Disability stories from skeletons
By Stephanie Evelyn-Wright
In June 2014, I attended a performance of ‘Cabinet of Curiosities: how disability was kept in a box’. This show explored the ways in which disability and disabled people are portrayed in museums (School of Museum Studies 2022). However, the skeletons of actual disabled people were omitted. I asked the show’s performer – the disabled actor Mat Fraser – about this, and he told me that he was interested in disability as a social construct, but not as a ‘medical condition’. Fraser’s attitude is an example of the social model of disability, which holds that it is not a disabled person’s medical condition which causes problems, but the failure of the society in which that person lives to accommodate him or her. This is, however, an unhelpfully narrow view, for skeletons are continually shaped by the world - for instance a person’s diet and occupation can leave osteological traces which attests to their lived social world.
Disabled people’s remains are frequently selected for display in museums in the UK and beyond, and how they are displayed says a lot about how disability is perceived. For example, the photograph below shows a glass cabinet from the Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth. The cabinet contains pathological specimens found in the skeletal assemblages from the wreck of the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s flagship which sank in 1545, and was raised from the seabed in 1982. As the photograph below shows, the bones are not placed in the context of the overall skeleton, with the result that the individuals are literally reduced to their impairments. An aim of my research therefore is to change the stories that are told about disability with skeletons.
I started with the Romans, as my background is Roman archaeology. The Roman world has a martial and ruthless reputation, and one that is arguably merited. The highly efficient military machine that led the building of an Empire rarely surpassed in all human history dominates people’s perceptions of Ancient Rome and seems to leave little room for people with different bodies. It is therefore presumed that the lives of people with disabilities in the ancient world lived up to the oft quoted adage of ‘nasty, brutish and short’.
Archaeological studies into disability in the Roman past seem to also reflect this negative perception, with the topic of infanticide being the focus of research. Infanticide (the act of killing an infant under the age of one year) is thought to define ancient relationships with disability. Infanticide was legal in the Roman Empire up until 374CE but the extent to which it was practiced is highly debatable. For example, there are some groups within the Roman Empire who completely rejected the practice, such as Jewish groups and people from Germany and Egypt (Laes 2008).
There are many osteoarchaeological papers about infanticide in Roman Britain (a few examples include Gowland et al. 2014; Hassan et al. 2014; Mays and Eyers 2011; Taylor 2015). But infanticide nevertheless represents only a small minority of disability experience, and a preoccupation with it means that people born with impairments not apparent at birth or acquired later in life are inevitably overlooked. We will probably never know the number of infants who fell victim to infanticide, but we can say with certainty that not all did. The following is an example.
Finding a Middle Way
AA766 is the skeleton of a young female who died aged between 18-20. Her remains were excavated from the late Roman cemetery site of Alington Avenue, Dorset. AA766 had stopped growing at time of death and has the estimated stature of 1.23m (c. 4ft). Her short stature is the result of a condition called Langer type mesomelia, a form of disproportionate dwarfism that impacts the length of the shin and forearm bones more than the thigh and upper arm limbs (Langer 1967). This information alone is not enough to determine disability. The experience of an impairment needs to be contextualised within the individual’s body, life, community, and environment. To understand AA766’s context, and therefore any disability, different datasets from osteoarchaeology, archaeology, history, interviews and medicine need to be integrated together. This proved a challenge.
The Use of Fictive Narrative
An answer to this challenge was a fictive narrative. Inspired particularly by the work of Alexis Boutin (2012), fictive writing provided an opportunity to explore the experiential aspects of impairments. Fictive writing, however, also has the potential to render research more accessible to a wider audience. It is particularly apposite for the study of disability - a discipline embroiled in a long fight for improved accessibility. Below is an excerpt from a fictive narrative written as a result of the data collected from the site of Alington Avenue. The roman numerals in the brackets of the text below are numbers for the associated footnotes which provide the evidence underpinning the story.
I wish they would slow down a bit. Even as the solemn procession carefully picks its way across the increasingly uneven ground of the necropolis, I still feel like I’m trotting to keep up. I have to jump out of the way of a swinging elbow, a persistent hazard when you are this height (i). Being invisible to people however is preferable to their stares. Strangers unashamedly scrutinise my small stature, my large hands, my strange gait, my prominent backside, whispering behind their hands (ii). I feel self-conscious, but I act defiant. I once heard a stranger in the market say that they would have exposed me at birth if they had had a child like me. ‘What kind of future could she possibly have? Who will marry her? (iii)’ I struggled to hold back tears until I returned home. My mother had found me weeping in a corner. She told me that in Rome, rich, famous men, like the first emperor Augustus, had paid a lot of money to have someone like me in their household (iv). I don’t know if this is true, but it comforts me.
