Elizabeth Craig-Atkins
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The material body in archaeology and history

The introduction to The Material Body examines the theoretical frameworks of the material turn, new materialism and embodiment and explores how the social and material are combined in the making of embodied experience. It also reveals how archaeologists and historians – when they work together – are uniquely placed to revolutionise the study of people as embodied subjects. The Introduction explores how the chapters collectively integrate sources, concepts and methods from archaeology, history and material culture studies to study embodied lives in the past. The selection of studies of the period c.1700–1850 exploits the rich and diverse archaeological, bioarchaeological, material and historical sources available for that period. It also brings into focus bodies that might be considered ‘ordinary’ and ‘marginalised’ and draws attention to temporally significant categories of identity – including age, gender, class and disability – in ways that highlight structures of matter, thought, culture and power through which embodied experiences were formed. The introduction also draws out the significance of the innovative methods presented in this book: the collaboration of archaeologists and historians in devising and writing chapters; the study of the material body through novel combinations of skeletal remains, material objects, text and image; the deployment of different scales of analysis, from the personal to the national; and the use of reflective practice among co-authors to explore productive tensions in evidence and epistemology.

The Material Body exploits the possibilities of studying embodied lives in the past through the sources and approaches of the disciplines of archaeology and history, and the interdisciplinary field of material culture studies. These academic disciplines share the objectives of exploring the lived experience of people in the past through material remains and archival records, whether these be human skeletons, material objects or written or visual documents. Archaeologists and historians alike seek to examine the body, to reconstruct embodied experiences and understand changing forms of ‘embodiment’. This book explores a range of approaches to the material body. It advances the ambitions of both historians and archaeologists to explore the material and experiencing body in an account of embodied subjects. In its integration of the sources, concepts and methods of history and archaeology, this book explores precisely how the biological, physical, environmental, social, cultural and psychological interacted to produce embodied experiences. In its focus on categories of identity – including age, gender, class and disability – the book highlights the structures of matter, thought, culture and power through which these experiences were formed. This interdisciplinary and embodied approach, created by bringing historical and archaeological disciplines into explicit dialogue, allows us to better account for the experiences of men, women and children in the past.

The collection comprises seven chapters that study the body using documentary evidence alongside collections of human remains and material culture from Britain during the period 17001850. This is a period that witnessed considerable fast-paced transformation in the material world, the working and living conditions of men, women and children, and the organisation and relationships of a changing social structure. It is also a period for which there is a rich documentary and material record around which historians, archaeologists and material culture scholars can collaborate. This project began with the explicit recognition among ourselves that archaeological and historical research agendas align in the study of the body and with particular potency in the study of the material body. The volume grew from a desire to explore the nature and extent of our shared understanding and to encourage synergy between the two disciplines in scholarship, by undertaking collaborative research. To complement this focus on collaborative working, the authors adopt a reflective and critical perspective on their own practices throughout the volume, and this introduction will consider the process of interdisciplinarity, specifically of interweaving archaeological and historical methods and practices. We will discuss the context for these, focusing particularly on the material turn, new materialism and phenomenological approaches and the opportunities and challenges they offer for a study of ‘embodiment’. The introduction will also highlight the particular dividends of uniting archaeological and historical perspectives for an understanding of the embodied past, and specifically for the study of industrialising England during the period 17001850.

The material turn

The place of material things in our understandings of the past has played a crucial role in the development of academic thought during the twenty-first century, particularly for those social science, humanities and arts disciplines which examine human experience. The shift has been referred to as the ‘material turn’, a ‘turn towards materiality’ and ‘a Material-Cultural Turn’ (Gerritson and Riello, 2015: 3; Hamling and Richardson, 2010: 1; Hicks, 2010). In history, this took the form of integrating material culture and the physical within accounts of the past. The material turn has seen historians recognising objects to be as rich a source for historical research as documents and images (e.g. Bennett and Joyce, 2010; Davidson, 2019; Gerritsen and Riello, 2015; Grassby, 2005; Harvey, 2017; Hicks and Beaudry, 2010; Tilley et al., 2006). This was an understanding long established in archaeology, design history and museology, of course. But while objects have long been a primary source material in archaeological studies, the frameworks within which they were interpreted have also changed. From the focus on collecting among nineteenth-century antiquarians, researchers grew to prioritise typology, technology and function, then human behaviour and ideology in their understandings of the material world. In moving away from explicitly functionalist approaches following archaeology's so-called cultural turn archaeological thought undertook conceptual shifts that aligned with other humanities disciplines. The material turn thus created fertile shared ground for archaeologists and historians to explore materiality in the past through key points of understanding and prompted new, shared agendas. Of particular relevance to this volume is the argument presented by both British anthropological archaeologist Dan Hicks (2010: 28) and social historian Patrick Joyce (2010), that we need to cast off the distinction between the material and the cultural in studying the human past.

