Module overview and goals:
This module discusses disability and archaeology. It introduces the framework of academic disability studies and demonstrates how it can be applied to better understanding experiences of disability in the past. It also discusses some experiences of disabled archaeologists who have countered ableism in archaeology and advocated for a more inclusive discipline. Students will be able to:
- Contrast medical and social models of disability and concepts of impairment vs. disability;
- Apply medical and social models of disability to archaeological case studies using concepts from osteobiography, paleopathology, and the bioarchaeology of personhood;
- Describe examples of ableism in archaeology and efforts of disabled archaeologists and disability activists to build a more inclusive archaeology;
Discussions about access and inclusion in archaeology have addressed the participation of a number of underrepresented groups, often focusing on race, gender, and national origin as primary axes of diversity. Academic focus on gender and feminist activism around barriers to access for women such as sexual harassment have become widespread in the discipline over recent decades. Less often have perspectives from disability studies or the experiences of disabled archaeologists been considered. In its focus on the physical labor of fieldwork as a rite of passage, archaeology can carry a strong ableist bias that creates barriers for archaeologists with visible impairments. Yet archaeologists with disabilities, hidden or visible, are represented throughout the discipline. And archaeology’s focus on the body and on past institutions provides some ways of accessing the experiences of disabled people in the past.
This module considers disability in archaeology from both perspectives. Students will learn key vocabulary from the field of disability studies, such as the distinction between impairment and disability and the way medical vs. social models understand disability. These concepts can be applied to the past to investigate the experiences of people with disabilities in the past. Disability in the past has most often been considered within two distinct areas: the historical archaeology of institutions such as asylums, hospitals, leper colonies, internment camps, etc, where individuals with some kinds of impairments and diseases were concentrated; and bioarchaeology, which can identify a limited set of impairments that leave traces on the human skeleton. These windows onto the lives of people with disabilities in the past are limited, but they are important to consider because they help us explore the social construction of disability in past societies, and they help people with disabilities see their experiences and identities reflected in the past.
A second important perspective offered by this module is that of archaeologists with disabilities in the present. Several module resources were created from the perspective of archaeologists who are disabled, reflecting the disability activist rallying cry: “nothing about us without us.” The goals of this section of the module are to highlight the ways in which archaeology has discriminated against and created barriers for people with disabilities, to profile advocates for more ethical and inclusive practices in archaeology, and to share resources and mentoring opportunities for students in our courses who may have disabilities and are interested in pursuing archaeology as a potential career.
This module would work well as an addition to a unit (or course) on bioarchaeology. It includes a case study on the bioarchaeology of a Mississippian burial from Tennessee from the perspective of the social model of disability. It also demonstrates the parallels between gender studies/feminism; critical race theory/anti-racism; and other academic/social movements, in both exploring identity in the past and focusing attention on discrimination and access in the present. It would work well in tandem with a focus on the archaeology of identity in general as one element or unit.
Connections to grant goals
This module draws on the participation of two scholars, Laura Heath-Stout and Mason Shrader, who are both themselves disabled and also have advocated for the incorporation of perspectives from disability studies to archaeological theory and practice. Thus, this module fulfills the goal of the disability movement: “nothing about us without us.” In so doing, this module supports grant goal 1 (fostering collaboration that intentionally diversifies the perspectives and experiences of the grantees) and goal 2 (providing students with an inclusive introduction to archaeological theory and practice).
In this module, students will learn about disability, an under-represented aspect of diversity in past and present experiences. They will see how and where archaeologists can study disability in the past, and hear from prominent voices in disability activism about how they envision a more inclusive archaeological practice. Through the resources and experiences shared in this module, students with disabilities will be able to see themselves in archaeology and find mentors and support if they are interested in pursuing further study in archaeology.
Optional additional resources
Cross, Morag. 2007. “Accessing the Inaccessible: Disability and Archaeology.” In The Archaeology of Identities, edited by Timothy Insoll, pp. 179-194. Routledge.
This article provides a wider background on the work of disabled archaeologists and others to construct a history (prehistory?) of disability. It is now somewhat out of date and is probably most useful for instructors wanting more depth in their understanding of the issues presented in this module, rather than as a reading for students. It could also help instructors find additional case studies relevant to specific areas that they might be interested in highlighting.
- Interviews with Dr. Laura Heath-Stout
- Overview: Dr. Heath-Stout is an archaeologist whose work focuses on equity and knowledge production in the field of archaeology. From her website: “My current research focuses on the manifestations of sexism, racism, heteronormativity, classism, and ableism in the discipline of archaeology. Using quantitative and qualitative sociological methods, I explore the experiences of marginalized archaeologists in their work, and the ways that the identities and experiences of archaeologists affect the knowledge that they produce about the human past.” (https://www.lauraheathstout.com/)
- Learning objectives: these two videos introduce key terms (impairment, disability, social and medical models of disability) from Objective 1. The Archaeology of Disability video focuses on Objective 2 by explaining how archaeologists address disability in the past, why it is important to do so, and how it plays out in a case study. The Disability in Archaeology video supports Objective 3 by discussing why it is important to include perspectives of archaeologists with disabilities and how change is being made within the discipline.
