Archaeological approaches to infants tend to focus on (i) ‘toys & tools, (ii) clothes and other dress accessories, (iii) burials & bodies, and (iv) art. The artefacts that are made, or become toys and/or utilitarian items used by children can reveal the role and perception of infants. Costume, dress accessories and others assemblages that show how identities and stages in the life cycle were configured. Burials might reveal through their location and character, tell us about both about perceptions and practices surrounding the death of very young people, and bodies that can reveal a host of evidence relating to diet, health and disease and place of origin of the individuals. Art might reveal perceptions of, and relationships between infants and others. Some studies range across this evidence and, for historical periods, draw upon literature and written sources to reveal attitudes, practices and experiences of infants.
Breastfeeding is a key topic in this research, just as it is a prominent and debated dimension of child-rearing today. Now while isotopic studies can reveal aspects of breastfeeding practices in prehistoric and historic populations, and feeding vessels are sometimes found, I haven’t identified any studies of the representation of breastfeeding by archaeologists and historians. Whilst rare, this visual evidence can be revealing of the role of breastfeeding as a medium for commemorating the dead – mothers and infants – and expressing broader sentiments of mourning loved ones in past societies.
Roman Infant Death and the Representation of Infants and Breastfeeding
Let’s take an example of recent approaches. Writing about Roman Italy, archaeologist Maureen Carroll, has relatively recently warned against the use of written sources, penned by aristocratic males with Stoic world-views, to discern attitudes and practices relating to infant death and burial. The ‘marginal’ character of the infant perpetuated by the appearance of infants in funerary sculpture. She gives examples of children depicted being bathed, on their death beds, but newborns are rarely shown. Images of the infant in mortuary commemoration render them older than the age stated on the epitaph. Portraits of the dead infant can also be found, as well as infants portrayed in the commemoration of their mothers. Her point is that the written and visual sources portray elite behaviour.
The cemetery evidence, however, reveals the detail of infant treatment across Roman society in Italy. Infants remain often under-represented. They were frequently denied cremation and buried in amphora and small tile cists. Still, there was no clear cut-off age at which cremation began to be used.
Among the grave-goods found are feeding bottles, interred with their users or intended users. Such artefacts are not interpreted further by Carroll. However, in their interment with the infant dead, we are perhaps not seeing artefacts as ‘signs’, communicating to mourners that the dead infant was ‘an infant’. Perhaps instead these artefacts denoted and catalysed mourners to recall and honour the intimate set practices connecting infants with mothers, but perhaps with older siblings, fathers, extended families, servants, slaves as well as the public exhibition of mothering and feeding.
Still, from Carroll’s article, one doesn’t get the sense that the practice of breastfeeding is utilised as a visual means of commemorating the dead.
Infants take on a growing role in mortuary commemoration in the early modern period. Not only are there representations of dead infants and children on adult tombs, increasingly children are receiving their own memorials. A backdrop to all of this is the (to my mind) hideous rise of the cherub, framing the commemoration of gentry and nobility on church monuments.
In 2014, I listened to a detailed talk about Richard Haslam regarding the striking trio of late 17th/early 18th-century monuments in St Mary’s, Chirk, commemorating members of the long-lasting Myddleton family of Chirk Castle. The three monuments are the products of two sculptors – John Bushnell and Robert Wynne.
The monument to Sir Thomas and Lady Myddleton dates to 1676 by John Bushneell. It is striking in itself, with cherub heads above and urns either side of two busts on pedestals and an inscription above. The cartouche below commemorates Sir Thomas Myddleton and is framed by two cherubs.
The second monument is by Richard Wynne, dated to 1718-22. We are here taken further into the horrors of infant dead. The adult figures commemorate Sir Richard and Lady Myddleton. It contains a representation of the two parents, plus a third reclined figure. Central between them, depicted vertically beneath a flaming urn, is Richard and Lady Myddleton’s infant daughter, staring out at the congregation with vacant eyes. Quite horrifying if you think about it, so it is probably best that you don’t.
It is the third monument, by John Bushnell and dating to 1683. Here we move from the representation of infant death, to the breastfeeding of the infant dead. Against the southern half of the east wall of the double-naved church, the monument commemorates Elizabeth Myddleton. The reclining effigy of Lady Elizabeth has her suckling her infant son from her right breast. She gazes out and down, away from the child, into the space of the congregation. Frozen in time, the sculpture commemorates her as mother, and her infant as an heir who never reached maturity. Below is a cartouche commemorating her husband, yet another Sir Thomas Myddleton, who died in 1683.
I haven’t yet isolated scholarly literature discussing this striking and rare instance of commemorating of a female aristocrat in the process of breastfeeding. However, it is not only memorable by being distinctive, but renders the infant in perpetual nourishment from the cold white stone of his mother’s breast, guided by her left hand. This moment is rendered in full view for contemporary and subsequent generations attending church services to witness and perhaps spoke of benevolence, nurture and charity as well as the deceased’s personal identity. Certainly, the recent abhorrence of public breast feeding was not regarded as objectionable, at least within this stylised medium of elite commemoration, in late 17th-century Wales.
Hubbard, 1986. The Buildings of Clwyd (Denbighshire and Flintshire), Yale: Yale University Press.