Archaeology of Us

Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: Towards a Heritage of Resistance

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Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: Towards a Heritage of Resistance

(Trigger warning: please be aware that, although this post does not discuss acts of abuse and violence in detail, it does discuss sexual and other forms of abuse in general.)


This post follows on from the previous post, ‘Putting up a fight’: a culture of resistance to Domestic and Sexual Abuse, which argued that community archaeological studies might effectively explore material histories of resistance.[i] It noted that, though not intending to focus in detail upon abusive and violent practices, the Past Sense Project (PSP) might examine the implication of material culture within abusive and violent acts. This would be in order to explore how victims might, as acts of resistance, and in (re-)constructing a sense of self (and perhaps community), subvert such objects, and appropriate other material towards this aim. The previous post discussed acts of resistance to domestic and sexual abuse, and notions of community for victims and survivors, and briefly considered how individuals and communities might use historical studies into domestic and sexual abuse. This post will take this topic further, by considering how archaeological studies might be used in developing a Heritage of Resistance as a resource for victim and survivor communities.

Communities of resistance: a heritage

Historical research on domestic and sexual violence (briefly mentioned in the previous post) highlights the range of written evidence (including, but not limited to, diaries, letters, memoirs and autobiographies; newspaper, police, and court reports; and popular culture, such as ballads) that contains both information of abusive and resistant practices, and (on occasion) the voices of victims and perpetrators.[ii] Other sources, such as oral histories, photographs, and illustrations, combine with written evidence to relate and represent these experiences, and the contexts within which they took place.[iii]

In examining the different ways by which victims act in opposition to violence and abuse, their (albeit restricted) agency becomes apparent; both victims and survivors may find recognition of their strength in abusive situations a reservoir from which their sense of self, and that of other victims and survivors, and of community, might be nourished.[iv]

The collection of historical material that relates responses to violence and abuse may therefore provide victims and survivors – as individuals, or as (a) community/ies – with a heritage that might both inform and enhance, and be informed and enhanced by, acts of resistance in the more recent past, or present. By examining the material traces of resistance, PSP aims to contribute towards this heritage, highlighting tangible sources with which victims and survivors might engage.

Archaeologies of resistance

Numerous archaeological studies have investigated the material culture of resistance to oppression and inequality, in a range of contexts, and at different times in the past. This includes, for example, studies of the Roman colonisation of Britain in the 1st centuries BC to AD, and Early Medieval migrant settlements of Britain in the 5th – 11th centuries; and the colonisation of Africa, America, Australia and India in the 17th – 20th centuries.[v] During my own studies of the Iron Age to Roman, and late Roman to early medieval, transitions, I found certain methodological and theoretical frameworks useful in examining the use of material culture within processes of domination, and resistance.[vi] In common with other research into relationships between culture and power (particularly interrelationships between social, political, and economic, change and continuity, and material culture), my work employed anthropological and sociological approaches, specifically practice theories,[vii] and ideas developed through colonial and post-colonial studies.[viii] I have also recently begun contemporary archaeology research, employing experimental and innovative approaches, for example co- and auto-archaeologies, and archaeological ethnographies.

I am considering how I might integrate these methodological and theoretical approaches within archaeological research into the material histories of violence in the home, alongside my colleague’s therapeutic approaches, in testing several strands of research and community work. Some of the methods and approaches that we are currently exploring might require much modification, or prove untenable during pilots; but if able to overcome the practical difficulties, and (most importantly) satisfactorily meet the ethical challenges inherent within this work, we may be able to facilitate a range of positive outcomes for victims, survivors, and support services. As well as contributing to historical knowledge, participants in community work might learn or refresh transferable skills (which might include e.g. IT and social media, geography, sociology, psychology, anthropology, maths, photography, technical drawing, art, art and design history, writing, research and analysis) that may enable career and personal development, and perhaps increase confidence, as might the integration of psychotherapeutic approaches.

Co- and auto-archaeologies

I have begun to explore co- and auto-archaeological methodologies (see my recent conference paper*), and found some benefit of this approaches – particularly in recognising the value of personal archives within the reflective process, whereby survivors of violence in the home might use material culture in managing trauma, and in strengthening a sense of self after abuse. However, this work has not yet surmounted the challenge of maintaining a balance between privacy (and self-protection), and disseminating information that may be of use to either (or both) survivor communities, and public and academic audiences, a problem that affects the implementation of archaeological methodologies.

