On Flare Ups in the Trenches: Personal Reflections on Disability in Archaeology

Disability in archaeology can be discussed from two perspectives: identifying and interpreting disability in the past (e.g., Gowland 2017, Kristjánsdóttir and Walser 2021, and my own previous blog post briefly discussing this), but also supporting accessibility and inclusivity for disabled archaeologists (e.g., Philips et al. 2012, O’Mahoney 2015). Today’s blog post will focus on the latter, and I want to dedicate this to the memory of Theresa O’Mahoney, a dis/Abled enabled* public archaeologist who was also one of the most prominent disability activists in the field, particularly through the establishment of the Enabled Archaeology Foundation.

*dis/Abled enabled, in Theresa’s own words – “We put the A in disabled to show we have abilities not disabilities, and enabled means using coping strategies or tools to do our best work and live our daily lives” (O’Mahoney 2018).

I never got to meet Theresa in person, but she was a very kind and supportive online friend who gifted me one of my most treasured specimens in my personal reference collection – a partial cattle skull from the Thames by the name of Fred.

So, among many other things, I’m a disabled archaeologist. I guess perhaps the more accurate term would be “newly disabled” archaeologist; recent health issues over the past year have exacerbated problems with my mobility and severe chronic pain. And yet, looking back I can see the signs of my current health condition: the amount of injuries I have sustained during excavations from what was originally considered inherent clumsiness may have actually be cases of my joint disorder getting the better of my coordination, and my ignorance of the underlying conditions at play have inadvertently placed me in a more dangerous spot than my non-disabled colleagues. These culminative injuries and the effect it had on my mental health (something that I’ve already struggled with for years) made me uninterested in working as an on-site archaeologist…which may have been a good call as my health problems have intensified in recent years.

Despite this decision to avoid fieldwork being made far in advance, I can’t really say that it has helped me plan for continuing a career in archaeology as a disabled archaeologist. In some ways, I’m very fortunate that I even have the privilege to choose not to excavate – for many disabled archaeologists who primarily work in the commercial sector, there is the sense that you just have to “get over it” in order to keep one’s job (Phillips et al. 2012, p. 681-682). My academic background, as well as the fact that my expertise lies primarily in post-excavation analysis, arguably makes me a better candidate for non-field-based roles anyway; however, those sort of roles are not plentiful on the job market, especially those which are connected to academic institutions and projects. And while there is much work being done with regards to expanding archaeological practice beyond traditional fieldwork (e.g., Frieman and Janz 2018, Nishimura 2020, Aycock 2021), I’d argue that excavation is still considered by many to be a main method by which our discipline is enacted. There’s logic to that, of course, but unfortunately such an attitude can also be entrenched in ideals of harmful gatekeeping, ableism, and toxic masculinity that continues to make the discipline inaccessible to marginalised individuals (Fitzpatrick 2020); personally, its this attitude that makes the idea of ever returning to the field seem impossible, that I would be an additional burden who cannot pull their own weight alongside my colleagues, even with accommodations in place.

Things can often seem dire, and I’m still learning the ropes of navigating life as not only a disabled person, but as a disabled archaeologist as well. But it should be noted that there has been a lot done with regards to changing the way archaeology is practiced and accommodating the needs of others. For starters, I should clarify that being disabled doesn’t necessarily exclude you from traditional fieldwork – there has certainly been a more conscious effort by fieldwork supervisors to provide accommodations where necessary, with many organisations developing and adopting standards and practices to become more inclusive (e.g., Phillips and Creighton 2010, Philips et al. 2012, O’Mahoney 2015). But part of the challenge is that we must also avoid a “one-size-fits-all” solution to overcoming inaccessibility as well – accommodations and support will differ among disabled archaeologists (e.g., Dall 2017, Heath-Stout 2019, Talbot and Loftus 2020, King et al. 2021). Non-disabled archaeologists must continue to listen to the voices of our disabled colleagues and recognise that accessibility is not a privilege within our field – it must be a non-negotiable right. Similarly, we must end this notion that fieldwork must be this physically demanding and torturous rite of passage – this isn’t to downplay the fact that excavation requires a level of physical rigour, but to reframe the way we view fieldwork as archaeological practice. Archaeology can be practiced through various means, and all levels of work – both inside and outside of the site – must be seen with equal importance as part of a more holistic model of archaeological practice.

There is still much to be done within the field to become more inclusive and accommodating to the various needs of disabled archaeologists; this urgent need has only been heightened with the coronavirus pandemic, which has unfortunately seen many disabled people once again facing exclusion under the guise of returning to “normal” (Barbarin and Dawson 2021). But with more disabled archaeologists speaking out and the further adoption of inclusive practices, we can continue to open up the field to everyone.

References

Aycock, J. (2021). The coming tsunami of digital artefacts. Antiquity, 95(384), pp. 1584-1589.

Barbarin, I. and Dawson, K. (2021) “Normal” Never Worked for Disabled People – Why Would We Want to Return to It? Refinery 29. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/workplaces-need-change-for-disabled-people

Dall, A.S. (2017) Disability and Archaeology. Archaeology in Community. Retrieved from https://www.ameliasdall.com/publications

Fitzpatrick, A. (2020) You Will Never Be Indiana Jones. Lady Science. Retrieved from https://www.ladyscience.com/essays/you-will-never-be-indiana-jones-toxic-masculinity-archaeology

Frieman, C. J., & Janz, L. (2018). A very remote storage box indeed: The importance of doing archaeology with old museum collections. Journal of Field Archaeology43(4), pp. 257-268.

Gowland, R. (2017). Growing old: biographies of disability and care in later life. In L Tilley and A A Schrenck (eds)New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Springer, Cham, pp. 237-251.

Heath-Stout, L. (2019) The Invisibly Disabled Archaeologist. Presented at The 84th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Albuquerque, NM. 

King, J., Jennings, B., & Bohling, S. (2021). Visual impairment and archaeological engagement. The Archaeologist, (112), pp. 25-27.

Kristjánsdóttir, S. and Walser, J.W. (2021) Beneath the Surface: Disability in archaeological and osteobiographical contexts. In H Björg Sigurjónsdóttir and J G Rice (eds) Understanding Disability Throughout History. Routledge, Milton Park, UK, pp. 29-45.

Nishimura, Y. (2020). Doing archaeology outside of the trench: Energizing museum “Diaspora” collections for research. Archaeological Research in Asia24, p. 100227.

O’Mahoney, T. (2015) Enabled Archaeology. BAJR Series Guide (41).

O’Mahoney, T. (2018) Reflections in UK Archaeology – a Personal Journey in Academic Life. Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage 5(3), pp. 216-218.

Phillips, T., & Creighton, J. (2010). Employing people with disabilities: Good practice guidance for archaeologists. Institute for Archaeologists.

Phillips, T., Gilchrist, R., Skeates, R., McDavid, C. and Carman, J. (2012). Inclusive, Accessible Archaeology: Enabling Persons with Disabilities. The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.673-693.

Talbot, A., & Loftus, R. (2020). Neurodiversity and archaeological practice. The Archaeologist, (110), pp. 26-27.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

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.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.