived birth and infancy.

She also challenges the assumption that children spend their time outdoors unsupervised. By analyzing the structure of homes at archaeological sites around Israel, Avissar Lewis demonstrated that, whether they were four-room houses of the style prevalent in the Judean Hills or of coastal Philistine style, there was space where the mother could supervise her children.

“That’s where the loom was. That’s where food was prepared. The child couldn’t go outside without the mother seeing that, or approach the hot area [the stove] or the storage area without mother seeing it. She could exert control in the home,” Avissar Lewis noted.

Illustration of a stone relief depicting children in Carchemish, eighth century B.C.E.Credit: Yulia Rodman

The children would also be watched outdoors, because homes were built around a central courtyard that the women could see from their homes, and the mother could supervise several children there. Similar compounds were built in the 19th century around the world, including in Jerusalem.

“Watching over children creates community,” Avissar Lewis remarked.

“As a mother, I become friends with the mothers of the children at any kindergarten my children attend. That’s how you create a group.”

‘A refrigerator drawing’

In searching records of excavations around Israel, Avissar Lewis looked for references to objects that had belonged to children. She generally found them classified as “miscellaneous” – finds that could not be clearly interpreted. They included small pottery objects, poorly formed figurines and toys. Some of the objects were inspected by the Israel Police forensics lab, to look for small fingerprints. Some were found to bear fingerprints of both a child and an adult – leading to the inference that an adult had helped the child make it.

A clay object can survive almost 3,000 years only if it was fired. Avissar Lewis pointed out that some of them were poorly made and would obviously have been thrown away if they had been made by an adult.

“Clay isn’t expensive. It can be thrown out. But the child convinced the parents to keep it, and the object was fired, which means it had significance. It’s like a drawing on the refrigerator.”

Such miniature objects were found at several sites. At Tel Megiddo, they were discovered in the family storage area of a home. Children’s skeletons were found at the same house. At Tel Najila in the northern Negev, 48 miniature objects were discovered. Seventeen of them bore fingerprints, of which ten seemed to be of children under the age of 10, according to forensic analysts.

Some of the objects were discovered in one room – which could have been a 3,000-year-old playroom. Avissar Lewis also suggested that some poorly made figurines were the stuff of an ancient toy chest rather than ritual objects. Their owners would be unlikely to use a clumsily formed and poorly finished figurine as an object of veneration, she noted.

Conceptions of childhood

One obstacle in looking for traces of childhood at archaeological sites is the conception that childhood as we know it didn’t exist before the 19th century. That perception originated in a study by Philippe Ariès, a historian of the family and childhood, He claimed there was no childhood in medieval times, in the sense that children did not receive special treatment. Childhood, he claimed, was the product of the invention of the printing press and modern schools.

Although he retreated later to some extent from that position, it still influences our view of children in antiquity. And Avissar Lewis admits that it influenced her, at first.

Illustration of a mechanical toy.Credit: Yulia Rodman

“When I began the research, I went to my grandfather. He was born in 1912 and was 95 at the time. He lost his father at age 4. He was expelled with the Jews from Jaffa during World War I at age 5, and began working at age 9,” she recounted.

“After a week, I came to him and he showed me the childhood games he had kept: a bead on a string, a top. I said, ‘You had a childhood?’ and he said, ‘What do you think, that if you work, you have no childhood? We would go from place to place and play on the way.’ Later I found objects very much like his at all kinds of archaeological sites.”

As in the early 20th century, toys in antiquity were usually objects that had belonged to adults but had become unusable, or ordinary objects such as a stone or bone into which a hole had been made to hang it from a string.

The universality of childhood

Now Avissar Lewis has no doubt that childhood is a human characteristic that cuts across culture and times. “Children played in the most miserable, unfortunate societies. All human societies have childhood and they love their children. They enjoy being with [their children] and [also] have difficulties with them. Just like today. Some people behave badly towards children, and some people behaved badly towards children then too. It all exists. But ultimately, a family that works so hard to have a child – won’t it do anything to protect them?”

Avissar Lewis’s research has also delved into childhood’s dark recesses: children in war, child sacrifice and child mortality, and on these subjects she also has myths to debunk.

Ancient Egyptian art, for example, includes the depiction of a siege in which children are held over or flung over the city wall. The three usual interpretations are that the children are being sacrificed to a deity, that they are being displayed to Pharaoh as a sign of surrender, or they are being killed before they succumb to the same fate that is befalling the city.

As in the case of Kuntillet Ajrud, Avissar Lewis has another explanation. “The children are being held very firmly, and they’re alive because their heads are held up. Dead people are drawn with their heads down. I think this drawing is meant to give the Egyptians permission to adopt the children of the defeated city. The Egyptians depict the parents throwing the children over the wall. They are captives, but the children have no connection to that. This description is the narrative that makes it possible for the children to be adopted. There is adoption as a slave and genuine adoption. We have been finding genuine adoption, in which they became part of the family and had a share in the inheritance.”

The darkest side of childhood in ancient times was child sacrifice. Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley took on the association as an accursed place that gave the world the word Gehenna, or hell, because that is where children were purportedly sacrificed to Moloch. Yet contrary to the popular perception, the children were symbolically passed through fire, rather than being burned to death or harmed, many researchers think. The biblical text can be interpreted either way.

Illustration of a detail from a relief depicting the occupation of a Syrian city by Ramesses II, 13th century B.C.E.Credit: Yulia Rodman

We can take comfort from the fact that to this day, no archaeological evidence of child sacrifice has been found in Israel, although it has been in other cities around the Mediterranean. There is a site in Carthage in modern-day Tunisia, for instance, with hundreds of burned skeletons of children.

Another horrific aspect of childhood in antiquity was the killing of unwanted newborns, either because the baby was a girl or had what was viewed as a defect. In the excavation of a structure in ancient Ashkelon, the skeletons of dozens of mostly male infants were found in the sewers. This may have been an indication that the structure was a brothel.

In general, archaeologists don’t find many skeletons of children, in part because they decay and disintegrate faster than adult remains. When they are found, there is usually evidence that the child was accorded special treatment even after death.

Often families buried children inside their homes and placed special offerings in the graves. Interment of babies at home may be an indication that their families wished to continue to protect them and provide them with the warmth of the home after death, Avissar Lewis suggested. “They may have even believed that the child’s spirit would return to the mother in the body of another child.”

Avissar Lewis said she is just at the beginning in her research, which she called the “binoculars” through which more can be learned about the life of children in antiquity.

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