Conflicts in Identity

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Images of Children and Childhood Identity at Teotihuacan, Mexico: An Analysis of Figurines
Jennifer L. Faux


When surveying the literature, there is an apparent paucity of research corresponding with the role of children in prehistoric Mesoamerica, leading to a conflict of identity. Although a challenge, the study of children in prehistoric societies like Teotihuacan is imperative to foster a means for giving these muted groups voices. Archaeologists argue that this task is nearly impossible in prehistoric societies due to the lack of textual material. However, when analyzing the material culture, children’s identities can be revealed by examining the impressions they left behind, both figuratively and literally. Material culture such as figurines aids researchers in developing a technique for studying the socially constructed category of children and childhood at Teotihuacan. Although scarce, these few images of children allow archaeologists a glimpse of childhood in Mesoamerica; offering children an identity within the past. Then, this paper addresses the role of children at Teotihuacan through the study of figurines. The paper will evaluate both the possible production and depiction of children on Teotihuacan figurines. The data indicates that children may have played a role in the production of figurines. Unfortunately, this assertion is attributed to merely a few examples of figurines recovered with child size fingerprints and nail impression on crudely produced figurines. Indeed, images of children on figurines offered more beneficial method for reconstructing Teotihuacan childhood; allowing one to determine dress, ornamentation, body modification, and possible status and identity of past Teotihuacan children.

Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them –

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

Imagine entering the prehistoric state of Teotihuacan during its pinnacle at 450 CE. The city is bustling with activity as merchants make their way to the Ciudadela to begin a day of market exchange; craftspeople painting, carving, weaving, and sculpting important prestige goods; the elite making important decisions; and farmers heading into the fields to begin a long day preparing the chinampas for crops. When examining this picture, the daily lives of both men and women in ancient Teotihuacan may be seen, but when pondering Teotihuacan’s visage, children are often overlooked. As Kathryn Kamp aptly questions “Where have all the children gone?”(2001a: 1), the role prehistoric Teotihuacan children played in the political economy of this ancient city is disregarded.

Archaeologists commonly posit that children and childhood identity are irrelevant to the reconstruction of past lifeways because the social organization, political organization and economy of past societies are not pertinent to children. This conception is clearly conveyed by Jane Baxter in her book The Archaeology of Childhood: Children, Gender and the Material Culture when stating “The apparent distance between children and the material and historical records, combined with a modern tendency to marginalize the importance of children, has led most archaeologists to exclude children from the realm of archaeological inquiry” (Baxter 2005: 2). This assertion is further compounded by the lack of archaeological evidence of children in prehistory. Indeed, the utilization of ancient texts may be useful to reconstruct childhood in the historic past, but studying childhood in prehistory is an onerous task. The marginalization of children has led to a dearth in understanding their identity in the past and the socialization process of childhood in prehistoric societies. Then, we must engender a means for recognizing children’s identities in hopes of understanding their roles in the social, political and economic organization in ancient societies.

Kamp argues that childhood is a social construct that can aid in understanding not only children’s roles in the political economy, but also what it meant to be a child in a particular society and how children were socialized to become adults, thus instilling their community identity. Archaeologists like Kamp and Baxter argue that the primary reason for the paucity studies devoted to children and childhood is due to a Westernized bias of age. Contemporary scholars from Western societies tend to stress the importance of age and utilize hierarchical categories to link age to childhood. Furthermore, Western conception of children as innocent and helpless members of society has been imbued upon studies of past societies where children may have participated in warfare or be considered an adult at the age of 10. These stringent biases have fostered a misconception that childhood cannot be studied or, children can only be studied demographically (Baxter 2005; Kamp 1999 and 2001).

