Perception of Children

Jessica Carlson

This exhibit explores the ways in which children were perceived in Greece and Egypt by looking at stele, tomb images and grave goods. While the attention of deaths isn’t usually on those of children, the infant and child mortality rate was high in both societies. During the Classical Period in Greece, the survival rate was one in three (Oakley 163). In Egypt parents would make use of magical practices to ensure the survival of their children because infection and illness was all too common (Meskell, “Cycles” 429). The survival of their children was important to both societies since children were the next generation and were necessary to keep the society going. With such high death rates, it’s important to look at how children’s deaths were carried out in order to reconstruct their role in each society. Based on the artifacts and images below, this exhibit will explore and compare the burials of children and how they reflect social persona.

In Greece children were usually inhumed rather than cremated. Their bodies were placed in containers specific to their age group; infants were buried in storage jars, small children in terracotta tubs, and older children in larger pits and coffins (Oakley 177). These vessels were then placed in the ground and usually marked with a vase or monument. Children were sometimes buried in or near the home, as well as in cemeteries either scattered among the adults or in a designated section. Found inside children’s graves were both generic goods, such as liquid items or lekythoi, and child-specific gifts. These included baby feeders, rattles, terracotta animals, drinking vessels and dolls. A popular item found in Athenian children’s graves were items known as choes, which were given to children during the Dionysian festival. During this festival three-year-olds were given their first tastes of wine, accepting them into society and granting them their social persona. These choes were found in children’s graves as either a precious procession of the deceased or as a gift to those who had not been able to participate due to an early death (Oakley 177).

Grave Goods, Child’s Tomb 4th Century
Source: Oakley, John H. . “Death and Child.” Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Print, 176.

The eleven miniature items in the image to the right were found in a children’s tomb from the fourth century. These items consist of a jug, a bucketlike dipper, a libation bowl, a spindle whorl, a bronze disk, which would have been polished and used as a mirror (Oakley 302). Also found in the tomb were terracotta toys including a painted cubic die, a spherical ball, a female doll’s head and two animal statues of a horse and a cock. These grave goods show that the Greek chose items specific to the deceased’s social persona. The goods found in this grave were specific to the young age of the occupant.

Found atop children’s graves were usually markers such as vases or monuments. Such markers depict the deceased “at particular stages of growth and development” (Grossman 310). These different stages are shown both physically in the body type and size of the individual, as well as through what accompanies them. Monuments portrayed gender by having boys nude and girls wearing dresses. Often the deceased would be shown with a companion such as a pet dog or birds.

Gravestone of Apollonia, ca 100 B.C.E
Source: Oakley, John H. . “Death and Child.” Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Print, 191.

The gravestone of Apollonia shows examples of many of these aspects. Her age is depicted by her size, physical development and appearance. She is tall, but not the height of a typical adult, showing that she must be of preteen age. Her youth is also evident in her lack of breast development. As for her appearance, she is wearing a sleeveless, high waist chiton and a braid running down the center of her head, a style associated with children of both genders. Accompanying Apollonia is a bird, and she is holding a pomegranate. The pomegranate relates to the underworld and Persephone, linking the girl to death. The presence of an animal or pet helps depict the deceased as a child. Birds are common on gravestones and in graves. They were thought to be able to travel between life and death. Because of this belief, birds are seen as a connection to the child’s life, as well as a companion to accompany them into the afterlife. Birds were perceived as good companions because they would be able to fly alongside the winged souls of the deceased (Oakley 180).

In Egypt having children was highly important and necessary for the social system. It was understood that just as the parents had cared for the children during youth, the children would return the favor when their parents reached elderhood. Because of this, losing a child was not only emotional but also disrupted the social structure. There are five types of inhumed burials for children: pottery jars, reused baskets, wickerwork, boxes or chests, and coffins. Often times these vessels were not necessarily made for funerary purposes, meaning they were items found in the house and used to hold the body. Inside each vessel the body was covered in a shroud, and sometimes accompanied by a linen-wrapped placenta, which was thought to be “a type of twin self and spiritual force” (Meskell, “Cycles” 429). To explore the grave goods found in the burials of children, the site at Deir el Medina will be discussed. At the Eastern Necropolis of this grave site there a designated section dedicated to infants and children.

Map of Eastern Necropolis at cemetery at Deir el Medina
Source: Meskell, Lynn. Archaeologies of Social Life. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999. Print, 162.