New Materialism

Within the ‘material turn’, a useful distinction can be made between studies of ‘materials’ or distinct objects and an epistemic turning towards viewing the past through the lens of ‘materiality’ (Harvey, 2017: 9). The small-scale focus of the first contrasts with the large-scale approach of the second, an approach which envisions all aspects of the past as rooted in material conditions. Materiality has been defined as ‘a fundamentally relational process, not a substance, and what really matters is the relations between entities’ (Lucas, 2012: 167–8). This has been at the centre of the work of Tim Ingold, the British anthropologist. His vision of the arena of materiality is one in which humans and things are enmeshed in ways that deny both the anthropocentric emphasis on the agency of humans and the division between the social and the material world (Hicks, 2010: 77–9; Hodder, 2012). For Ingold, humans are merely one part of a larger environment in which all manner of physical things have an agentive role.

The broader intellectual shift within which Ingold's writing can be situated has been termed ‘new materialism’ or the ‘new materialisms’ (Fowler and Harris, 2015; Hamilakis and Jones, 2017; Marshall and Alberti, 2014; Witmore, 2014). This is an eclectic and inclusive group of perspectives that embrace post-humanist and non-representationalist visions of an entangled world of people, things and relational properties (Fowler and Harris, 2015). New materialism frames materiality using ideas of matter and assemblage. Matter, in this sense, is a form of materiality that can be articulated in post-humanist terms inclusive of all objects, beings and entities without centring humanity or human agency (Govier and Steele 2021; Hamilakis and Meirion Jones, 2017; Schouwenburg, 2015). Matter is itself agentive and productive, and entangled in heterogeneous, relational, unbounded and ever-mutable ‘assemblages’. Much of this work has not engaged directly with the material body as we will describe it here; however, Attala and Steele (2019) (who term the approach described above ‘New Materiality’) offer a sustained exploration of its relevance to both the ‘materials of the body’ and the association of bodily and material words. Their insistence that ‘people and the material world are inextricably co-constitutive’ (2019: 234) reflects, to us, a form of new materialism that integrates the body itself.

The extent to which a focus on ‘materiality’ is new, for both historians and archaeologists, is debatable. For the English social historian Patrick Joyce, the turn to materiality was in fact a return to the ‘social’ in social and cultural history. He argued that a too-common adherence to the primacy of the cultural in our understanding of human experience implicitly relegates the material and the economic to a separate sphere (Joyce, 2010: 221). As Joyce (2010: 226) puts it, a turn to materiality means reconsidering the distinction between representation and things, erasing ‘the familiar conceptual distinctions between the natural and the social’. In envisaging materiality as comprising relational processes shaped by society, culture and matter, such work reshapes what ‘material’ means.

Experience and embodiment

The burden of much of this scholarship is to integrate materiality into studies of the past and often to envisage humans as just one aspect of past materiality among others. In this way, human actors can be situated within a material world in which a range of forces and relationships are at work. For bioarchaeologists (or osteoarchaeologists) in particular, the study of the body as material is not at all new. Human bodies have been a longstanding focus of archaeological research, both directly as a result of the survival of human remains as tangible traces of the past and indirectly through their role in creating and interacting with material culture, buildings or landscapes. However, for much of the twentieth century, research with the potential to illuminate embodied experience was separated into distinct sub-fields, operated by different practitioners. Bioarchaeologists studied human remains, most commonly in their skeletonised form, and tended to focus on questions of a biological nature past demography, diets, disease. In line with the scientific fields to which these studies are closely aligned (e.g. palaeodemography to contemporary demography, palaeopathology to medicine) the focus of research rested on population-level patterns indicative of broad-scale environmental and biological processes. The individual appears usually only as a case study representing the population or a population-level process; for example, of a particular disease state or when the individual themself is deemed historically significant. The adoption of a biological model of the body that primarily operated at the population scale meant that variation between individuals, or within individuals over their lives, and the small-scale, personalised insights they offer were subjugated to large-scale, long-term processes. Individual variation tended to be hidden by generalisation and complexity dismissed as statistical noise (Hosek and Robb, 2019; Stodder and Palkovich, 2012). An essentialist understanding of the body meant naturalised bodily states went unquestioned, including transhistorical and Western-centric understandings: the masculine body as default, the particularity of human experience and the individual existing in a static, bounded body. Socially and theoretically informed bioarchaeology is a relatively recent development (Gowland and Kacki, 2020).

In contrast, artefacts (both from the grave and other contexts) were examined by archaeological material culture specialists whose focus rested on technology and the role of objects in bodily display (e.g. dress) and its representation of social roles and ideologies (Crossland, 2010). Here, the concept of agency focused attention on making, albeit initially at the expense of the maker (Hodder, 2012). Indeed, the body is referenced in multiple ways through material culture: in representations of bodies and their parts in illustration and sculpture, through impressions of the living body inscribed on objects during their making or use – such as fingerprints in pottery clay or wear on a tool that describes the body part used in its operation, and in metaphorical references to bodies through shape and form (Pluciennick, 2002). With hindsight it seems strange that a connecting factor between these enquiries – the body itself – was marginalised in discourses for so long.