When surveying the literature, there is an apparent paucity of studies corresponding with the role of children in prehistoric Mesoamerica. This becomes particularly evident when examining the role of children at Teotihuacan. The only literature recovered pertaining to children and childhood identity at Teotihuacan is directly concerned with their death. This deficiency is further bolstered when reading demographic studies that merely mention poor nutrition and sacrifice as the causes for Teotihuacan children’s untimely demise. Although a challenge, the study of children in prehistoric societies like Teotihuacan are imperative to foster a method for giving these marginalized groups identity. Some archaeologists argue that this task is nearly impossible in prehistoric societies due to the lack of texts. However, when reevaluating the material culture, voices can be given to children by examining the impressions they left behind, both figuratively and literally. Material culture, such as figurines, aid researchers in developing a rubric for the study of children and childhood identity at Teotihuacan. While scarce, these few images of children allow archaeologists a glimpse of childhood in Mesoamerica.

Then, this paper addresses the role of children at Teotihuacan through the study of figurines. The paper will begin by offering an overview of Teotihuacan. Both the production and depiction of children on Teotihuacan figurines will further be addressed. In doing so, children’s possible roles in the production of Teotihuacan figurines will be evaluated. Archaeologists posit that methods for identifying child artisans include: the skill of the producer (Bagwell 2002; Kamp et al 1999 and 2001b; Kralik et al 2008), the form of the end product (Bagwell 2002), the particular style of a ceramic object (Smith 2006), fingerprint analysis or paleodermatoglyphic studies, and ethnographic and ethnohistoric accounts (Kamp et al 1999 and 2001b). Postulated examples of possible child producers at Teotihuacan based on the presence of finger nail marks, fingerprints, and crude production of figurines will also be determined. I conclude the paucity of studies devoted to children at Teotihuacan may be attributed not to a lack of interest, but a lack of excavation of apartment compounds and figurine workshops.

Moreover, prehistoric childhood at Teotihuacan will be considered by examining images of children on Teotihuacan figurines. Images of children on figurines offered a rigorous method for reconstructing Teotihuacan childhood, allowing one to determine Teotihuacan’s conceptions of children’s bodies, children’s status and the making of miniature adults. In doing so, children and childhood identity can be seen conceptually in prehistoric states like Teotihuacan through the utilization of figurines.


Ancient Teotihuacan is located approximately forty kilometers northeast of present-day Mexico City. Its ruins are located in an area of 20 square kilometers and is dominated by massive architectural structures, such as the Pyramid of the Sun and Moon. This site was a major city in the ancient world that housed a population of 80,000-120,000 inhabitants (Millon 1973). The occupation of the city ranged from circa 150 B.C. to circa A.D. 600 and is considered to be the sixth largest city in the world during its pinnacle at 450 CE (Barbour 1975; Goldsmith 2000; Millon 1976).

Teotihuacan has been studied by archaeologists since the early 19th century. Research conducted at that time yielded abundant interpretations regarding the role of Teotihuacan in Mesoamerica’s prehistory. In 1962, René Millon began the Teotihuacan Mapping Project (hereafter referred to as TMP), which expanded archaeologist’s interpretations of Teotihuacan in Mesoamerica’s prehistory. The completion of the TMP has demonstrated the cosmopolitan nature of ancient Teotihuacan. When conducting surface surveys of the site, archaeologists found an array of artifacts that permitted them to identify areas of craft production in Teotihuacan’s prehistory. These artifacts included figurines, several of which depicted images of children (Millon 1973).
What does this tell us about production by children and childhood identity at Teotihuacan? Furthermore, how can child artisans be recognized archaeologically through the study of material culture such as figurines? Finally, what can the identification of child artisans tell us about the economy of states like Teotihuacan? Children’s role in ceramic and figurine production have been addressed by numerous archaeologists, however, few have theorized children’s role of production in Mesoamerica (Lopiparo 2006). Moreover, child’s contribution to community-based labor has often been disregarded by archaeologists despite ethnographic and ethnohistoric accounts of children’s economic contributions. When evaluating ethnohistoric and ethnographic accounts, children are seen as contributors to agriculture, hunting, gathering, craft production. Indeed, children have been recorded learning skilled crafts as young as 2-5 years of age (Baxter 2005; Bednarik 2008; Kamp et al 1999, 2001a, and 2001b; Van Gelder and Sharpe 2009). When attempting to identify child artisans, archaeological inquiry in both the Old and New World utilize several methods such as: the skill and form of the producer (Bagwell 2002;; Kralik et al 2008), the particular style of a ceramic object (Smith 2006), fingerprint analysis or paleodermatoglyphic studies (Kamp et al 1999 and 2001b), and ethnohistoric and ethnographic accounts (Greenfield 2000; Goldsmith 2000; Hamann 1997; Hendon 1997; Joyce 2000). According to Bagwell, ceramics produced by children are identified based on the form and skill of the producer. Skill can be evaluated by determining the standardization of the specific products or the experience of the producer. Children and adults that are relatively new to ceramic production often produce pottery that is irregular and variable due to lack of skill. Bagwell suggests that the age of the producer is substantiated by estimating the form of the ceramic object and comparing the form to the developmental and cognitive skill of the producer (Bagwell 2002).

