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The Rhode Island State Home and School Project


Presentations and Publications

Children at Play: Archaeological Studies of Toys, Buildings and Institutions

E. Pierre Morenon
Department of Anthropology, Rhode Island College

Archaeologists have mapped landscapes, buildings and artifact distributions at the Children's Center. Some evidence is "child centered" and particular to children's play. Toys recovered from regional research are used to provide a context for interpretation. What do we know, archaeologically, about the activities of children? How does this evidence contribute to our understanding of the care and treatment of children?

Introduction to the Archaeology of Children

"It's all about the children," Debra DiScuillo succinctly argued in 2002 at the beginning of our collaborative efforts. Children are at the center of every aspect of the State Home and School project. The experiences of children underlie the oral history project, as well as our reunions of former residents. The history of children is a key reason for saving Cottage C, or compiling an archive. Children are core to each step of research into the State Home and School, and this includes the archaeological research. All of the products of this project records, artifacts, stories, texts, paintings, monuments are touched by the lives of the State Home and School children.

From the beginning, this was an institution for children. The legislature was petitioned; bills were passed, and funds were approved to build and modify barns, cottages, hospitals, landscapes, schools, and pathways to support and care for children. People were employed, visitors arrived, and policies were formed to meet children's needs. Daily activities revolved around the patterns of child behavior, and many of the activity that did take place directly involved children. Children waxed the floors in the cottages, washed dishes in the kitchen, and hoed weeds in the farm fields - children were engaged everywhere. This was a property devoted to children.

The State Home and School for dependent and neglected children was Established by an act of the General Assembly, passed April 29, 1884, at the earnest solicitation of ladies known throughout the State, for long, faithful, intelligent and philanthropic service in all good works. Their desire was for an institution where children should be placed, who in their environment naturally drift into crime, but from whom, if taken young and properly surrounded, nothing but useful, self-supporting men and women could be expected... (Wetmore 1887)

We would repeat the sentiment expressed by Mrs. E. B. Chace in an article written after the founding of this institution: "Let no taxpayer consider the money thus spent as thrown away. Our State has never performed a wiser, better, more self-protecting, ecumenical action than in the establishment of this State Home and School." It is [...] a State Home and School for the dependent and neglected children that are deprived in various ways of the advantages of a home. [...] The human being is educated by the habits and conditions of the family of which they are members. The public schools are agencies for the education of children that are in the engagement of homes, and the State having guardianship over children less fortunate, provide for their education in the State Home and School. The great aim of this institution is to make it as much as a Home as possible. (Women's Board of Visitors: 1887)

What, therefore, is the archaeology of children, developed through the State Home and School Project? Before answering this question a brief interlude into the "archaeology of children." Briefly put there is remarkably little work that has been done; and there is much to do. Consider the following evidence gleaned from a recent Internet search (Table 1).

Table 1: Search of key words on the Internet to examine associations with the word "children" (, 1/10/03).

Key Word Number of Hits
Total Word Associations
"[]" children "[]" of women "[]" of children "[]" study
Children 65,500,000 ----- ----- ----- -----
History 77,700,000 4,480,000 93,000 6150 16
Psychology 7,670,000 1,530,000 23,400 1120 92
Sociology 2,790,000 617,000 3330 829 22
Anthropology 2,180,000 453,000 1530 321 8
Archaeology 1,840,000 265,000 56 7 1

As one might expect, there are over sixty-five million references to children on the Internet, and words like history, sociology or archaeology are abundant. So, it is not unexpected that the search for the key words archaeology and children would result in 265,000 hits. This drops dramatically to 7 hits when the search is for "archaeology of children," and to a single hit for "archaeological study of children." There are many thousands of examples of ways in which archaeology is demonstrated to children or children are introduced to archaeology. However, there are relatively few studies of children completed by archaeologists, and many of those that can be found are devoted to skeletal studies or excavations of children burials.

Consider the prepublication notification for the forthcoming book by Kathryn A. Kamp, Children in the Prehistoric Puebloan Southwest, to be printed by the University of Utah Press:

Is there evidence of children in the archaeological record? Some would answer that "subadults" can only be distinguished when there is osteological confirmation. Others might suggest that the reason children don't exist in prehistory is because no one looked for them, much as no one had looked for women in the same context until recently. (, accessed 1/10/03).

At the State Home and School from 1885 to 1976 one might ask, is there anything other than evidence of children in the archaeological record? It is all about the children!

Archaeology of Children within The State Home and School Project


In May of 2001, a few days after Richard Hillman of the Rhode Island Department of Children Youth and Families challenged me to consider the archaeological potential of the Children's Home, I took a walk over to the East Campus at Rhode Island College. (Aerial Photo) Perhaps Richard was primarily interested in figuring out whether all of the children, buried in the State Home and School cemetery, had been moved in the 1950s. (Providence Journal Article) However, within a few minutes it was clear that the archaeological evidence at the Children's Home was extensive. Cellarholes, buildings, landscape features and remnant plantings were scattered over the eastern half of the Rhode Island College campus. How could this obvious archaeological site have been missed? A little toy truck located during the first few minutes of this walkover survey suggested immediate possibilities indeed. (Toy truck)

Thus, for one week in June, 2001, a modest study was undertaken with a few colleagues and students. Here are a few of the highlights:

  1. Using available historic maps (Figures 1 and 2), we located every map-defined building and many landscape features based on surface evidence (depressions, sidewalks, etc.), defining the institutional infrastructure on the ground. (1908 and 1937 maps).
  2. Details in the construction of Cottage C (short risers on the stairs, dormitory room, closet hardware, etc.) and in the remnant plantings (trees, shrubs and bulbs) were specific to the lives of children.
  3. All of the recovery procedures (post hole, test pit, dry or wet screen) produced substantial results, including the discovery of buried features, and midden deposits; there were thousands of buried artifacts that could be attributed specifically to the State Home and School.
  4. Artifact distributions varied by building type and location within the State Home and School property. Varied artifact patterns could be expected along pathways, around buildings and in the open spaces.
  5. Many of the items recovered in excavations were specific to children toys (jack, cap gun, roller skate wheel, etc.), personal items (bead, comb, clothing, etc.) or activities (pencil lead, dish, etc.). And many recovered items sustained the children construction (window glass, nails, etc.), heat (coal, etc.) or food (bone, shell, etc.).


