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‘Doing the right thing’? Histories of the Home and Domestic Violence: Homes Under Pressure Conference Paper

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Artefacts from refuge assemblage ©PSP

‘Doing the right thing’? Histories of the Home and Domestic Violence[i]

Histories of Home Subject Specialist Network, 7th annual conference, Homes Under Pressure

Dr Kirsten Jarrett, Past Sense Project

Introduction

This paper introduces research carried out as part of a project I co-direct,[ii] called ‘Past Sense’ (or PSP), through which my colleague and I explore the material histories of violence in the home, bringing together archaeological and psychotherapeutic research. We analyse evidence from the early modern period to the present day, although current fieldwork predominantly examines the contemporary past. However, we are only at the very beginning of what is experimental research; this presentation is therefore of early work in progress, and preliminary thoughts. Our subject is a very sensitive one; although I will not describe acts of violence or abuse in detail, I will discuss abusive contexts and associated material culture. To begin, I will provide a recent definition of domestic violence.

What is meant by Domestic Violence and Abuse?

Home Office Definition, 2013:[iii]

“Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.”

Domestic Violence can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse:

  • Physical
  • Sexual
  • Psychological
  • Emotional
  • Financial

The perception of abuse and violence in the home is of course contingent on historical and cultural conditions; however, the different aspects of abuse shown here have often been incorporated within allegations of cruelty in the past.[iv] We must also remain aware of the prevalence of abuse, and shed stereotypes that situate domestic violence solely within underprivileged or poorly educated homes. We cannot assume distance between our work, and its reception by traumatised individuals: it’s essential that scholars consider carefully how they discuss violence in the past, especially with regard to recent decades, and recognise the potentially damaging effects of studies upon often vulnerable individuals and groups, as well as prospective benefits.

Contemporary Archaeology

PSP works within the conceptual frameworks and methodologies of Contemporary Archaeology, which though facing different practical and ethical challenges to traditional archaeologies, often employs established methods. Awareness of the prospective social benefits and adverse affects of archaeological research in this field has encouraged the development of collaborative community and public work. This has in part influenced the adoption of diverse approaches, providing scope for creativity that might allow the generation of more ‘meaningful’ histories for marginalised individuals and groups, for example, integrating ethnographies, narratives, storytelling, and art.

A previous study that explores marginality also raises the subject of domestic violence. It illustrates possible methodologies; but also brings to light important issues regarding the potential effects of contemporary historical work. I will quickly consider this work, which might provide a springboard for future archaeological work on violence in the home; discussion will focus on issues that subsequent studies might consider. (With regard to the following study, we must remember that approaches to data privacy have changes since the excavation.)

Previous Studies: ‘The archaeology of alienation’

Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas carried out the ‘excavation’ (in July 1997) of a recently abandoned 2-bedroom, 1960s council house. They published the results in 2001 as a chapter within Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, entitled ‘The archaeology of alienation. A late twentieth-century British council house’.[v] In part, I discuss this work in response to the authors’ intent for their study:

exploring the theme of alienation from the dual perspective of the material culture of a marginalised and socially disenfranchised person or family in the late twentieth century and the process of marginalisation and alienation that we, as archaeologists, effect on the people we study” [my emphasis].

The study adopted standard archaeological recording and sampling techniques, plotting artefacts on room plans and photographing finds in situ, which are categorised according to function, age, and gender. The remains are interpreted as representing a household comprising a single mother and her two children; and an adult male (in a sexual relationship with the woman, and perhaps the children’s father), who stayed over-night, but did not co-habit – the methadone bottle in the bathroom suggesting his attempt to overcome heroin addiction. Domestic material, apparently abandoned, was variously in disarray, and boxed (seemingly ready for removal), to the authors indicative of rapid flight; the man’s addiction is tentatively suggested as the reason for relationship breakdown. This conclusion follows discussion of housing difficulties for single mothers and their children who flee situations of domestic violence, inferring explanation for abandonment of the site.