(i) The narrator of this story is AA766 discussed earlier and the story is set in the context of the Alington Avenue cemetery itself, as this is the one context we know the individual had a connection with. AA766 was noticeably shorter than her burial community - the average stature for biological females in the Alington Avenue skeletal assemblage was 1.60m height (AA766 was 37cm shorter than average). I interviewed an individual of similar stature to AA766, for insights into the lived experience of being of shorter stature than is the norm for one’s society, and my interviewee described similar incidences of having difficulty keeping up with the walking pace of friends and accidentally being hit by unobservant passers-by (Evelyn-Wright forthcoming).
(ii) Staring is a common, albeit unwanted, experience of people with visible impairments. AA766’s description of herself relates to the evidence of the skeleton. Her hands would appear large in comparison to the size of her forearms. Her prominent backside is the result of evident lumbar hyperlordosis in the lower spine, which results in a protruding bottom (Evelyn-Wright forthcoming).
(iii) Marriage has been identified as the key rite of passage for Roman women (Allason-Jones 2005). At age of death, AA766 would have quite young to be married, the youngest known bride from Roman Britain being 19 (Allason-Jones 2005), however it would be part of her near future if following the expected life course trajectory. AA766’s reference to ‘exposure’ refers to the practice of abandoning infants shortly after birth. Like infanticide, exposure is known to have happened in the Roman world, but it is not known to what extent this occurred (Southwell-Wright 2014). Exposure however formed part of the founding myth of Rome (the twins Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf after being exposed), so we can presume that the theme was at least known about. Langer type mesomelic dwarfism is visible from birth and so AA766 did survive any selection process there may have been with her evident impairment (Evelyn-Wright forthcoming).
(iv) This refers to the known phenomenon that people with visible impairments, including dwarfism, were high-status slaves to ancient Roman elites (Garland 2010).
I hope that this short piece has shown that, contrary to Mat Fraser’s opinion, skeletal data can be used to talk about disability in a socio-historical, rather than just a medical, context. The fictive narrative writing style allowed me to use insights gained from interview to enhance our understanding of the osteoarchaeological data. The narratives link the experiences of disabled people living in ancient societies with those living today. All this would be difficult to achieve in a strictly academic write up. I also hope that such a writing style catches the reader’s imagination and communicates information in an accessible way.
I must acknowledge Dr Sonia Zakrzewski, my PhD supervisor and the SWW DTP for their support. Thank you to Dorset County Museum for allowing access to their skeletal collections. I also must acknowledge my interviewee JL. Thank you for sharing your experiences, I hope I did them justice.
Stephanie Evelyn-Wright has recently completed her doctorate at the University of Southampton in Roman osteoarchaeology.
Allason-Jones, L. (2005) Women in Roman Britain. York: Council for British Archaeology.
Boutin, A. T. (2012) Written in Stone, Written in Bone: The osteobiography of a Bronze Age Craftsman from Alalakh. In: Stodder, A. L. W. and Palkovich, A. M. eds. Bioarchaeological Interpretations of the Human Past: Local, Regional and Global: Bioarchaeology of Individuals. Gainsville, Fl.: University Press of Florida. pp. 193-214.
Evelyn-Wright, S. S. (forthcoming) Dis/ability stories from Roman Dorset: an integrated osteobiography approach. PhD thesis, University of Southampton.
Garland, R. (2010) The eye of the beholder: deformity and disability in the Graeco-Roman world. 2nd edition. London: Bristol Classical Press.
Gowland, R., Chamberlain, A. and Redfern R. C. (2014) On the brink of being: re-evaluating infanticide and infant burial in Roman Britain. Journal of Roman archaeology supplementary series. 96. pp. 69-88.
Hassan, N.A.M., Brown, K.A., Eyers, J., Brown, T.A. and Mays, S. (2014) Ancient DNA study of the remains of putative infanticide victims from the Yewden Roman villa site at Hambleden, England. Journal of Archaeological Science. 43. pp. 192-197.
Laes, C. (2008) Learning from silence: disabled children in Roman antiquity. Arctos. 42. pp. 85-122.
Langer, L. (1967) Mesomelic dwarfism of the hypoplastic ulna, fibula, mandible type. Radiology. 89. 4. pp. 654-660.
Mays, S. and Eyers, J. (2011) Perinatal infant death at the Roman villa site at Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, England. Journal of Archaeological Science. 38. 8. pp. 1931-1938.
School of Museum Studies (2022) Mat Fraser Cabinet Of Curiosities.
SocAntiquaries (2021) SAL Evening Lecture: Writing dis/ability stories from skeletons.
Southwell-Wright, W. (2014) Perceptions of infant disability in Roman Britain. Journal of Roman Archaeology supplementary series 96. pp. 111-130.
Taylor, K.N. (2015) The improbable occurrence of infanticide at the Yewden Villa, Hambleden, England. PhD thesis, Texas Tech University.
Stephanie Evelyn-Wright (2022): Disability stories from skeletons. In: Public Disability History 7 (2022) 3.