The graves were mostly small pits that had been cut directly into the rock. In the infant section there were “infants, but also neonates, foetuses, placentas and organic residues among bloody clothes, and remains of viscera and the mummification process itself” (Meskell, “Cycles” 429). Four of these tombs were uncovered and give the following data. Found in Tomb DX1 was a basket burial surrounded by a decorated pot with vegetable matter, vessel with resin, and a cup with a black rim. In Tomb DX2 there was another basket burial but with no grave goods. Tomb DX3 held two wooden boxes, perhaps a grave for twins, two statues,  eighteen ceramic vessels, two baskets, and vessels containing food (emmer, bread, grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates, nuts). Lastly Tomb DX4 held a basket burial with plant remains surrounding it. A common theme among these grave goods is that they are not specific to the age of the deceased. Found in two other tombs were a doll and a figurine; these were the only signs of goods specific to a child. This shows that the majority of the time, grave goods came from the sphere of adulthood, but on a much smaller scale. So while children were buried differently than adults, they were still considered full persons and needed many of the same items in the afterlife. (Meskell, Archaeologies 163-173)

Painting from Tomb of Inherkhau, 20th Dynasty
Source: Meskell, Lynn. Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2002. Print, 86.

The tombs found in the Eastern Necropolis didn’t have grave markers or depictions of the deceased. However, children are portrayed in other images found in the tombs of family members. These depictions help to explain how children were perceived. For example, a painting found in the tomb of Inherkhau at Deir el Medina shows a scene of Inherkau and his wife receiving offerings from their children while surrounded by their four grandchildren. The children are naked, showing that it are three girls and a boy. Children are not always depicted naked, though. Children are always shown to be smaller in size than adults, as if they have been shrunken down. The different ages of the grandchildren is shown through the variation in size. The best way to identify children in Egyptian images is by the shaved head with a sidelock of hair. This hairstyle can be seen on all four grandchildren. The use of this hairstyle is not just a way to differentiate children and adults in visual representations, but an actual practice carried out by the living. The scene shows a closeness in the relationship of the whole family. The children are bringing offerings to their parents, showing signs of a reverse in caretaking. The grandchildren are surrounding and interacting with their grandparents showing a loving relationship and connection. (Meskell, Private Life 85-86)

When comparing the two societies, it is clear that both perceived children as having social personas, as being full beings integrated into the society. The fact that children in both societies were buried on their own, in their own graves, and with their own goods shows that they were viewed as individuals. It is clear that through burying their children properly and according to ritual and customs, both the Greeks and Egyptians valued their children and hoped for a good afterlife for them. However, when comparing the goods found in the graves, the differences in perception start to emerge. The Greeks gave their children goods that were age-specific and aimed at allowing the child to play for eternity. This shows that the Greeks put more value on personalizing the burial and solidifying the deceased’s persona. In the infant graves found in Deir el Medina, the goods were ones that would be found in adult graves, but on a smaller scale. It was rare to find age-specific items, showing that while children were buried in jars or baskets rather than coffins like adults, the goods a deceased individual received were all on the same level of necessity, regardless of age. This shows that the Egyptians were focused on having their deceased attain a good afterlife. By burying neonates and placentas, it brings attention to the Egyptian need to protect the body and keep it intact in order for the deceased to successfully move on.

In terms of depictions of the deceased, the artists or sculptors were careful in how they created an image of a child. Certain aspects such as clothing, hair and size were important to accurately depict the individual. The images in this exhibit show several important aspects. The Greek monument sheds light on the importance of remembering the individual in an idealized form. Apollonia is shown peaceful and content with a companion. It was important to the Greeks to show their deceased in the best light rather than focus on the negative parts; remembrance was supposed to be a positive experience. The Egyptian painting focuses on the familial relations, and highlight the social custom of repaying one’s parents for taking care of them in their youth. It shows that the child is born into a role and has duties already set in their future. By comparing these different aspects, it seems that Egyptian children were perceived in a similar way that adults were– as individuals with duties and a part to play in the greater scheme of things. They are born having a persona. Greek children were perceived as what they were– children who were coming into their persona and obtaining duties as they developed and matured. Overall, though, it seems that the presence children was valued in both societies and their deaths viewed as a tragedy.


  • Grossman, Janet Burnett. “Forever Young: An Investigation of the Depictions of Children on Classical Attic Funerary Monuments.” Hesperia Supplements, Vol. 41, Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens: 2007, pp. 309-322
  • Meskell, Lynn. Archaeologies of Social Life. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999.
  • Meskell, Lynn. “Cycles of Life and Death: Narrative Homology and Archaeological Realities.” World Archaeology, Vol. 31, No. 3, Human Lifecycles. Taylor & Francis, Ltd: Feb. 2000, pp 423-411.
  • Meskell, Lynn. Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Oakley, John H. . “Death and Child.” Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 163-194.