Institutional Building Surveys

Another possible area of PSP fieldwork (if supported by the relevant agencies and their clients) is collaborative landscape studies, building, and surface artefact surveys, of (either former or current) domestic violence refuges, and possibly children’s homes, and local environments. This might involve examining the phases during which buildings were converted for communal use; earlier phases of occupation (i.e. as the homes of nuclear families); and possibly even surface artefact surveys of contemporary communal contexts, whereby current residents conduct co- and auto-archaeologies to investigate the ‘archaeology of us’.

Studies of earlier family use might to some degree ‘root’ communal buildings within the local landscape, possibly engendering a sense of belonging. A paper (‘Independent researcher Making and re-making home in response to domestic violence’, by Janet Bowstead) at the recent In attending the recent ‘Homes Under Pressure’ conference demonstrated the success of similar approaches,  in outlining work with refuge residents that involved photographic exploration of refuge environs, as a form of expression.[ix]

Study of conversion phases may also provide sense of continuity, through which temporary residents might situate themselves in relationship to the movement that through campaign, protest, and innovation, reformed political and social responses to, and understanding of, domestic and sexual violence and abuse. Such studies might also be used to familiarise those in need of support of the available services, and to raise public awareness of the continuing need for the support of services that, though essential, are increasingly under threat. Highlighting the positive action of individuals and groups might also reduce stigma for some.

‘Healing Histories’ workshops

Perhaps the most promising approach at present (having hit upon methods that might integrate both of our skills and experience most effectively, and met prospective interest from a possible agency partner) is the development of therapeutic archaeology workshops for survivors of domestic and / or sexual violence and abuse. Plans are underway to develop workshops (working title: ‘Healing Histories’) that examine material culture (including landscapes, buildings and interiors, household objects, and clothing from excavations and other contextual archives) alongside other historical sources, to compare past and present experiences of and through domestic material culture, the home environment, and neighbourhood. Workshops will involve learning about archaeological techniques, analysis and interpretation, and will explore creative presentation and expression, possibly integrating ‘archaeological storytelling’, film and photography, textiles, and other material culture

Another paper (‘What makes a home? Engaging and documenting young people’s personal experiences on being homeless and what home means to them’, by Rachel Crofts) at the recent ‘Homes Under Pressure’ conference outlined workshops carried out at the Geffrye Museum, which worked with young people through the New Horizon Youth Centre. This resulted in the production of a small exhibition (‘Home and hope: Young people’s experiences of homelessness today’) that ran alongside the ‘Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London’ exhibition, and demonstrated the successful implementation of similar approaches to those proposed by PSP (i.e. using historical sources to explore modern day experiences). Although PSP aims, objectives, methods and approaches in many ways differ, it was very useful to see how such projects might be managed, as well as positive participant response and outcome.

A previous collaborative archaeological study (which investigated contexts associated with contemporary homeless communities in Bristol and York) has considered the therapeutic benefits of archaeological work. Again, PSP approaches differ (although there is some crossover); but such work demonstrates the benefits of collaboration for community participants (both therapeutically, and in learning new skills), as well as for historians and archaeologists (in learning from community participants), and provides opportunities to raise awareness of, and increasing information on, pressing issues, thus potentially being of wider social benefit.


Through community and public archaeological work, we might support personal, community, and social development, using the concept of resistance to emphasize the achievements of victims and survivors of violence and abuse, and associated campaigns and services. By exploring the prospect of ‘resistance heritage’, we might both assist in the (re-)construction of personal and community identities, while also enhancing understanding raising awareness among the public of both the experiences, and needs, of victims and survivors, at a time when more support is needed, yet funding is increasingly cut.


[i] See, e.g. James C. Scott 1985 Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of peasant resistance, and 1992 Domination and the arts of resistance: hidden transcripts, for discussions of resistance.