Child artisans are further identified based on style. Patricia Smith argues that children were responsible for the production of a specific type of ceramic based on ethnohistoric accounts and the style of the pottery. She attempts to determine whether children were successful in producing innovative styles of decoration by examining the pottery form. In doing so, Smith argues that there is definitive evidence that children produced juvenile pots based on their size, crude form, and crude application of style. The author examines the relationship between the designs of adult and juvenile pots to determine whether children played a role in innovative ceramic decoration (Smith 2006).

Probably most convincing evidence for identifying past children’s role in figurine and ceramic production is paleodermatoglyphics. Paleodermatoglyphics or the study of past fingerprints is a rigorous method for determining not only the age of the producer, but also the sex. At times, past artisans unintentionally left impressions of their life-work though fingerprints. Preserved on ceramic material like figurines, these fingerprints can be tested to determine the age and sex of the producer by taking samples of fingerprints on a piece of clay and measuring the size of the fingerprint, demonstrate variances in measurements of ulna whorls (or a whorl shaped design found on your fingers), specific minutia (points of breakage on the ridges of your fingers), ridge densities (the ridge counts divided by the fingerprint area), and ridge breadth (the distance between the center of one ridge to the center of another) that allow archaeologists to infer the specific age and sex of a ceramic or figurine producer (Acree 1999; Kamp et al 1999 and 2001b). Since fingerprints appear by the seventh month of natal development, the age of a specific ceramic producer can be identified based on the size of the hand. Some archaeologists posit that research on ridge breadth can aid in estimating age (Acree 1999; Kamp et al 2001).

Kathryn Kamp and her contingents tackle the issue of identifying young artisans by studying fingerprints found on Sinagua figurines in Arizona. According to Kamp et al, by measuring these fingerprints the specific age of the producer can be validated (2001). They measured the fingerprints of small figurines and vessels to determine if children played a crucial role in the production of these ceramic goods. Kamp suggests that production by children of zoomorphic figurines aided in their understanding of clay composition, allowing them to understand how to produce these goods at a young age and learn the production process for later economic purposes. They attempted to accurately measure ancient children’s fingerprints by comparing them to modern children’s fingerprints, impressed both in clay and with ink to measure age and assess how children would produce ceramic goods. The authors did an experiment with approximately 107 individuals ranging from 36 months of age to adult. They concluded that the dramatic range of finger ridges were undoubtedly attributed to the increased body size. They then compared the results of the experiment to figurines uncovered at Sinagua. Kamp et al suggest that a number of figurines uncovered at Sinagua were presumably toys and were mostly produced by children. They argued that children participated in production through play, intimately connecting the instruction of clay production with play so the child would be interested in production at a later age. They conclude by stating that the use of fingerprint analysis on prehistoric ceramic materials can aid in determining not only the age, sex, and ethnicity of the producer, but the social role of men, women, and specifically, children in past societies (Kamp et al 2001).