Based on these initial findings, a more ambitious field study of the State Home and School was started in the summer of 2002. The whole of Rhode Island College has been subdivided into 100 by 100 meter sample areas. (RIC sample areas) Within these sample spaces, 64 small test excavations (25 centimeters on a side) are completed, using a stratified random sampling procedure (Figure 3). (Sample Areas 18 & 24) There are some limitations to testing; care is taken to avoid parking lots or buried power lines. Larger excavation units are selectively completed. For example, samples are collected near doorways, paths or in locations that cannot be effectively evaluated with small test pits. Over the next few years it is our intention to complete extensive archaeological studies of the entire State Home and School property, and, subsequently the whole of the Rhode Island College.

To date three sample areas, which overlap three cottages, a school and part of the Superintendent's home have been evaluated. Here are a few of the important archaeological results:

  1. Landscaping to improve water runoff away from Cottage A/B and Cottage C buried original surfaces, creating a stratified deposit evidence that was deposited between 1885 and 1925 can be separated from evidence deposited later than 1925.
  2. At least two important deposits one a possible privy dating to the late 1800s, and the other a 20th Century landfill have been located and contain huge numbers of artifacts, including organic remains (egg shell, fish vertebrae, etc.).
  3. Toys (marbles, gun, plastic soldier, roller-skate wheel, etc.) are ubiquitous items and attest to the importance of play at the State Home and School. (Toy marbles)
  4. Most important to this essay, local and larger play areas apparently can be defined through patterns of toy distributions near doorways around buildings, and in an arc to the east of the school.

Collaborative Research: Implications for Archaeology

Why, toward the end of the 19th Century did key women and men embark on this noble experiment the construction of a "state home and school" for children? This was a period of rapid industrial, urban, demographic and social change. Rhode Island (particularly Providence) was at the forefront of many of these forces. Key to this experiment was the social reconstruction of "home," "school," and "children" for individuals in the society who had been neglected. Attending school, rather than going to work, and segregating children from adults, creating a separate period of "childhood" were important parts of this design. (Photos: Classroom; Combing Hair)

How well did this experiment work? Documents, oral testimonies and artifacts provide independent, and conflicting answers to this question. (Photo: Ives Cot.) Our oral history project will ultimately document memories back to the 1920s. State records will certainly provide accurate data on the numbers of individuals, and the perspective of adult executives; and, newspaper accounts will detail some of the more sensational events. The archaeology of these children will add a new layer of evidence about the workings, the day to day processes, of this experiment.

Here are a few final thoughts about the archaeology of children. Cultural concepts, such as childhood or adulthood, and social constructs, such as home or school, have material characteristics that are worth examining. Toys, as well as personal items that are age specific are indicators, but it is the play, or the use of those items in separate play areas, that best express these concepts and constructs. Play provides us with recognizable actions, actions created by children. We have only begun to explore some of these ideas, and it is clear that archaeology is only one part of an important collaborative effort that is taking place at Rhode Island College.

We should have no illusions. The State Home and School was not a paradise, nor did it necessarily accomplish the goals set out by its founders. Emile and I were talking on the phone about his childhood experiences at the State Home in the early 1950s:

Toys? Oh, we had lots of toys, all kinds of toys..... But they never let us have any bicycles.


There are many colleagues and students that have contributed to this work, either by volunteering many hours to fieldwork, or through their support for the State Home and School Project. However, one individual Skip Keane deserves particular mention. Much of the success of this work is based on his love of archaeology and devotion this project.

References Cited

University of Utah Press

2003 Children in the Prehistoric Puebloan Southwest. Edited by Kathryn A. Kamp.

Forthcoming books., accessed 1/10/03.

Wetmore, George Peabody

1887 "State Home and School." From, Message of George Peabody Wetmore, Governor or Rhode Island, to the General Assembly at its January Session, A. D. 1887. Appendix: Public Document No 1: 12 14. In, Acts and Resolves of the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. R. L. Freeman, State Printer: Providence, RI.

Women's Board of Visitors

1887 "The State Home and School." Annual Report of the Women's Board of Visitors to the Penal and Correctional Institutions of the State Made to the General Assembly at the January Session, AD 1887. Appendix: Public Document No 14: 10-11. In, Acts and Resolves of the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. R. L. Freeman, State Printer: Providence, RI.

Paper presented in an organized symposium, “The Treatment of Children in the Industrial Age: Rhode Island's Great Experiment, 1885 – 1976,” at the 36th Annual Conference on Historic and Underwater Archaeology, Providence, Rhode Island, January 17 2003.

To learn more about the project contact Patricia Nolin, Special Assistant to the President, call (401) 456-9854, or email

To contribute to the oral history project contact Diane Martell at (email) or 401-456-8628 (phone).