[ii] The body of work is large; see the endnotes of the previous post for a short bibliography

[iii] PSP will use local and regional (Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire) memoirs (such as Elsie Elizabeth Goodhead 1983, The West End Story: Derby During the Depression, a Social and Personal History) and oral history (from local studies and other archives, e.g. East Midlands Oral History Archive, and we hope other collections, such as National Trust, e.g. Southwell Workhouse). Also photographic collections (including museum archives, such as Picture the Past, and private collections, such as that of the Derby Heritage Forum, and Derek Palmer – with thanks to both Derek and the DHF for allowing access).

[iv] The concepts of resistance and agency of course differ with regard to adult and children victims of abuse, as reflected within legislation, which defines the limited capabilities of minors regarding responsibility and consent. As well as differential social and emotional development in childhood, reliance upon and control by family and other authority figures, and the social and emotional bonds of family, will surely constrain both the conception of and capacity for resistance. It is most likely that when working with survivors of childhood abuse, PSP will collaborate with adults, rather than children.

[v] For Roman and Early Medieval Britain see J. C. Barrett, 1997 ‘Romanization: a critical comment’, in D. J. Mattingly (ed.) Dialogues in Roman imperialism , pp. 51-64; B. Bartel, 1980 ‘Colonialism and cultural responses: problems related to Roman provincial analysis’, World Archaeology 12:1 (Jun.), pp. 11-26; Christopher R. Bowles 2007 Rebuilding the Britons. The postcolonial archaeology of culture and identity in the late antique Bristol Channel region; David J. Mattingly 2006 An imperial possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 B.C. – A.D. 409; K. Jarrett 2010  Ethnic, Social, and Cultural Identity in Roman to Post-Roman Southwest Britain, Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield; P. Van Dommelen, 1997 ‘Colonial constructs: colonialism and archaeology in the Mediterranean’, World Archaeology 28:3 (Feb.), pp. 305-323; Jane Webster 1994 ‘The just war: Graeco-Roman texts as colonial discourse’, S. Cottam, D. Dungworth, S. Scott and J. Taylor (eds.) TRAC 94: proceedings of the fourth annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference Oxford, pp. 1-10; Jane Webster 1995 ‘’Interpretatio’: Roman word power and the Celtic Gods’, Britannia 26, pp. 153-161, Jane Webster 1997 ‘A negotiated syncretism: readings on the development of Romano-Celtic religion’, in D. J. Mattingly (ed.) Dialogues in Roman imperialism, pp. 164-184; Jane Webster 1997 ‘Necessary comparisons: a post-colonial approach to religious syncretism in the Roman provinces’, World Archaeology 28:3, pp. 324-338; Jane Webster, 2001 ‘Creolizing the Roman provinces’, American Journal of Archaeology 105:2 (Apr.), pp.209-225; Jane Webster and Nick Cooper (eds.) 1996 Roman Imperialism: Post-Colonial Perspectives. For regional studies, for example, Leroy Vail (ed.) 1989 The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa [Accessed 10.04.15]; Honeychurch, L. 1997 ‘Crossroads in the Caribbean: a site of encounter and exchange on Dominica’, World Archaeology 28:3 (Feb.), pp. 291-304; Homi Bhabha 1984 ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’, in October, Vol. 28 (Spring), pp. 125-133. Interesting post-colonial studies of material culture include Wendy Knepper 2006 ‘Colonization, Creolization, and Globalization: The Art and Ruses of Bricolage’, Small Axe 21 (October) pp. 70–86; and Peers, L. 1999 ‘Many tender ties: the shifting contexts and meanings of the S BLACK Bag’, World Archaeology 31:2, (Oct.), pp. 288-302.

[vi] See K. Jarrett 2009 ‘Cives and Saxones: the expression of Ethnicity in southwest Britain in the Early Middle Ages’, in Lorna Bleach, Katariina Närä, Sian Prosser and Paola Scarpini (eds.) In Search of the Medieval Voice: Expressions of Identity in the Middle Ages, pp. 180-200; 2010, op. cit..

[vii] For practice theories see Bourdieu; Pierre Bourdieu, 1972 Outline of a Theory of Practice; Michel de Certeau 1984, The Practice of Everyday Life; and Anthony Giddens, 1979 Central Problems in Social Theory. Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis, and 1984, The Constitution of Society.

[viii] For colonial and post-colonial studies see, for example, Ania Loomba, 1998 Colonialism / postcolonialism; Edward W. Said 1993, Culture and Imperialism; see also Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (eds.) 1994, Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory. A Reader; an archaeological perspective is provided by Chris Gosden 2004, Archaeology and Colonialism.