Historic documents are additional mediums in which child producers can be identified. Ethnohistorically, children played a crucial role in craft production in Mesoamerica. Ethnohistoric accounts of Aztecs found in the Codex Mendoza illustrates children weaving, producing ceramics, and participating in feather work, in addition to producing other prestige goods (Hamann 1997; Hendon 1997; Joyce 2000). Variances in gender roles can clearly be conveyed based on the hairstyles and dress of the individual and the type of work in which the individual partook. Children are also seen participating in agricultural production, attending school, and cooking and fishing at a young age. Both Aztec boys and girls were socially instructed by their parents in gender based roles, intimately connecting the parent with the instruction of the child until the child’s skill was advanced and he or she could produce crafts on his or her own.

Mesoamerican ethnographic studies concur with the ethnohistoric records when identifying how modern Mexican children learned how to weave and participate in ceramic production. Ethnographic studies of present-day potters and weavers in the Basin of Mexico suggest children learned pottery and weaving production at a young age, a trait that may have been reflective on the prehistoric socialization of past children. Indeed, both ethnohistoric and ethnographic records suggest that the instruction of Mesoamerican crafts was socialized from parent to child in an intimate and instructive manner (Hamann 1997; Joyce 2000).

Although there are few studies discussing children’s roles in figurine production in Mesoamerica, some archaeologists allude to child artisans in their research. One such case study is at Teotihuacan, where archaeologists Warren Barbour and Kim Goldsmith suggest that children may have played a role in figurines production. Identification of child artisans, contends Barbour, can be seen when examining nail marks on ceramic materials found on figurines recovered during the TMP survey in 1962. According to Warren Barbour, figurines with fingernail marks can be utilized to identify figurine workshops at Teotihuacan. Indeed, at Teotihuacan crafts were primary produced in the home, or in this specific case, in the apartment compounds. Since children were part of the household dynamic, it is not surprising to view figurines with fingernail marks given that children may have followed the family craft by learning how to produce figurines by family members (Barbour 1975).

Barbour consulted a present-day figurine producer to assess fingernail marks on figurines. According to contemporary craftspeople in the Basin of Mexico, children leave fingernail marks on figurines due to the stature of their hands. Barbour exemplifies this assertion when stating:

One can picture as a matter of course in a household devoted to making objects that must be fired, that children imitated adult behavior and would ask, as children do today, that their products be baked just as the adult’s are. It not only encourages them in learning the craft but gives a sense of legitimacy to their work (1975: 120)
Barbour concludes by suggesting that he underemphasized the implications of fingernail marks on figurines as a marker for children producing figurines at Teotihuacan (Barbour 1975).

Kim Goldsmith contends that several figurines she recovered from surface survey are indicative of child artisans at Teotihuacan. Goldsmith recovered both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines that alludes to production by children due to three specific elements: “1)…improper kneading of the clay; 2) the presence of child-sized finger nail marks, and 3) the presence of child-sized finger prints” (Goldsmith1998 and 2000). It is important to note that the figurines recovered with these traits were early handmade figurines. However, Goldsmith argues that the figurines were presumably produced by children because in figurines from earlier phases, the physical features of anthropomorphic figurines were not as crude as the figurines Goldsmith believes were produced by children. Indeed, in early phase figurines, headdresses, clothing and overall physical features of the figurines were the most important features of the figurines. Yet, the figurines recovered by Goldsmith are suggestive of child artisans due to the figurines’ indistinguishable physical features (Goldsmith 1998).

Goldsmith offers an alternative reason why it is difficult to recover figurines produced by children archaeologically. She asserts that the paucity of figurines produced by child artisans is because the pottery produced by children was seldom fired. When observing a potter’s family in present day San Sebastian Xolalpa, located close to the archaeological zone, Goldsmith found that children played a limited role in the production of pottery. Children often played with and worked the clay while the grandfather of the family produced the pottery. But, children would play with the clay for short periods of time, leaving to play outside. When this occurred-if the clay was still wet-the adult would reuse the clay by reincorporating it into the bulk in which he or she was producing. If the clay was dry, the pottery would simply throw the bulk away. Goldsmith stated that the children rarely asked the potter to fire their work along with the other pieces of pottery. Thus, she concluded that archaeologically, if the clay was reincorporated into the materials used by older members of the community, children’s role in production cannot be seen. Furthermore, if the clay was thrown away unfired, it is too fragile to preserve archaeologically (Goldsmith 1998).