Over the past three decades, these distinctive approaches within archaeology have been brought together in a variety of ways. Initial synergies emerged through the pioneering work of gender archaeology, which Crossland (2010: 388) states ‘acted as a common node of interest for archaeologists from very different backgrounds and traditions and brought bioarchaeologists and those engaged with more artefact-focused archaeologies into conversation’. The archaeologist Sarah Tarlow (2011: 8) has commented that her work examines the ‘material body’, not the ‘experiencing body’. Yet explorations of the body have gone on to explore the links between the biological and social, realising the potential of different scholarly viewpoints and modes of analysis to form pieces of the larger puzzle of experiences of the body (e.g. Baker and Agarwal, 2017; Blakey and Rankin Hill, 2016; Sofaer, 2006; Tilley and Oxenham, 2011). However, the opportunities offered by these approaches must be tempered with an appreciation of selectivity and inadequate representation in the sources of data for such studies, which render the lived experiences of some people in the past more visible than others (e.g. Gowland, 2018; Mant and Holland 2019). The shared understandings of the material body as a route to reconstructing lived experiences that emerged from these new conversations are foundational to the chapters in this volume.

In one regard, the bodies that bioarchaeologists discuss are physical things: material entities composed of biological material that create a human form. These bodies are tangible and sufficiently durable to survive millennia, in the majority of the UK at least, as buried skeletal remains in a grave. Bodies are at once a form through which we interact with the world, but also a plastic object which is created by its engagement with the world (Buikstra et al., 2011; Ingold, 2011; Schrader and Torres-Rouff, 2021; Sofaer, 2006). The biological structure of the human body is a marriage of genetic and environmental influences formed over the life course. Developmental environment influences the expression of genetic traits resulting in patterns of both discrete and continuous variation in bodily characteristics. The body is a biologically dynamic structure that adapts and heals over time, even after growth has ceased. Exposure to environmental stress in childhood can retard growth and development, creating bodies of different sizes and proportions. Intense and habitual physical activity during developmental and post-developmental life will lead to robust muscle insertions and alter the cross-section shape of bones in ways that better withstand force; or, when the body is pushed beyond its physical limits, the residual evidence of trauma can be detected in fracture calluses and misaligned bones. Lifetime experiences can be written into (and therefore read from) its structure and form, and the epigenetic nature of these processes dictates that some of these experiences also influence bodies of subsequent generations, writing the experiences of parents and grandparents into the bodies of their children (Gowland, 2015). Bodies are thus material in their physicality, and material in their creation. This emphasis on experience is important to bioarchaeology, which has developed its own theoretical frameworks rooted in the biocultural approach, in which the combined contribution of dynamic interactions between people and their physical, social and cultural worlds to human variation is explicitly recognised (Zuckerman and Armelagos, 2011: 20).

The material turn's impact on the study of the body is also fully evident in scholarship on the history of the body. Cultural history and its attendant focus on language was the dominant approach in the early history of the body (Porter, 2001). Yet, subsequent approaches have been driven by materialist approaches (Csordas, 1990; Ruberg, 2020). As Harvey has noted, ‘The human body is a material archive of experience that—unlike the written, visual, and material object sources that typically inform our studies of the past—cannot be read with literary approaches to discourse alone’ (Harvey, 2020: 138). Some historians have drawn attention to the biological aspects of the body. A key intervention was by Daniel Lord Smail, who offered a neuro-historical account of the past, drawing attention to the explosion in addictive substances in the eighteenth century and the combined impact of the resultant chemical and social changes on Enlightenment culture (2007). Drawing on Smail's work and discussing the eighteenth century, Dror Wahrman called for ‘a corporealist critique’ of cultural histories of representations, for example. Though Wahrman acknowledges the dangers of essentialism when studying the body, gender and sexuality, he seeks a way for historians to integrate ‘the extra-cultural domain’ into their analyses. His ‘“corporealist” (or “neo-essentialist”) critique’ he characterises as occupying ‘the un-predetermined boundary’ between ‘unreflective essentialism’ and ‘unreflective constructivism’ (Wahrman, 2008: 599). Such approaches bring to the fore the material body, though firmly in the context of human culture.