For the purpose of this paper, I shall very briefly consider the description and exhibition of personal possessions, which I suggest that subsequent studies, if recognising potentially abusive situations, should approach with especial care. I would argue that in such cases, it is important that we neither assume that apparent abandonment renders material devoid of meaning (for various factors constrain choice regarding which material is taken and left), nor that such acts are necessarily seen as permanent. Connected to this issue is the sensitivity we must apply in both the questions we ask of the material, and the way we ask them.

Using this study to highlight how subsequent studies might analyse and disseminate data, I shall consider the seemingly innocuous question, “Who lived there?” (posed as a bold section heading in the chapter). I wonder whether questions of this sort – typical of archaeological studies of household environments – might be modified if exploring potentially abusive situations: might it seem intrusive to the victim of violence, placing them as subject of academic surveillance, or as an object of voyeurism?

This brings me to examination of intimate possessions. The chapter records how the presence “erotic underwear” and a “lovers’ guide video” suggests a sexual relationship between the man and woman in this household. Bearing in mind the prospect of sexual abuse within situations of domestic violence (and the frequent humiliation of victims), I suggest that subsequent work might explore different ways to discuss material associated with sexual activity. Research should, at the very least, not compromise the dignity of victims and survivors, nor enhance a sense of vulnerability. This issue relates to how studies used photography. We turn to a photograph in the chapter (entitled “Abandoned bedroom floor”) that, in illustrating methods (the use of a grid in recording finds), also shows objects within this room. This might serve to raise the issue of re-traumatisation, which subsequent archaeological research should strive to avoid. To most, such images may appear harmless; however, subsequent studies might consider the potential detrimental effects of displaying possible sites of abuse (and perhaps violation). With regard to illustrating material relating to contexts where abuse is suspected, instead of using photographs (which might – or perhaps should – be used only with informed consent), other, less provocative techniques (such as line drawings) might be used. However, practical constraints are acknowledged (such as restricted time, and the limited capabilities of drawings).

So how might we go forward with research in this field? Of course, it may only rarely be possible to detect an abusive situation through material remains, although certain material traces may be informative. The concept of structured deposition – regularised, deliberate placement of a restricted range of artefacts suggesting ‘out of the ordinary’ behaviour – familiar to archaeologists of ritual, might be of use alongside an awareness of abusive technologies. Through this approach, we might recognise acts of concealment, for example.

However, I feel that collaborative work might provide the best solution, involving those experienced in comparable contextual conditions. To some, archaeological study in the presence of a subject perhaps seems superfluous; however, archaeological ethnographers are demonstrating the value of combining contemporary testimony with a wide range of sources. We are (or should be) well aware of the multi-vocality of material culture. And the voice of the archaeologist, and that of the subject, may merge and diverge at different points, wherein lie questions surrounding representation and understanding, among others. Collaborative, therapeutic archaeologies, with co- and auto-archaeological components (such as Rachael Kiddey’s recently completed doctoral research, that studied homelessness in the Contemporary Past, in Bristol and York), which have previously been carried out with success.[vi] I see scope in such approaches for PSP work.

Auto- and co-archaeologies[vii]

Auto-archaeologies have drawbacks, as well as advantages. They may enable experimentation, and the testing of boundaries, but might also risk compromising privacy. Progress may therefore be a slow, as the subject negotiates control of autobiographical material, while navigating ethical and legal issues.

With regard to histories of abuse, creation of an autobiographical narrative (that considers the significance of material culture before and after leaving) may be useful – before archaeological recording, and re-familiarisation with the personal archive. The subject must remain alert to tendencies to reconfigure memories according to present needs – that is, for certain experiences to come to the fore, while others may either be actively or subconsciously put aside; subsequent narratives might therefore differ in content and emphasis, to some extent. The subject must also remain aware that personal perceptions will be embroiled within (re-)negotiation(s) of social identities and relationships – past, present, and future. But, comparison of other sources with detailed contextual information and emotional responses (as provided through a narrative) may say much regarding the interplay of material and memories.

Material contained within personal archives might include photos, and written evidence, such as legal documents, letters, and diaries (informing interpretation of context). But these sources can be examined as artefacts to explore materiality and, as with other archaeological sources, spatial relationships. Standard archaeological methodologies may be adapted to work around the constraints of contemporary studies (particularly privacy, and material abundance), recording artefact household contexts; stratigraphic relationships within and between assemblages; and artefact details.

