Historical Archaeology

Material Culture, Memory, and Violence in the Home: Towards Healing Histories Exhibition

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CHAT Exhibition 2015, (left:) poster display, and (right:) interactive multimedia digital display (©PSP / KJarrett 2015)

Last autumn (31st October – 1st November 2015) I provided an exhibition for the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference (at the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield, my Alma Mater). Since then I’ve been writing up this work, and investigating the sources further (which is an ongoing process).

The exhibition – ‘Material Culture, Memory, and Violence in the Home: Towards Healing Histories’ – was presented in two parts: a poster display, which basically outlined what PSP does, and an interactive multimedia digital display, which introduced topics of study and preliminary findings. I hope to make the latter available online soon; the former is now available here. The Abstract for the exhibition is as follows.

Material Culture, Memory, and Violence in the Home: Towards Healing Histories: Abstract

The ‘Past Sense’ Project (PSP) brings together contemporary and historical archaeology, and psychotherapy, to consider the significance of material culture within contexts of domestic and sexual abuse, past and present. PSP will pilot a range of approaches to explore how collaborative community encounters with historic landscapes and buildings, artefacts, and other historical sources might enhance the process of identity (re-)construction and trauma management, for survivors of childhood and adulthood violence and abuse.

Methods include experimental auto- and co-archaeologies that integrate personal narratives and reflections within analyses of data obtained from archaeological surface- and building surveys, and auto-archive material. This will involve considering the (re)construction of meanings for material culture in relation to memory and identity, through studies of artefact biographies, and attending to the production and appropriation of transitional objects, through autobiographical studies.

We will also test the incorporation of recording, analysis, and interpretation of archaeological and other historical material (including written evidence, oral histories, photography, and artistic images) from earlier periods (particularly the 19th – mid 20th centuries) within community work – potentially involving creative elements (such as storytelling and artwork). In doing so, we will explore how engagement with material relating to domestic life in the more distant past (where appropriate, integrating historical material relating to domestic and sexual violence) might enable traumatised individuals and groups to confront experiences of violence in the more recent past.

By examining diachronically continuous and changing abusive practices, and socio-political responses to abuse, we aim to foster recognition of dominant ideologies, and the practical, detrimental, effects of structural gender inequality. Emphasising acts of resistance to violence in and around the home, we endeavour to highlight personal and collective achievements that might reinforce and augment both a sense of self, and of community, for survivors of abuse.





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