Other historians of the period have drawn on new materialist approaches as a way to correct the occlusion of ‘the materiality of the body’ in their discipline. Clever and Ruberg deploy the method of praxiography, or a material history of practice, to get ‘beyond interpretations of the body to the actions of physical bodies in practice’ (Clever and Ruberg, 2014: 562, 553). A different approach explores how individuals were positioned in relation to other material things. The historian of early modern Europe, Ulinka Rublack (2013: 84), has argued that the increasing range, circulation and availability of material items during the Renaissance meant that, ‘Subjectivity was increasingly experienced in relation to this transient or durable object world’. In this account, the material world interacted with emergent internalised personal identities. Who a person was – to themselves and to others – was constituted by the material world of which they were a part. Materiality is important to historians who are not concerned only with the evidently physical aspects of past lives, but with the full range of human experience. We might agree that consciousness, identity and selfhood, for example, are not in themselves material. Yet even those aspects of experience which may not be considered as simply material – if material at all – are nevertheless shaped by and situated within a material context. Materiality shapes human experience. Indeed, materiality is human experience, both in the sense that the person exists in a physical context and that the person is, to some extent, themselves physical.

In some of these respects, then, the body may be investigated as an ‘object’ like many others – it is material, occupies space, can be touched, marked, owned; it is changed by its interaction with the environment and is organic – like landscapes, for example. Archaeologists Dušan Borić and John Robb (2008) advocated for ‘body-centred’ research while Joanna Sofaer (2006) framed ‘the body as material culture’ and as a particular kind of material culture that is both biologically and socially constructed. Accounts of the body as ‘always in the process of being created and recreated through a lifetime of activities and interactions with other people and objects in the world’ bear the mark of the impact of new materialism (Wesp, 2015: 141). Attala and Steele's Body Matters (2019: 9) responds to what they envisage as ‘the stubborn tendency to see materials as inert as well as the representations that disassociate the living body from the material world’ in archaeology. They aim a ‘new materialities’ approach at ‘the matter of the body, demonstrating how it enables us to situate people within the material, physical world and thus to better understand how people forge relationships, and come into being, both with each other and with other things’ (10).

Yet, for many scholars, this is not sufficient. The body is arguably a particular kind of ‘object’ or form of material culture for many scholars, particularly those working in humanistic disciplines. Indeed, new materialist approaches are considered by both bioarchaeologists and historians as limited in their capacity to account for all aspects of human experience, even as those aspects are shaped by the material world in which the body interacts with other matter. Fredengren's application of the idea of ‘figurations’ to refer to ‘conceptual personae’ and enable archaeologists to discuss ‘identity, personhood and subjectivity’ (2013: 56, 66) actually excludes a large component of what a historian understands as ‘subjectivity’: cognition, self-identity and the emotions. For Rublack, the material world interacted with people's ‘social and emotional experiences’ (2013: 84–5). As Roper puts it, with a psychoanalytic inflection: ‘By subjectivity I mean the way an individual mentally and emotionally organises experience’ (2010: 312). This sentiment is shared by archaeologists, for whom materiality is a principal key to understanding the past lives of people as thinking, feeling, moving, dynamic individuals in time and place (Dornan-Fish, 2012). As Alexandra Ion remarks of Attala and Steele, ‘I am left wondering if a new materialist agenda manages to capture the full and complex nature of relationships when it comes to bodies and humans’ (2021: 1028). Bodies interact with other material objects and processes of human thought build on this material interaction, but the lived experience of being a feeling and thinking person cannot be accounted for in new materialism. The body is – or is often experienced as – continuous with the person as a thinking self.

A focus on the lived experience which combines the physical body and immaterial consciousness has been fostered by the impact of phenomenological approaches in both archaeology and history. Merleau-Ponty, a principal phenomenological theorist, envisaged ‘[t]he experience of one's own body’ as defying the distinction between subject (person) and object (thing): ‘I am my body’, he wrote, ‘and reciprocally my body is something like a natural subject, or a provisional sketch of my total being’ (1945; 2002: 205). Phenomenological approaches, including those of Merleau-Ponty, have been adopted in archaeology and applied to things, bodies and landscapes (Hodder, 2012: 27–30). Historians draw on phenomenology, too, specifically ‘to lay bare the lived experience of the body in the past’ (Ruberg, 2020: 91). Such approaches encourage small-scale studies that delve into the necessarily intimate, personal, individual and interiorised components of lived experience. Historians of the eighteenth century turn to first-person ‘ego-documents’ or detailed third-person records such as doctors’ notes to reconstruct the lived experience of the body through the metaphors in written language (Duden, 1991; Pilloud and Louis-Courvoisier, 2003). The scale of archaeological enquiry has also shifted to recognise the individual or the person more explicitly, and in doing so align more neatly with scales of historical enquiry, which often focus on the microhistorical (Brewer, 2010; Fowler, 2004; Hosek, 2019; Magnússon and Szijártó, 2013; White, 2014), directing the two disciplines along parallel paths in their explorations of lived experiences of the body. A biographical approach to artefacts has also been adopted, both to illuminate people through their material worlds (Gilchrist, 2012; Hoskins, 1998; Mytum, 2010) and examine the lives of the objects themselves (Beaudry, 2011; Meskell, 2004). Hosek and Robb (2019: 4) draw attention to the development of what they call ‘text-aided’ osteobiographies to explore social differences in past societies and Hosek, Warner-Smith and Novak (2021) examine the process of ‘doing bioarchaeology with archives’ approaches which several of the authors in this volume seek to extend and deepen. The process of osteobiography begins with assembling a comprehensive set of skeletal data from a single individual to create a life narrative (Hosek and Robb, 2019; Saul, 1972). Advances in biomolecular techniques that extract increasingly detailed information about individuals DNA sequences, isotopic evidence for diet, migration and health, pathogenic DNA from infected individuals and oral microbiome data, among others facilitate richer, multifaceted, personal datasets on which to build more nuanced understandings of lived experience. Certainly, disciplinary specialisation remains a barrier to integrating the biocultural, historical, political-economic and sociocultural approaches in the study of embodiment (Leatherman and Goodman, 2020). Yet, recent development of the theoretical underpinning of osteobiographies have reinforced their power as a research tool for socially contextualised bioarchaeology something that is intrinsically complementary to an embodied approach to the past (Hosek and Robb, 2019: 2; Hosek et al., 2021).

