Promoting inclusive archaeology through disability studies

In order to build an accurate narrative of the past and present, archaeologists and classicists must study the experience of people with disabilities in the ancient world.

Grace Spiewak

Last month, archaeologists discovered a rare skeleton dated to the Neolithic period in the Chinese province Henan – a skeleton identified to be a person with dwarfism, which is qualified as a physical disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Such evidential finds of people with physical disabilities from the ancient world are sporadic for various reasons. Just like many people born with physical and intellectual disabilities today face medical complications at birth, so it was in the ancient world. Rumors of the exposure of infants or parents throwing disabled children into the Tiber River in ancient Rome may be exaggerated, but should not be discounted.

The small amount of material evidence for people with disabilities can discourage disability studies within the fields of classics and archaeology. The scarce archaeological evidence we have for people with disabilities in the ancient world mostly stems from serendipitous finds rather than intentional searches.

Problems in academia

Since the 1987 publication of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, the fields of classics and archaeology has become more cognizant of its general exclusion of women and minority populations.

Bernal’s controversial publication argues that ancient Greece owes its roots to African and Egyptian civilizations, advocating for the inclusion of such populations in classical studies. While many scholars discredit Bernal’s work due to its lack of sufficient archaeological and historical evidence, he did manage to ignite a discussion on the absence of diverse populations from classical studies.

One of these understudied populations remains people with disabilities. This is problematic because it makes the impression that people with disabilities had limited existence and experience in the ancient world. Such perspectives can influence the way we think about people with disabilities today if we neglect to acknowledge their holistic narrative from ancient times to the present.

The reality of academia is that archaeologists need to make significant contributions to the field in order to gain credibility and funding. For this reason, the study of people with disabilities may also have been traditionally overlooked in archaeology and classics because it did not receive as high esteem as other cultural findings. This not only reveals the political aspects of academia, but also the social outlook on disabilities as inhibitors of human experience.

Evidence from the ancient world

Fortunately, there is some evidence for different types of disabilities in the ancient world. Perhaps the most prominent is that of dwarfism in ancient Egypt (Dasen 1988; Kozma 2006). Skeletal remains in tombs for royals such as those King Wadj dating 3100-2800 BC and King Semerkhet dating 3050-2890 BC reveal that people with dwarfism could achieve high status and be members of royal courts. The Egyptian’s worship of the dwarf god Bes also indicates a reverence for this population.

Iconography, particularly from the Old Kingdom, contributes to the narrative, such as the statue of the elite dwarf Seneb with his family now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The statue pictures Seneb with his wife and children, who do not have dwarfism, contextualizing his status and ability to marry. Though not all people with dwarfism would achieve the rank of Seneb, they could hold other jobs including entertainers, craftsmen, and fishermen. Outside of Egypt, vases paintings and terra cotta figures from ancient Greece also show people with dwarfism performing as entertainers (Laios et al. 2017).

Bioarchaeological evidence for other disabilities is scant. Archaeologists have found evidence for a man with gigantism in a third century AD Roman cemetery (Minozzi et al. 2015), as well as an idol of a person with Down syndrome from the Neolithic period (Diamandopoulos et al. 1997). Other skeletal finds exhibiting Down syndrome include a child’s skeleton in France, a woman’s body in Germany, and a female skeleton in a marshy region of Rome that could be an example of a human sacrifice (Czarnetzki et al. 2003, p.1000). Other intellectual disabilities, such as autism, are more difficult to identify because such disabilities do not exhibit any distinctive physical traits.

If classics scholars intend to conduct a holistic study on disabilities, relying on skeletal evidence alone will not be enough. Literature can serve as a source for this subfield, but requires critical discretion. Since intellectual disabilities did not have a medical diagnosis in the ancient world, texts will not have a modern word that identifies the disability. Even relying on character traits can be tricky since describing someone as stultus or foolish in Latin, for example, could imply an intellectual disability or simply an unrefined person depending on the context.

But as C.F. Goodey and M. Lynn Rose discuss in their article “Mental states, bodily dispositions and table manners,” describing someone as having a childlike mind could indicate a disability because it is not an abstract description like “foolish,” but a concrete comparison to contextualize someone’s level of intellect (Laes et al. 2013). While archaeological finds are often unforeseeable and serendipitous, classicists could use bibliometric tools to seek out literature that incorporates such vocabulary to continue this study.

Finding ways forward

How can the fields of archaeology and classics progress to incorporate people with disabilities into their study of the human experience? In order to obtain the necessary funding to pursue such projects with due diligence, the field must advocate for the significance of this kind of research. If researchers cannot obtain adequate support for this study, they will be forced to replace it with another subject that has more popular appeal, and thus more lucrative potential.

However, an increasing national conversation on diversity and inclusivity in academia can serve disability studies in the classics and archaeology. Just as with many other minorities, including the history of people with disabilities in scholarship advances the recognition and rights of the population today. As one of the most vulnerable and wide-ranging populations in the world, people with disabilities face undeniable barriers to the educational, economic, political, and social opportunities that typically-functioning people possess.

Yet, people with disabilities also contribute in impactful ways on their own agency that promote a diverse and thriving culture. This is not a modern idea, taken what we know about people with dwarfism in ancient Egypt. If our field’s ultimate goal is to construct an encompassing, accurate narrative of the human experience, we must advocate for projects that include the study of persons with disabilities.