- Disabled people in the past:
- Two main approaches to disability in the past
- Historical archaeology of institutions (1:14)
- Bioarchaeology (4:41)
- Connection to broader field of disability studies (6:09)
- Introduction to medical, charity, and social models of disability
- Case study (10:23)
- Key vocabulary: impairment, disability, disability rights movement, medical/charity/social models of disability, historical archaeology, bioarchaeology.
- Bethard et al. 2017 (case study cited in the video)- a discussion of a Mississippian case study from Tennessee that takes a disability studies approach to paleopathology.
- Disability in Archaeology:
- Introduction: how are archaeologists in the present affected by disability issues?
- Ableism in the context of other systems of oppression (0:47)
- Academic studies vs. activism (1:39)
- How ableism and other intersecting forms of oppression affect who dies archaeology (2:28)
- There are plenty of people with disabilities in archaeology (3:40)
- Issues and barriers to people with disabilities in archaeology (4:49)
- Dismantling ableism and supporting archaeologists with disabilities (8:14)
- Possible discussion questions:
- The video talks about disability studies and activism as separate areas with different focus, but overlapping goals. How does this compare to what you’ve seen along different axes of identity, such as gender studies/feminism or queer theory/LGBTQIA+ activism? What is the relationship between academia and activism in archaeology?
- What does the call “Nothing About Us, Without Us” mean? Why is this an important concept for Dr. Heath-Stout and others working in the field of disability in archaeology?
- Links to organizations mentioned in the video:
- Disabled Archaeologists Network (international/mostly US, UK, Canada): https://disabledarchnetwork.weebly.com/
- Enabled Archaeology Foundation (based in UK): https://enabledarchaeology.com/
- American Veterans Archaeological Recovery: https://americanveteransarchaeology.org/
- Operation Nightingale (based in UK): https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/our-work/operation-nightingale
- Additional resources:
- Podcast with Dr. Heath-Stout by the Women in Archaeology blog, with more focus on CRM contexts.
- Heath-Stout, Laura 2020 “Who Writes about Archaeology? An Intersectional Study of Authorship in Archaeological Journals.” American Antiquity 85(3): 407-426. This article presents the broader content of Dr. Heath-Stout’s research, which she alludes to in the video. It takes a sociological approach to article authorship between 2007-2016. It could be useful background reading for instructors, or it could be the basis for a student paper or an in-class activity where students perform a survey of recent articles in various journals.
- Interview with Mason Shrader:
- Overview: Mason Shrader is a disabled advocate and an Anthropology master’s student at Texas Tech University. He holds a master’s degree in Classics also from TTU and he specializes in the archaeology of disability in the Roman world. Mason’s current research interests include spatial analysis of Greco-Roman medical sites, bioarchaeology of care, and the reception of mythic models of disability.
- Learning objectives:
In this video, Shrader discusses his experiences with and perspective on disability and ableism in archaeology, supporting learning objective 3. He points out how assumptions that only normal bodies can carry out archaeological fieldwork, combined with the focus on fieldwork as the test of a true archaeologist, can create barriers for archaeologists with impairments. He also demonstrates through his experience at Pompeii how different lived experiences can spark different questions about the past. Thus an archaeology that is inclusive of a diversity of perspectives and experiences is stronger. This video speaks to all three learning objectives of the module.
Mason’s video script was developed in response to the following questions:
1) Why is the question “who belongs in archaeology” an important question for our discipline to ask?
2) How do you see ableism and the medical model of disability playing out in archaeology’s emphasis on fieldwork?
3) From you own experience or from the experiences collected in surveys and conversations with colleagues, what are some experiences of archaeologists with disabilities? How does this lived experience affect your approach to understanding the past?
4) Are there areas in the current discussion that make you hopeful for a more inclusive/less ableist discipline moving forward?
- Related reading:
- Sneed and Shrader, Digging While Impaired: Promoting the Accessibility of Archaeology as a Discipline.
This is a forthcoming chapter in Archaeological Ethics in Practice that develops Shrader’s experiences in greater detail and makes that case that there have always been accommodations for the diverse bodies and abilities of archaeologists, so accessibility accommodations are not possible; rather, they are an ethical imperative.
- Boutin, Alexis (2016) Exploring the social construction of disability: An application of the bioarchaeology of personhood model to a pathological skeleton from ancient Bahrain. International Journal of Paleopathology 12: 17-28.
This article is an example of an osteobiographical approach within paleopathology—it explores the social construction of disability and impairment through the case study of one individual from the Early Dilmun Period (~2000 BCE) in Bahrain. The article draws on the central tenets of the Bioarchaeology of Personhood model (from article abstract):
- modern Western constructs of identity and individuality are not universal;
- personhood is comprised of many facets, which are entangled with one another and are prioritized situationally;
- a longitudinal “life course” paradigm is well-suited to the bioarchaeological investigation of personhood;
- personhood can extend beyond the biological lifespan; (5) bioarchaeologists should be open to alternative modes of interpretation and outreach
- Sneed and Shrader, Digging While Impaired: Promoting the Accessibility of Archaeology as a Discipline.
- Analysis activity
This activity asks students to practice applying concepts from disability studies to archaeological cases.