‘Embodiment’ is a keyword for historians, too, and is used to describe lived experience as created out of the intersection between the physical body and the internal world of the mind. As Roper (2010) suggested, historians should study people in the past as ‘embodied subjects’ whose subjectivity is grounded in the physical body. The term expresses a shared concern among archaeologists and historians working on the body to adopt a critical engagement with a biological/social distinction. For historians, experience of the body is the product of an interaction between different phenomena which include the material, social, cultural and emotional. As Canning writes of the history of the body, subjects ‘are not simply the imposed results of alien, coercive forces; the body is internally lived, experienced and acted upon by the subject and the social collectivity’ (1999: 506). In their study of an eighteenth-century Swiss doctor, Pilloud and Louis-Courvoisier demonstrate that bodily experience is layered from an external aspect (one that is constructed or observed by another) and an internal aspect (‘purely interior and intimate’); these are combined in what they term ‘biological-cultural corporeal maps’ (2003: 452). Together, the chapters in this book consider the multiple dimensions of bodily experience, including its material, cultural and subjective components. The shared interests of historians and bioarchaeologists in the material body, embodiment and individual experience have driven the chapters in this volume. The experience of bodies – or the experiencing body – is a key focus of much of the scholarship in this field and several of the chapters in this book. It is this multifaceted bodily experience that we refer to here as ‘embodiment’, and one that is recorded in a range of types of evidence that include written documents and the material body itself.

About this book

This book recognises that we – as researchers trained and encultured in the disciplines of history, archaeology and material culture studies – cannot realise the potential of the material turn and embodied approach unless we work together. Archaeologists studying both skeletons and objects acknowledge that the material culture approach to the body cannot provide ‘a comprehensive view of embodied experiences’ (Wesp, 2015: 145) and that ‘cultural information is required to interpret the biological data’ (Schrader and Torres-Rouff, 2021: 21). Historians search for approaches – particularly practice-theory and praxiography – that allow them to deconstruct ‘the binary opposition between biological essentialism and social constructionism’ and focus on ‘the material, experiencing body’, yet they generally do so without turning to the physical bodies themselves (Clever and Ruberg, 2014). Despite each discipline having eloquently defined the gaps in their own scholarship, very few studies attempt to combine these approaches, especially for the post-medieval period, which is the focus of the chapters presented here (e.g. Gowland, 2018; Mant, 2016). This is the challenge taken up by the contributors to this book. We argue that, by bringing together historians’ and archaeologists’ approaches to the changing social and cultural contexts of bodies and the extant record of the physical body, we can engage with the challenges posed by theoretical advances that have characterised the first quarter of the twenty-first century, adequately mobilise the rich range of evidence at our disposal for historical periods and, in integrating social and material, transform our understanding of people's lived experiences of the body.

But what does an effective interdisciplinary study of the material body entail? First, we need to engage in a sustained dialogue across disciplines that realises the potential of our varied research materials. Understandings of the socio-materiality of the body have been developed by scholars in both archaeology and history over the last 30 years, resulting in a refined epistemological framework for embodied research. As historians increasingly study people in the past as ‘embodied subjects’, archaeologists have begun to view the body through a material lens, at once the physical locus of embodied experience and a product of accumulated embodied actions. Uniting these impulses requires negotiation between these ways of thinking and the diverse forms of research materials at our disposal – the creation and interrogation of an ‘archive of embodiment’ (Harvey, 2020).

