The Role of Weaning History in Medieval Infant Identities

This project is applying a new dental isotope analysis method to test the hypothesis that infants buried in special locations around the walls of early medieval churches were yet to be weaned. Findings will investigate the role of breast-feeding in past communities and thus contextualise contemporary dialogues concerning infant health, nutrition and mortality.

During the latter part of the early medieval period, c. A.D. 700-1100, many babies who died before their second year were buried in special places, including around the walls of churches in what has become known as ‘eaves-drip’ burial. Several hypotheses have been presented to explain why only the youngest children were treated in this unique way, including the suggestion that only infants who had not been weaned were provided with ‘eaves-drip’ burial. By recording nitrogen and carbon isotope ratios in multiple, incremental layers of tooth dentine this project will, for the first time, produce experimental data to test this hypothesis. Analysis of these data will provide the most detailed possible record of dietary history from the archaeological skeletal remains of 80 children and thus enable investigation of weaning practices, the identity and autonomy of the infant and the role of dietary status in the earliest medieval Christian communities in England.

The project is funded by the University of Sheffield Early Career Researcher Scheme.

Project team:

PI: Elizabeth Craig-Atkins

CoI: Julia Beaumont, University of Bradford

Post-doc researcher: Jacqueline Towers

Previous research utilising the same isotopic method:
Beaumont, J., Gledhill, A., Lee-Thorp, J. and Montgomery, J. 2013. Childhood diet: A closer examination of the evidence from dental tissues using stable isotope analysis of segmental human dentine. Archaeometry 55(2): 277-295.

Previous research on eaves-drip burial:
Craig-Atkins E. 2014. Eavesdropping on short lives: Eaves-drip burial and the differential treatment of children one year of age and under in early Christian cemeteries. In Hadley, D.M. and Hemer, K.A. (eds). Medieval childhood: archaeological approaches. SSCIP Monograph 3. Oxbow.