The Radical Potential of Making an Archaeology of Care Visible

What is “an archaeology of care”? Well, it can mean a few things. It has been used, for example, to describe a form of archaeological practice developed by Caraher and Rothaus (2017) in which care and support for the present day communities associated with the fieldwork is considered as important as the archaeological research itself. Perhaps more literally, however, it refers to the archaeological evidence for care in the past. More specifically, evidence for the care of sick and/or disabled individuals in the past. Although sickness and disability have long been observed in remains, Lorna Tilley (2015) has more recently developed an archaeology of care into its own formal framework within bioarchaeology, providing archaeologists with the tools necessary to investigate disability within the past, and thus examining the ways in which care may or may not have existed. This latter version of the archaeology of care will be the focus of this blog post.

With regards to archaeology, care work (as well as many disabilities) are often not visible within the record. To be honest, we can stretch this towards the present as well – not all disabilities are visible to others, of course, but care continues to be “invisibilised” as well (Piepzna-Samarasinha 2018, p. 66). In other words, it is not afforded the same consideration and respect as other forms of labour, nor is it given the needed resources or support by those with ability to do so.

However, we are beginning to see more of a narrative of care for sick and disabled individuals within the archaeological record. Unsurprisingly, this has been prevalent within bioarchaeological research of human remains (e.g., Tilley and Oxenham 2011, Bohling 2020, Kristjánsdóttir & Walser 2021), but has since incorporated other disciplines for a more interdisciplinary approach (e.g., Southwell-Wright 2013, Powell, Southwell-Wright, and Gowland 2016, Gilchrist 2020). Even within the zooarchaeological record, there have been instances of sick and disabled animals who most likely received some form of human care prior to death (e.g., MacKinnon 2010, Bendrey 2014, Thomas 2017).

An example of archaeological care: this puppy had a dental disease that would have required human support and treatment to have lived this long. (Image credit: Pütz Martin, Jürgen Vogel, Ralf Schmitz/LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn)

What I find so interesting and exciting with regards to developing the study of care in the archaeological record is how it reveals an element of everyday life that has been so fraught with difficulties today, from a lack of accessible healthcare to the continued inaccessibility of the world to others. I think it is often easy for many – even within archaeology – to assume a sort of “backwardness” to the past; that today, things are so improved in comparison, that everything is better in modern times. And to be fair, that’s true for a lot of things – we have made progressions in reducing forms of inequality and increasing quality of life. But there are also downsides as well – rampant capitalism and white supremacist ideologies (among others) are simultaneously creating further inequalities elsewhere, similarly decreasing quality of life for marginalised people. It is obviously more complicated and moves beyond “past bad, present good”.

But developing an archaeology of care helps to reveal that care of others was regularly practiced, and that not everyone ascribed to narrow definitions of worth that unfortunately are still perpetuated today; that your potential for labour did not equate to your value as a person, that you had to prove that you were worthy of care and support. I do not want to say that all instances of care in the archaeological record were purely altruistic, of course, and there are many scholars of disability studies who have provided critique of the ways in which archaeology interprets disability (e.g., Draycott 2015, Shuttleworth and Meekosha 2017, Evelyn-Wright 2019). However, I think there is something very beautiful there, that despite the technological and medical limitations of the past, people and animals were not simply abandoned outright. Sick and disabled people existed and were given care in the past – so what’s the excuse of those in power in the present?

I don’t think this is just limited to care, however; in the rare occasions that I’ve felt optimistic about archaeology, it has always been because I saw a hint of what could be radical potential, particularly in its ability to make things visible. Archaeology has the ability to reveal things that have long been obscured by those with power who desire for a continuation of a status quo – from women breaking modern gendered conceptions to vibrant communities of people who broke beyond today’s presumed gender and sexuality binaries. Of course, it goes without saying that archaeology has unfortunately also been the key tool in obscuring these pasts as well, weaponised by those who want to retain their positions of power.

I don’t want anyone to come away from this thinking that archaeology is the solution to these issues, of course. And perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, as someone who is in constant struggle between the absolute harm that archaeology has committed and still commits, and the potential that there is within the practice of archaeology to produce important and perhaps even radical and liberating knowledge from the past which can be applied to the present and future.

To end this blog post, I want to leave you with a quote from disability justice and transformative justice activist Mia Mingus, which initially inspired me to write this. In some ways, I’d like to imagine that Mia is echoing not just the thoughts of disabled people today, but of disabled people in the past, looking towards us and beyond…

“We must leave evidence. Evidence that we were here, that we existed, that we survived and loved and ached […] Evidence of who we were, who we thought we were, who we never should have been. Evidence for each other that there are other ways to live – past survival; past isolation.”

– Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence

References

Bendrey, R. (2014). Care in the community? Interpretations of a fractured goat bone from Neolithic Jarmo, Iraq. International journal of paleopathology7, pp. 33-37.

Bohling, S. N. (2020). Death, disability, and diversity: An investigation of physical impairment and differential mortuary treatment in Anglo-Saxon England. PhD Thesis, University of Bradford.

Caraher, W.R. and Rothaus R. (2017) An archaeology of care. On Second Thought: A Publication of the North Dakota Humanities Council (Spring 2006), pp. 50-51.

Draycott, J. (2015). Reconstructing the lived experience of disability in antiquity: a case study from Roman Egypt. Greece & Rome62(2), pp. 189-205.

Evelyn-Wright, S. (2019). Dis/ability in Roman Dorset: An Integrated Osteobiography Approach. In Bodies of Information. Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, pp. 15-38.

Gilchrist, R. (2020) Spirit, mind and body: the archaeology of monastic healing. In Gilchrist, R. Sacred Heritage: Monastic Archaeology, Identities, Beliefs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 71-109

Kristjánsdóttir, S., & Walser, J. W. (2021). Beneath the Surface: Disability in archaeological and osteobiographical contexts. In Understanding Disability Throughout History (pp. 29-45). Routledge.

MacKinnon, M. (2010). “Sick as a dog”: zooarchaeological evidence for pet dog health and welfare in the Roman world. World Archaeology42(2), pp. 290–309.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, L.L. (2018) Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Powell, L., Southwell-Wright, W., and Gowland, R. (2016) Care in the Past: Archaeological and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Shuttleworth, R., & Meekosha, H. (2017). Accommodating critical disability studies in bioarchaeology. In Bioarchaeology of Impairment and Disability. Cham: Springer, pp. 19-38.

Southwell-Wright, W. (2013). Past perspectives: What can archaeology offer disability studies?. In Emerging perspectives on disability studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 67-95.

Thomas, R. (2017) The zooarchaeology of animal ‘care’. In Powell, L., Southwell-Wright, W., and Gowland, R. (eds.), Care in the Past: Archaeological and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 169-188.

Tilley, L. (2015) Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Switzerland: Springer.

Tilley, L., & Oxenham, M. F. (2011). Survival against the odds: Modeling the social implications of care provision to seriously disabled individuals. International Journal of Paleopathology1(1), pp. 35-42.


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