Second, we need to establish new ways of working that prioritise the creation and interrogation of this archive. Some contributors use past interactions with the materiality of dead bodies as a way to uncover new social practices amongst the living. Other contributors study the material body as an experiencing body, exploring the lives of men and women, young and old, able and disabled. Further contributions are concerned with the reciprocal interactions between objects associated with or worn upon the body and bodies themselves. The authors utilise different source materials and take different approaches, but together and in dialogue they each commit to examine how the social and material are combined in the making of embodied experience. All exploit the possibilities of studying the material body in the past in interdisciplinary ways, drawing specifically upon the disciplines of history, archaeology and material culture studies. This interdisciplinarity arises in these chapters not only by combining the evidence and approaches that are typically associated with either historians or archaeologists, but also through a sustained collaborative process. The book itself is the outcome of a collaborative project. In the first stage, a group of archaeologists and historians (including Craig-Atkins, Fissell, Harvey, Newman and Turner) took part in a series of research workshops, experimenting with shared research materials and interpretive approaches. In the second stage, this group came together with others (including Hartle, McCormack) to present research on the material body. This book reflects this interdisciplinary collaborative process: three chapters and the introduction are each co-written by an archaeologist and historian, two are written by a historian and two by archaeologists.

Why 1700–1850?

The period explored in these chapters is one that both historians of the body and bioarchaeologists have identified as witnessing significant change in people's living and working conditions in Europe, particularly but not exclusively in urban areas. Significant transformations occurred which had a huge impact on the body. Bioarchaeological scholarship has examined the negative impacts of the process of industrialisation; the accompanying large migration from rural to urban environments transformed human demographics with wide-ranging impacts upon human health. Higher rates of infectious disease – including tuberculosis and metabolic disease – such as rickets, trauma and neoplastic disease have been discussed (Bekvalac and Western, 2016; Brickley et al., 2007; Lewis, 2002). Historians, too, have explored the impact of industrialisation on the body, specifically how new urban contexts damaged life expectancy while also changing attitudes to bodies that defined new social identities and social relationships, notably a new class of poor labouring bodies, newly sexed bodies and hardening concepts of the able and disabled body (Cody, 2005; Laqueur, 1990; Siena, 2019; Szreter and Mooney, 1998).

Industrial England is a major growth area in archaeological studies, but past research has lacked the explicit contribution of historians who have considerable expertise in this period. Yet, this is a period for which the rich evidence from many large skeletal collections can be linked directly to extensive surviving documentary evidence in the form of biographical material over the life course. A growing skeletal record for this period, combined with an extraordinarily rich documentary, historical and material culture record, presents an opportunity to take a significant new direction in the study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bodies. Work that draws on the methods and data from both disciplines to understand the historical body is undertaken for earlier periods, but this is rarely done for the study of the post-medieval body. Within archaeology, the work of post-medieval bioarchaeologists of industrialising England most often produces population-level studies of larger groups, rather than of small communities and individuals. Cases where a fuller historical record is integrated with an analysis of skeletal remains are very rare but have been shown to lead to valuable new knowledge about healthcare, attitudes towards individuals and the role of women (Owsley et al., 2018). The combination of materials which create our archive of embodiment enables us to undertake a holistic treatment not just of elite bodies but those that might be considered ‘ordinary’ and ‘marginalised’ bodies – men, women and children of the middling sort and labouring poor, reproducing female bodies, disabled bodies, the old and young, and bodies that were stolen, traded and handled. The larger extent of historical documentation pertaining to a broad social range of individuals in particular, combined with the excavation of large cemeteries in major urban centres, offers an exciting possibility for a new history of embodied experiences of industrialising England. It gives us the opportunity, for example, to combine first-person reports of experience with the evidence of the physical body, allowing us to put these in dialogue with one another in ways that are not possible for pre-modern archaeologists or those who work on objects alone. This is the ideal context within which to test ideas associated with the material turn, new materialism and phenomenology.

Evidence and themes

One of the hallmarks of the chapters that follow is the combination of written historical documents – parish registers, newspapers, medical books – with data on skeletal remains, coffin plates and cemetery layouts. This patterns the particular approach or approaches that the chapters take to the material body. Yet, while the emphases that each author gives to the different types of evidence vary, they all align the various data and place them, as Newman and Turner put it, ‘in dialogue with’ each other (p. 206). These chapters show unequivocally that one set of evidence (be it historical or archaeological) can provide context for the other, illuminating what might be most distinctive or extraordinary in either the archaeological or historical record. These sets of evidence can also complement and, arguably, complete each other. The illicit practice of bodysnatching was not often recorded in historical documents, but the newly discovered example of a protected grave discussed in Hartle's chapter ‘is a rare physical manifestation of contemporary antipathy toward bodysnatching but also the undocumented anxiety of bereavement’ (p. 121). Yet all chapters avoid what Craig-Atkins and Fissell refer to as the ‘handmaiden problem’ in which one discipline is placed in the helper role to another (p. 52). No chapter deploys the evidence, methods or scholarship of the other discipline as ‘background’ but instead strikes a balance between the distinct scholarly approaches and the range of available evidence.

