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.





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.

‘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


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.


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


[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).

Thoughts and questions: written sources on 19th – early 20th century domestic violence

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street life in LondonIn the previous post, I outlined some of the written sources relating to 19th – early 20th century Domestic Violence (DV) that I’ve so far examined. This post briefly discusses preliminary thoughts on why and how these texts might inform PSP research.

Contextualising the present

As well as interesting in its own right, written evidence for DV in earlier periods is important when studying the recent past, most obviously in order to contextualise behaviour and thought, by considering change over time. It is important to know the extent to which, and in what ways, the past influences the present. By questioning relationships between ideas and practices over time, at varying scales of spatial analysis (the local, regional, national, global etc.), we are able to consider how wider structures (such as political institutions) not only affect what the individual and group does, but also how they think.

Put up and shut up?

Contrary to what popular culture might today lead us to believe, 19th – early 20th century sources indicate that not all saw DV as acceptable behaviour. Victims, neighbours, and the police and legal system, often contested and condemned abuse, which commonly included emotional abuse, such as threats and intimidation, and financial abuse, usually manifest in the withholding of income, as well as physical violence. But these sources also contain some of the potentially damaging attitudes that remain with us today: disbelief, notions of provocation, inadequate legal system and lack of support, and the salacious consumption of human misery as reported in newspapers.

Not unexpectedly, discrepancies are evident within and across even a few documentary sources, taken from only a small range of the written evidence, which acts to remind us not to reify communities by taking the voice of one or two, to speak for the many (a tendency I sometimes encounter through local and family history engagements).[i] These sources support what has been recognised through sociological, anthropological, and other historical studies, viz. that community identities are multifarious  shifting, situationally dependent, and enacted through the various social and cultural experiences that take place over time, within a given space (which itself is liable to change).[ii]

Same for everyone?

We certainly cannot essentialise DV experiences in the past: difference groups within communities encountered abuse in different ways – understandably, considering the varied social networks through which communities were made.[iii] Particularly important for my work is the realisation that, though ostensibly relating ‘what happened’ from the perspective of ‘insiders’, childhood memories, and the contemporary testimonies of men, and perhaps, many women, reflect very specific viewpoints.[iv] We cannot assume that all women were part of such networks – or even that support within these networks was assured.[v] Nor can we exclude the possibility that some children (and possibly some men) may have had access to otherwise closed female networks of mutual support centring upon the home – the older sister, on the fringe of adult female networks, might sometimes share information with her younger brother, who might also over hear ‘women’s talk’.[vi]

Questions, questions…

As I continue with research, the following questions (amongst others) will be in mind when analysing the sources relating to the neighbourhoods that PSP will study – though it is unlikely that I will be able to answer them to a satisfactory extent. To what extenthow and why did family and neighbours ‘stand by’ or protect women – especially those who ‘took’ a perpetrator of violence ‘to court’, particularly within areas defined as ‘poor’ and as ‘crime-ridden’? How were children ‘taught’ (explicitly and / or implicitly) and how did the learn about the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of DV, and in what ways might this have varied within and across time and place?[vii] And to what extent, and in what ways did men discuss DV, and how did this compare to actual practices?

I anticipate that bringing the potential material evidence into play when approaching these questions will be a significant challenge, but might first be approached by adopting geographical and ethnographic techniques, and exploring the built environment. To get the ball rolling, my initial – somewhat tentative and crude – foray into the material culture of DV is to consider the significance of the ‘belt’ and ‘strap’ in household violence, exploring the extent to which (and how and why) men may have used these objects in ‘correcting’ women. But as I continue, I hope to be able to refine the ways I approach the notion of material histories.

Surprise, surprise…

In this brief analysis, comparison of the local and regional sources that I have preliminarily examined, with the findings of wider research (which I continue to work through), there seems to be some correlation, although more work is needed to verify the accuracy of these impressions, and to determine any locally specific patterns. I look forward to continuing this research, through which I’m already encountering voices and actions from and in the past that (to me, somewhat surprisingly) have (so far) demonstrated kindness and support, as much as cruelty and aggression.


[i] This is not to deride the researches of ‘amateur’ family and local historians; merely to reflect common (though certainly not universal) emphasis upon the personal (as part of the familial ‘picture’), rather than the social or political. Conversely, many ‘professionals’ are also very interested in the details relating individual lives in the past, as well as the ‘bigger picture’.

Collaborative work holds the potential to produce histories of broader interest and value than ‘amateurs’ and ‘professionals’ (neither of which are homogeneous categories) working alone, incorporating more various interpretations that may inform future research. ‘Amateurs’ have often dedicated much time to very detailed research, which in some cases might be developed within micro histories. ‘Professionals’, with access to wider specialist skills and research on particular historical themes, periods, or material, may be able to develop and contextualise micro histories. Collaborative projects within the field of contemporary historical archaeology have yielded excellent results, from which we all might learn, e.g. Rachel Kiddey’s work with homeless collaborators in Bristol and York (2014 Homeless Heritage: collaborative social archaeology as therapeutic practice, University of York).

[ii] E.g. see Richard Jenkins’ Social Identities (2008)

[iii] See e.g. Ellen Ross’ ‘Survival Networks: Women’s Neighbourhood Sharing in London Before World War I’, History Workshop Journal 1983, pp. 4-28

[iv] Ibid.

[v] This is suggested reports made by charity workers, as well as some oral histories, as those “who keep themselves to themselves”, e.g. Maud Pember Reeves Round About a Pound a Week (1994 [1913]), and in situations of rivalry, e.g. as recorded in Robert Roberts The Classic Slum (1990 [1971]). However, we are again confronted by the possibility that commentators may have been unaware of all facets of social relationships.

[vi] For example, see Bryan Magee’s A Hoxton Childhood Clouds of Glory (2008)

[vii] Bryan Magee’s memoir (op. cit.) also touched upon this theme, in which he mention the “taboo” of boys hitting girls, and reflects upon the mysterious process by which children came to ‘know’ this taboo.

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.