[ix] For details of the conference paper, see the programme, here.


The PSP journey so far on the paper trail: 19th – early 20th century Domestic Violence

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Archaeological experience has shown the importance of providing a historical perspective when studying a particular issue, at a certain point in time – including the recent past. I’ll (very briefly) discuss this – and the importance of studying the local in relationship to wider spacial contexts – in the following post. But for now, I’ll outline the primary written sources of the 19th and early 20th centuries that I’ve begun to consult in researching histories of domestic violence within and beyond the East Midlands.

Notwithstanding the above comments, to some degree I’m also reflecting upon the sources with regard to my own experiences and encounters (which I intend to outline in the future) – see the previous and following posts, for brief discussions on this topic.[1]

Following the 19th – early 20th century paper trail – the route travelled so far…

I began exploring written evidence for DV in the past several years ago, when examining the works of ‘undercover’ investigative journalist and social reformer, Ada Chesterton, for references to domestic material culture within poverty-stricken and destitute homes, hostels and communities in London (which form part of the data I use in a paper – in prep.  – on early 20th century household material environments). Unsurprisingly, there are references to DV in Chesterton’s work (though terse, and  fewer than I expected to find).[2]

This encouraged me to survey local (Derby), regional (East Midlands) and wider (e.g. London, Birmingham) contemporaneous social reformist and philanthropic ‘reports’ (e.g. Working-class wives. Their Health and Conditions, published 1939, discussed here); memoirs (such as Elsie Goodhead’s The West End Story), verbal narratives / conversational memories (with local people), and a range of oral histories; and numerous works of fiction, to examine how DV was covered at the time; I also took a quick look through court records.

Preliminary surveys of this category of evidence unsurprisingly suggested differing attitudes towards DV amongst and between the various social reformist and investigative sources, and oral accounts (though of course a wider range of sources must be investigated to determine how representative this diversity might be). Memoirs & verbal narratives / conversational memories tended to describe DV as an accepted (and to some extent, inevitable) condition of urban neighbourhoods in the early 20th century (commonly associated with poverty in the public imagination) – and works of fiction (again unsurprisingly) tended to replicate this attitude to dramatic effect.

I also spent some time going through local (Derby) / regional (Derbyshire) court records from the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which I came across many more – often successful – cases brought by women against their husbands for violence.[3] I’ve also recently started to go through local newspaper archives (beginning with papers dating to the  19th century) to see how DV was reported – by searching for the (albeit ambiguous terms ‘wife beating’ and ‘wife assault’). When reporting cases, articles seem to represent the differing attitudes noted above, in quoting perpetrators and victims, as well as witnesses – usually lodgers, neighbours, friends, family, and doctors; and police, magistrates, and lawyers / solicitors. Inevitably, sensational and bizarre incidents are given more prominent headlines, position and space on the page. Though there are differences in these reports when compared to modern press coverage of DV,  at times they appear remarkably similar. I’m continuing this research, and will post particularly informative extracts.

I’ve found some comparisons in the presentation of DV between the newspapers and the late 19th and early 20th century novels that I’ve begun to assess (such as Aurthur Morrison’s Child of the Jago, and Winifred Holtby’s South Riding). However, there are again differences. In this category of evidence, DV is often (though not always) represented through stereotypes (as might be expected), reflecting less varied attitudes than found in the other sources, which I’ll discuss through short reviews of each work, if time permits.

In the following post, I’ll discuss preliminary findings from examining the above range of sources, and consider how this might inform subsequent PSP research.


[1] The practicability of carrying out detailed interdisciplinary research may be dependent upon securing funding and institutional association – independent research without electronic library and data access is proving problematic, constraining development.

[2] I’ve written about Chesterton’s comments on poverty, homelessness, and housing on one of my blogs, here; and published short online articles through the Voluntary Action History Society, here and here. I also plotted the locations of some of the families that Chesterton discusses – often citing the comments of women – within her 1936 book I Lived in a Slum, here, with information on the families, and quotes from the book). Chesterton’s journalism highlighted both the extent and conditions of  poverty and homeless for women in 1920s and 1930s London; drew attention to the broad social backgrounds of homeless women, and the realisation that ‘respectable’ people might easily be reduced to ‘outcasts’ due to circumstances beyond their control, and considered some of the causes of homelessness (including structural problems, such as inadequate housing); and discussed the efficacy of philanthropic and government responses to homelessness and poverty, proffering suggestions – of variable worth -for improvement.