At times one set of evidence aligns with another in ways that enrich, consolidate and deepen the overall reconstruction of the embodied experience of the past. The dialogue between different forms of evidence does not always lead the conversation in one unified direction, however. There are misalignments, gaps and inconsistencies between datasets that prompt queries, often turning on the tensions between the body as represented, recorded, described or experienced. Combining skeletal data with written sources can also expose tensions between them. Several of the chapters in this book expose these tensions. For example, though the historical record strongly suggests that women were generally not smokers in this period, Davies-Barrett and Inskip present clear bioarchaeological evidence to the contrary: 43% of female skeletons in their sample show evidence of regular tobacco use. Here, the historical record – in this case, often socio-cultural representations – is a poor record of practice. In contrast, the material evidence of the body itself presents clear evidence of experience. In other cases, the written sources record the embodied past in ways that the bioarchaeological simply cannot. In their discussion of unwanted pregnancies, Craig-Atkins and Fissell position the archaeological and historical material in ‘productive tension’ (p. 55). The significant numbers of abortions suggested by textual evidence is in tension with a stark archaeological absence in graveyard excavations: aborted foetuses would not receive a sacred burial. The tension in the record generates a discussion about attitudes towards pregnancy and reproduction: ‘[i]nfants were paradoxically both highly valued and often unwanted’ (p. 68). In the case study of George and Elizabeth Cumberland, Dawson-Hobbis and Davis expose similarly productive tensions between the archaeological and historical record. George's skeletal remains provide some physical evidence of gout, while Elizabeth's skeleton yields no evidence of gout, perhaps because relevant parts of the foot were missing. In the written accounts of their health given in George's letters, gout was a condition from which they both suffered and for George it clearly shaped his lived experience. Surprisingly, though, his letters do not mention pain. The discrepancies cause Dawson-Hobbis and Davis to speculate that Elizabeth's complaints were misdiagnosed, and to reflect on the difficulties of surmising the lived experience of pain from the skeletal evidence alone. In this case, the evidence of the material body is a poor record of embodied experience.

Nevertheless, combining evidence in these ways can significantly enhance our accounts of individuals’ embodied lives in the past. In her study of the 18-year-old James Simpson, Harvey uses historical evidence of the context of early nineteenth-century masculinity to interpret the apparent silence of his skeletal record. Bringing together the historical and bioarchaeological develops a textured picture of both the risks attendant on young men and the dual privileges of rank and gender. Harvey's second case study prompts a reconsideration of the experiences of middle-aged women in this period. Here, the physical processes of ageing and poverty visible on Ann Purvis’ skeleton seem inconsistent with the status she was accorded and that is traceable through other evidence. In this case, bringing together different bodies of evidence demonstrates that the physical body did ‘not correlate consistently with social status or social identity in the past’ (Harvey, p. 40). A similar approach to ageing can be found in the chapter by Newman and Turner. They set out, ‘not just to compare skeletal and documentary evidence, but to explore how archaeological and social historical methodologies can be more fully integrated to understand ageing and disability in this period’ (p. 206). The result is to reposition what might be considered ‘exceptional pathological case studies’ and instead to interpret these as ‘the remains of people whose experiences were shaped both by their physical characteristics and by the wider culture that gave them meaning’ (p. 228). A humanistic impulse to bring into focus the embodied experiences of the integrated person is strong throughout these chapters.

The individual, embodied and experiencing person is a principal unit of analysis throughout this book. Several authors employ the method that we term ‘from skeletal biography to social biography’. This involves ‘record linkage of osteoarchaeological information and historical documents (parochial records and other sources) for any named individuals in archaeological collections’, and allows the researcher ‘to connect the population-level studies of skeletal collections to both general historical and specific biographical research’ (Harvey, p. 28). Case studies of named individuals are central to three chapters: Dawson-Hobbis and Davis examine George and Elizabeth Cumberland of Bristol, Harvey discusses James Simpson of Sheffield and Ann Purvis of South Shields, Davies-Barrett and Inskip focus on Sarah Green of Coventry. Other individuals, whose names are not known, allow for detailed case studies in other chapters: the three skeletons from Hazel Grove and St Hilda's in Newman and Turner, the single skeleton from the ‘New Churchyard’ in Hartle, and the thirty-four burials of fetuses and perinates at St Hilda's in Craig-Atkins and Fissell. The scale of these analyses is significant. It is this scale that creates a precise meeting point for bioarchaeological and historical evidence and accompanying approaches, avoiding either discipline becoming mere background to the other. As Harvey outlines, the personal embodied biography or ‘life reconstruction’ is one important focus shared by scholars in both history and archaeology (p. 26). Even in studies where personal names are missing, it is at the level of what Craig-Atkins and Fissell refer to as ‘small stories’ where the interpretation of skeletal remains for an understanding of the living is most fruitful (p. 48).