Although Goldsmith’s assertion suggests children may have played a limited role in figurine production, Barbour’s discussion with potters indigenous to the Teotihuacan region of Mexico suggested children played a role in production (Barbour 1975). These potters suggested children’s role in production can be seen based on the form of the ceramic and fingernail impressions left on the pot (Barbour 1975). Admittedly, it is clear that children possibly played a crucial role in figurine production at Teotihuacan, but the recovery of merely a few examples of child artisans lead archaeologists to ponder what specific role children played or why so few archaeologists find examples of figurines produced by child artisans. I suggest that the possible reason for the lack of recovery is attributed not to the lack of evidence, but the lack of excavation at Teotihuacan. At Teotihuacan, where the populations may have reached 120,000 residents, the Teotihuacanos constructed apartment compounds for housing their expanding population. Varying in size, these compounds housed populations in kinship based residential units (Barbour 1975 and 1987; Millon 1973; Manzanilla 1996, 2002 and 2003, Rattray 1991 and 2001; Widmer and Storey 1993). However, in some cases like that of Cosotlan 23(or 23: N6W3), individuals were not housed based on their kinship, but their occupation as craft producers (Spence 1992 and 1998). When René Millon began the Teotihuacan Mapping Project or TMP, his main goal was to conduct a complete survey of the site and interpret the function of specific units based on the surface surveys; few excavations were conducted (Millon 1973).

However, to understand the implications of everyday life at Teotihuacan, excavations of a few apartment compounds took place to reconstruct Teotihuacan residential units. While excavating apartment compounds like Atetelco, Tepantitla, and Zacuala, archaeologists successfully reconstructed residential units in which the Teotihuacanos resided, determining the living conditions, diet, religion, craft production, and food preparation of these residential units. Today, some Mexican archaeologists excavate at Teotihuacan, but, nonetheless, most of these excavations take place in the central region of the city were complex architectural features like the Ciudadela are housed. Although excavations were undertaken at these residential units, little is known regarding the craft production at the apartment compounds. This is mostly attributed to the lack of full-scale excavations of residential craft production zones (Manzanilla 1996). Moreover, when apartment compounds are excavated, archaeologists fail to complete a thorough excavation of figurine workshops. Other than excavations at Ciudadela, no figurine workshops found in apartment compounds have been excavated to date (Sullivan 2007). As a result, there is a deficiency in knowledge regarding production in the residential units, specifically ceramics. One conclusion from this conflicting data is obvious, excavations and further study of Teotihuacan figurines, increased sampling sizes, and the use of innovative technologies are necessary to determine whether children played a vital role in figurine production.
Since it is unclear whether we can find childhood identity at Teotihuacan by assessing their role in production, turning to images of children depicted on specific media may be more useful in reconstructing childhood identity. In doing so, I will first identify the specific mediums in which children are depicted and then evaluate how these mediums may permit archaeologists to successfully reconstruct childhood at Teotihuacan. Children are depicted on two mediums on Teotihuacan figurines; accompanying females and alone (often in cradles). The first medium is children accompanying women (Figure 4). These children are young, possibly ranging from infancy to 1-5 years of age. They are found on the woman’s hip or back, yet are sometimes seen on a seated woman’s lap. They are only seen with women at Teotihuacan, presumably because the children are very young. It is interesting to note that children are often seen accompanying females from the figurines type commonly referred to as the Wide Band Figurines. Kim Goldsmith interpreted these children as female because they are found adorned with Wide Band headdresses, however she admits that children seen with hair instead of headdresses may be male infants (Goldsmith 2000).

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