On holiday, we visited the Eceni reconstructed Celtic village, based on elements of archeological sites around Norfolk. It’s all voluntary, so piece by piece they are building up a settlement, with a few houses, a temple, a bakehouse and a pub. We were shown around by a guide, whose enthusiasm and imagination were inspiring and contagious; Bernard interrupted her explanations with many remarks and reinterpretations, giving us some insight of what he must be like at school.
He had a go at grinding corn into flower, felt the weight of a shield and a sword, and speculated about where people cooked their tea when they had no cookers. He was even allowed to stand on a rampart and fling pointy sticks over the fence, which was pretty terrifying.
The guide did say that it was impossible to know how people with no written tradition would have lived, when all they have to go on is what they find in the ground: post holes and bits of broken pot. So I was very interested by her reconstruction of a wicker moses basket. Remember this is conjecture  about a culture from more than 2,000 years ago. That’s where the baby would sleep, she said.
And my inner mothering-nerd immediately kicked in: Really? Not in the bed with the parents?
She shrugged. Well, during the day he would have gone in the basket and been hung up on the wall.
How could she know this? And does it fit with what we do know about baby management in ancient cultures. Pretty much the only thing we know for certain is that there were no manufacturers with a vested interest in keeping parents apart from their babies. There was no formula milk (there may have been wet nurses, but I’m not convinced this was a common thing at that time). There were no sleep monitors, dummies, pushchairs, automatic swings, car seats or any other place where babies could be left while mothers got ‘back to normal’ after giving birth to them.
What would normal have been, for women in a Celtic tribe? Going to the gym to get their figure back? Having lunch with friends? Sitting down with a cup of tea and a book for an hour? Or continuing to do the day to day things that contributed towards the tribe’s survival?
Until very recently (and currently, in some Asian and Hispanic cultures), new mothers would have had a lying-in period for days or weeks following the birth of a child. In China, new mothers ‘do the month,’ staying at home and being looked after by the women of their community. We are among the first generations of humans to become parents almost in isolation from a community. I conjecture that Celtic women would have been surrounded by a community of other women, who would have eased the transition to parenthood (which, incidentally, wouldn’t have been such a dramatic event in ancient cultures); and that after a lying-in period, the new mother would have strapped her baby to her front and got on with the chores.
[Just as an aside, I think we are believing that Celtic spirituality would have been largely about goddess-worship and veneration of fertility, so motherhood and lactation would be highly valued, in contrast to modern western society.]
So that’s item one for the case against the moses basket. Item two is the basket itself. Again, I conject that Moses’ mum didn’t have a moses basket to hand. I think there’s some story in some work of fiction about how she hid him for three months before making a basket and casting him into the river. It wasn’t a standard piece of baby kit back then, and I’m not convinced it came into regular use until much much later. I’m thinking Victorian orphans, also the early recipients of artificial milk; or whichever orphan babies were actually kept, as opposed to being exposed on hillsides etc.
My final piece of evidence is, you guessed it, breastfeeding. We have already established that baby would have been strapped to mother, because, as we have also established, the moses basket wasn’t around yet. The style of breastfeeding is very different in non-western cultures, and perhaps that gives us some insight into the way children would have been nursed in ancient Britain. We know that the human newborn needs to feed little and often, because that’s how his digestive system works best, and because he is growing (physically, socially and neurologically), very fast, day and night. We know that this little-and-often business establishes a robust milk supply; and also that exclusive, on-cue breastfeeding prevents conception, and therefore this would have naturally spaced out the pregnancies. Having baby strapped to mum is easily the most practical way to achieve this.
So my proposal is that Celtic villages would not have featured beautifully woven moses baskets with darling little blankets in them. And that it’s all very well having a conjectural reconstruction, with oodles of enthusiasm and imagination, but then you’re inevitably going to get some nerdy type coming in and saying that’s not what they would have done, whether it be the druid’s temple or the handspun fleece or the parenting style. Even archeologists are not immune to the marketing of the modern mummy.
- I do really like this word, but also I’ve just finished reading Fermat’s Last Theorem, and there was a lot of conjecturing in that. [↩]
- some discussion about use of ‘conjecture’ as a verb resulted in my decision to do so [↩]
- this one I used for a dare [↩]
- Jocheved [↩]
- only where baby really is breastfed on cue, round the clock, and given nothing else. Please don’t rely on it and then blame me. [↩]