The human scale is evident in the insistent focus on identities throughout the book. Women and gender feature prominently in chapters by Craig-Atkins and Fissell, Dawson-Hobbis and Davis, Harvey and McCormack; though a range of social ranks feature in chapters by Davies-Barrett and Inskip and McCormack, the labouring poor are the main subjects of Craig-Atkins and Fissell, Dawson-Hobbis and Davis, Harvey and Newman and Turner. Ageing is discussed by Dawson-Hobbis and Davis, Harvey and Newman and Turner; debility/disability is a principal focus for Newman and Turner in particular, though it is also discussed by McCormack. In their treatment of these identities, the authors underscore that the social identities of gender, rank, age and dis/ability were embedded in the physical body and shaped by this material experience.

The socio-physical nature of the human body is palpable in those chapters which focus on the interaction between the body and object. These chapters show the influence of the various strands of the material turn in their account of the body as one material object in assemblages with other material objects. The notches worn into men's (and just one woman's) teeth by the ‘cutty’ tobacco pipes in Davies-Barrett and Inskip's chapter bespeak gendered forms of practice. The impression left in shoes by the shape, excretions, warmth and movement of the body in McCormack's ‘embodied history of shoes’ provides clear examples of how the body moulds things and is itself moulded by things (p. 84). The physical changes made to the body by its interaction with the environment are evident throughout many other chapters, whether in the account of the extensive permanent change to the right shoulder of Skeleton 235 following a dislocation most likely caused by an accident in Newman and Turner, or the skeletal lesions in the vertebrae of Maria Taylor who died aged 23 from tuberculosis in 1845, and whose life as a member of the working poor is reconstructed in Dawson-Hobbis and Davis. Though Dawson-Hobbis and Davis note that the reporting of such details might appear clinical to non-archaeologists, they also provide ‘an embodied physicality to the study of past lives, which offers its own form of intimacy’ (p. 194). When such physical changes are accompanied by historical sources, especially self-reports describing the attendant agony, the degree of intimate reconstruction is arguably much greater. These accounts trace the impact of phenomenological approaches which foreground individual and interior experiences. Eighteenth-century reports of corns, calluses, blisters and bunions generate a vivid picture of shoe-wearing in the past, for example. Such studies offer compelling and substantive data on experience to embodied histories.

The power of this intimate small-scale arises from its situation within the large-scale, though. In the dialogue between these different levels of analysis emerges the deeper and wider understanding of past embodied experience. Population-level analysis of particular burial sites is an important component of many of these chapters (especially Dawson-Hobbis and Davis, Harvey, Davies-Barrett and Inskip, and Newman and Turner), though all of these chapters situate their examples and case studies in a broader context. The use of a range of types of evidence collated from deep and thorough research into the historical record in the chapters by McCormack and Hartle enable the authors to situate their material objects within a richly reconstructed wider vision. McCormack's shoes are read in the context of ‘the subjective, the emotional and the economic’ approaches to the object, set against medical and literary attitudes towards footwear and examined in the light of men's and women's feelings about wearing shoes (p. 82). Hartle's account of a protected grave is set against a range of wider attitudes towards the dead and their treatment and the professional networks of the men who sustained the theft of corpses. The commodified object of the body was at the very heart of these networks.


The chapters presented in The Material Body demonstrate how interdisciplinary collaborative working among historians, archaeologists and scholars of material culture can realise the potential of the material turn and embodied approach, harness the rich range of evidence at our disposal for historical periods and, in integrating social and material, transform our understanding of people's lived experiences of the body. In this introduction, we have situated our embodied approach within each discipline's material turn, focusing on how the sources, concepts and methods of each discipline can engage us with the challenges posed by theoretical advances of the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Interweaving scholarship from both history and archaeology, we have demonstrated that embodied experience is centred within but not solely determined by the physical body. We have also traced at the convergence of archaeological and historical understandings of embodiment a rich material basis for researching embodied subjects an ‘archive of embodiment’ and demonstrated the need for new ways of working that prioritise the creation and interrogation of this archive.

Together, the chapters collected here develop and test new methods for interrogating the archive of embodiment. In doing so, they advance understanding of how the social and material are combined in the making of embodied experience in ways that bring particular dividends for our understanding of the early modern period. They have facilitated a sharper focus on bodies that might be considered ‘ordinary’ and ‘marginalised’ and, in revealing productive tensions between the many different types of evidence and scales of enquiry that are available for historical periods, have pushed against the boundaries of not only our interpretations but of the disciplines of history, archaeology and material culture studies themselves. Our original aim for the Material Bodies project was to promote the dividends of archaeologists and historians working together. This book offers a new and fruitful way forward in this endeavour.


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The material body

Embodiment, history and archaeology in industrialising England, 1700–1850


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