[3] If interested in crime in the past, useful guides to the available resources are available here and here; I’ve also put a little information relating to crime in late 19th and early 20th century Derby here and here; and the 1911 census record of inmates in the County Gaol here.

The PSP ‘journey’: Exploring the Material History of Violence in the Home

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Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken
Clipart from here

As readers might themselves come to see this project, I have come to see PSP in terms of a ‘journey’; I believe that my colleague Debra also sees it in this way. Initially, I cringed in using this term to describe what we’re doing: it’s somewhat clichéd, and might be associated with (what some would have described in the 90s as) ‘New-Age-naval-gazing’. But in reflecting upon the methodologies that we intend to test (particularly approaches developed within the field of ‘Contemporary Archaeology’), the notion of both fieldwork and interpretation as ‘learning processes’ perhaps justifies use of this term.

In discussing our individual  fields of research – my doctoral research being on the role of material culture during cultural and social transitions in the (re-)construction of identities (albeit during a historical period very distant from today), and Debra’s psychotherapy MA research and support work with survivors of childhood sexual abuse (e.g. with SV2), particularly in helping those with Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and Dissociation – we saw common ground. At first this was most apparent in the notion of the ‘transitional object’; but subsequently we considered how we might together explore the broader significance of material culture in situations of abuse and – what may be especially important – in the post-trauma restitution or reconstruction of ‘self’. Perhaps inevitably bearing in mind Debra’s specialism, we initially contemplated ‘how’ the material traces of child abuse in the past, and self-reparation in the past and present, might possibly be recovered, while having a positive social impact, supporting survivors in managing trauma, and informing support workers in the significance of material culture in both acts of abuse, and in moving forward after traumatic experience. We are still mulling over this question. But with access to documentary, photographic and other material evidence of domestic violence and post-traumatic restitution in the past and present, we are beginning PSP work with what most might see as an impossible topic – though what to us is so far proving an ‘easier’ focus for the archaeological investigation of violence in the home. (Subsequent posts will explain further, and discuss the primary sources and methodologies we have in mind at this point.)

Considering the personal – and hyper-sensitive – nature of the evidence with which we shall work, collaborators and participants may in some way be affected by engaging with the project. We hope that domestic violence (DV) victims and survivors may take something positive from participation (whether as collaborator in fieldwork, analysis, or presentation of findings, or as audience). However, we are aware of the potential vulnerability of victims and survivors. Our main concern must therefore be to avoid adversely affecting those who engage with PSP, paying particular attention to the potential risk of ‘re-traumatising’ those who have had experience (or are still experiencing) violence and abuse: I am thankful, due to her professional experience, that Debra is vigilant in limiting this risk. This risk has both inspired and constrained project development, with concerns provoked by previous work by others stimulating the question ‘then how might / should the topic be approached’.

We realise that it may not be appropriate to develop or implement certain methods – despite their apparent successful employment in previous studies (which is one reason why we’re beginning as a pilot project, before ‘delving in deep’). I also do not yet know if other issues will obstruct our ability to meet project aims. The historical sources that we will study may often be ‘harrowing’ at best, which might ultimately prove ‘too much’ to continue (I’ll discuss this issue further in another post). For various reasons, ‘enough’ DV victims and survivors may not take part to make the ‘data sample’ numerically ‘significant’: those who have experienced DV may feel they have nothing to say; might not want to remember these experiences; and / or support workers, legal advisers, and perhaps might see participation as inadvisable.

The potential impact upon family and friends is also an important consideration: it is clear that violence in the home (whether in physical, emotional, sexual or other forms) between parents – or inflicted upon children by family members or friends – may affect not only the generations directly involved (as victim and perpetrator), but might also affect subsequent generations: a subject in which Debra is particularly interested, and which archaeology, in studying the ‘longue duree‘, might be particularly well equipped to examine, despite the obvious challenges that must be carefully navigated along the way.

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken
Clipart from here