‘OH, EARLY VANISHED FROM A PARENTS EYE’: ‘Childness’ and child memorialisation in the South Australian cemetery, 1836-2018 CE

Author: Stephen Muller

Muller, Stephen, 2021 ‘OH, EARLY VANISHED FROM A PARENTS EYE’: ‘Childness’ and child memorialisation in the South Australian cemetery, 1836-2018 CE, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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This thesis investigates the memorialisation of children in the Western cemetery from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day using the idea of childness as a measure. The importance of children as part of archaeological study has been recognised and developed since the 1980s, establishing the archaeology of childhood. As part of this approach research has looked at ways of determining the agency of children in the archaeological record, and the ways in which conceptualisations of children and childhood are represented through material culture created by adults. Following a multi-disciplinary review of the literature concerning Western ideas of children and childhood, and cemetery studies concerning the memorialisation of children in the Western cemetery, this thesis proceeds to the study of five cemetery sites in Adelaide, South Australia. The primary interpretative method used is the concept of childness, the qualities a culture associates with both being a child and that labels someone as a child. The measure of childness arising from the family’s memorialisation choices represents the degree of child identity inferable by the observer. Childness sits within the broader processes of socialisation and structuration that informs and replicates these characteristics to varying degrees depending on variables such as status, class, gender and prevailing social views specific to the time of the child’s death.

Analysis of the archaeological sample identified the expression of childness through six main characteristics: smallness, innocence, domesticity, play, temporality and emotion, indicated by age and influenced to varying degree by status, class and for older children, gender. The varying combinations arising from the interaction of these concepts determined the degree of identity differentiation observable, which could range from virtually no difference with only age indicating a child, to a heightened level of childness involving inscription and motif, or as exampled in the Victorian era, the size and height of the child’s grave marker itself. The mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s and again following the creation of particular child-only spaces in the 1980s represented a more individualistic cemetery ethos, with the memorialisation of children trending to a more expressive childness. Both periods employed a wider range of child-specific references in inscription and motif, or adapted more general choices such as religious references to symbolise a greater association with children. By comparison, the intervening period from the 1920s to the 1980s generally adopted a more uniform and subdued approach to memorialisation that saw a lower degree of childness in favour of a more un-differentiated family identity. However, the social role of the child as memorialised retained a marked continuity across the chronology regarding the expectation of a loving and caring relationship between parent and child, the importance of the family structure and the grief of loss. The use of Childness varied in accordance with age, but rarely in relation to sex or gender, with those aspects more closely associated with infants and young children becoming less pronounced for children who in age were moving further from childhood and towards adulthood.

Keywords: historical archaeology, child memorialisation, childness, cemeteries, Australia

Subject: Archaeology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2021
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Heather Burke