Landscape studies[viii]

Landscape has long been integral to archaeological studies, and archaeology is well equipped to explore diachronic change. I have therefore begun to think how I might integrate analysis of relationships between ‘place’ and memory, using geographical information provided by documents and other sources.

Domestic Violence refuges might hold a central position in restorative (i.e. post separation) landscapes. Though initially transitory (in providing temporary accommodation), they may be significant loci for the construction of social identities (such as re-categorisation as lone-parent family) and relationships (e.g. in (re-)establishing friendships and family), coming to be seen as historical sites.

The historical significance of the refuge building might be enacted through (a) virtual ‘return(s)’ to these sites using satellite technologies, each visit enabling the (re-)processing of experiences, as the life of the survivor changes in the present. For present and past residents, connected landscape features may be (re-)encountered on foot, perhaps in some cases to create landscape narratives, but also to explore the histories of refuge environs, in order to enhance a sense of place. Contemporary Archaeologists have previously adopted similar techniques, in attempting to understand the meaning of landscapes to marginalised individuals and groups; such methods may be of use in PSP community work.

Summary[ix]

I will conclude by saying that my colleague and I are aware that we face many challenges with this work. However, even the few weeks of preliminary research has begun to yield potential methodologies, and positive outcomes. Expanding digital technologies, providing remote access to a wide variety of resources, may enable vulnerable collaborators to participate in constructive and creative ways, while remaining in control, and in some cases, anonymous.

It may be possible to develop further a sense of ‘place’ through collaborative historical study of refuge environs and buildings (commonly housed in modified family homes). The more distant past might provide a less disturbing social ‘space’, in and through which collaborators might explore experiences of home, and renegotiate local and community identities. Recognition of similar experiences in the past might enable victims in realising that they are not to blame for their abuse: the role of patriarchal systems becomes evident, providing a potential to erode stigma. Shared experiences – in the recent and more decent past – might support the development of community, establishing a heritage of resistance to violence in the home. But we must always attend to the question posed in the title of this talk: are we doing the right thing? (A question also asked by many when leaving violent relationships.)

We intend to develop our research to include studies of childhood sexual abuse, as well as domestic violence. Through this work, we might not only learn more about the most hidden histories of home, but also do so in a way that might enable those with traumatic experiences to move forward from pain, of a kind that many find too disturbing to speak of, or listen to.[x]

Artefact from auto-archaeological archive
Artefact from auto-archaeological archive

Notes

[i] This version of the paper has been edited (to remove sensitive content and material subject to copyright restrictions; some of the sentences and paragraphs shown here were modified or removed during the presentation, in an attempt to reduce reading time).

[ii] For more information on the project co-directors, see ‘PSP: What, where, why, who, and how?’; and ‘The PSP ‘journey’: Exploring the Material History of Violence in the Home’.

[iii] Home Office (2013) Information for Local Areas on the change to the Definition of Domestic Violence and Abuse.

[iv] See ‘The PSP journey so far on the paper trail: 19th – early 20th century Domestic Violence‘; and ‘Thoughts and questions: written sources on 19th – early 20th century domestic violence’.

[v] With thanks to Victor Buchli for providing permission to use his co-authored chapter.

[vi] For example, see ‘Leave Home Stay’, by Christine Finn, presented January 2014 at a Centre for the Studies of Home ‘Custodians of Home’ Conference, at the Geffrye Museum (when I gave a paper on another project with which I am involved: Living in the Past Community Archaeology Project). Christine Finn’s work ‘Leave Home Stay’ can be seen on her project website, here, and is discussed in an article in the Guardian ‘Old Junk or Treasure?’ here.

[vii] In the presentation, I introduced an experimental study in progress, which has been removed due to sensitive content. The following instead speaks in general terms about the prospect of integrating co- and auto-archaeologies within histories of domestic violence.

[viii] This section was omitted during the presentation, due to time constraints; again, sensitive information has been removed, and the discussion is in general terms.

[ix] Passages from the following section were omitted during the presentation, due to time constraints.

[x] For more information on the project, see the PSP website; Twitter (@P_S_Project); and Facebook page (Past Sense Project).

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