Karen Harvey
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Archives of embodiment
Body and experience in the archaeological and historical record

Despite a growing interest in ‘embodiment’, historians of the body rarely consider the extant material remains of their subject. This chapter seeks to contribute to a discussion about how historians and other scholars might examine the archaeological (and particularly bioarchaeological record) and the historical record together in order to better understand the embodied experiences of people in the past. This chapter offers new ways to study past embodied experiences as an outcome of the material, social and cultural. Focusing on two non-elite individuals from the north of England between 1793 and 1849, it draws on the rich but also incomplete evidence to reconstruct their lives as lived. The first case study explores the themes of risk, youth and masculinity, focusing on James Simpson (1815–34), the son of a currier and leather cutter in Sheffield. This case underscores the advantages of class and gender, as well as the risks of damage posed to young men’s bodies in early nineteenth century towns. The second case study is Ann Purvis (c.1793–1849), a member of a family of river pilots in South Shields. The analysis exposes the vulnerabilities caused to women by poverty and singlehood, as well as the evident care and social status available to such women within the family. The chapter demonstrates that bringing the bioarchaeological, material and historical record together and, in particular, in exploring the tensions between them, produces new knowledge about the lived experiences of non-elite individuals in the past that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Despite a growing interest in ‘embodiment’, historians of the body rarely consider the extant material remains of their subject, remains which are the objects of study within the discipline of bioarchaeology (in North America) or osteoarchaeology (in the United Kingdom). This chapter seeks to contribute to a discussion about how historians and other scholars might examine the archaeological (and particularly bioarchaeological record) and the historical record together in order to better understand the embodied experiences of people in the past. The archaeologist Sarah Tarlow has articulated an important distinction that is at work in both disciplines: focusing on human remains, she says, archaeologists necessarily examine ‘the material rather than the experiencing body’ (Tarlow, 2011: 8). Overcoming this apparent distinction between the material and the experiencing body, by uniting skeletal and documentary records, is now an ambition shared by many archaeologists and historians. To both reconstruct the experiencing body as a material body and to interpret the material body as an experiencing body is a considerable challenge, though, and one that requires the expertise of scholars in both disciplines. This chapter offers new ways to study past embodied experiences as an outcome of the material, social and cultural by drawing on the bioarchaeological, material and historical record. Focusing on two non-elite individuals from the north of England between 1793 and 1849 – James Simpson and Ann Purvis – it draws on the rich but also incomplete evidence to reconstruct their lives as lived.

In so doing, the chapter explores how we can align the work of bioarchaeologists and historians of the body, attending to their respective research questions, approach and data, in ways that avoid either discipline becoming a mere illustration of or supplement to the other. I propose that one way in which this can be achieved is to begin with instances where our data converge on the same person or topic, whether those data are derived from the physical archive of human remains, the material archive of the archaeological record, or the historical archive of visual, written or material documents. In bringing both the bioarchaeological and historical record into play, each has the potential to reinforce as well as to lead the other. On occasion, too, the evidence, methods and findings of bioarchaeology and history can be in tension. It is in exploring those very tensions, I argue, that new knowledge about the embodied experience of men and women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can often arise. The archive of embodiment – of the experience of having and of being a physical body – is constituted from both the archaeological and historical record.

Archaeologists and historians have the past in common, yet the challenge of uniting them in a study of past embodiment is considerable given that concrete disciplinary differences certainly exist. It is useful to acknowledge these, at least from the perspective of a trained professional academic historian. First, chronology: historians tend to work across much shorter time frames than archaeologists. Second, scale: archaeologists have an interest in populations, accessed via large bodies of data, whereas historians (certainly those who work on the body and are usually trained in social or cultural history) tend to work on relatively smaller communities and often single individuals and their specific lives. Third, data: as captured by the archaeologist John Moreland, ‘archaeologists study objects, historians study words’ (Moreland, 2001: 8), often in the form of written historical documents. Fourth, while both archaeologists and historians are trained in rigorous evidence-based methodologies, scholars in these disciplines generally have contrasting interpretive approaches to their evidence. This is particularly pronounced when considering the approaches of bioarchaeologists (trained in scientific methods) and social and cultural historians of the body. Archaeologists, and particularly those dealing with material human remains, have a low level of comfort with a high level of inference from the evidence. 1 Social and cultural historians, in contrast, often apply a range of interpretive skills to examine the unwritten meanings in their sources. Embedded in the interpretive practice of social and cultural historians is a high level of comfort with a high level of inference from the evidence. Admittedly, these are general differences which apply to a lesser and greater extent for individual scholars and pieces of scholarship. Yet, combining archaeology and history in a study of embodiment requires us to become cognisant of the emphases that arise in those disciplines out of these differences; of where our research methods and customary types of data both converge and diverge. Before embarking on the two case studies that form the heart of this chapter, I wish to explore the commonalities and distinctions between these disciplines by discussing four key terms or concepts: the material body, experience, biography and identity.

The material body

The study of material culture has been driven by a ‘material turn’ in the academy that has impacted both archaeologists and historians. Archaeologists have, of course, always focused on the material record, yet Dan Hicks has described how archaeology and anthropology experienced what he calls ‘a Material-Cultural Turn’ (Hicks, 2010). In the area of the human body, archaeology has moved from a dominant approach to the body as a product of discourse (often relying on Foucault) to one that sees ‘the body as the phenomenological center of experience’ (Bulger and Joyce, 2013: 68). Work on embodiment in archaeology has often proceeded without attention to the body itself, but instead to representations of the body or the spaces through which the body has moved (Bulger and Joyce, 2013: 68–85). The broader archaeological interest in bodies as a site of lived experience grounded in bioarchaeology is actually relatively recent, representing a shift away from ‘the disciplinary poles of biology and culture’ in favour of ‘theories of embodied practice’ (Hamilakis et al., 2002: 7, 8). Joanna Sofaer insists that ‘the body is never pre-social’ (Sofaer, 2006: 74). For Sofaer, treating the body as material culture signals that the physical body is a product of both ‘social action and biology together’ (Sofaer, 2013: 231). Importantly, this requires ‘work combining bioarchaeological and ethnographic or historical information’ (Sofaer, 2006: 237). Such are the demands of studying what I have called elsewhere, the ‘the socio-materiality of the body’ (Harvey, 2020: 138).

For historians, the material turn has meant dedicated work with material objects, sometimes exclusively or predominantly; history as a discipline is no longer based on written texts. The focus on culture and meaning, alongside the material, tracks the similar developments in archaeology (Harvey, 2017). One of the distinguishing features of historians’ approaches to material culture is their object-driven rather than object-centred approaches. History is not an object-based discipline: historians’ questions are about the contexts, uses and meanings of objects – not the objects themselves. This emphasis is driven by historians’ commitment to experience, the second concept I wish to highlight.


Ultimately, historians’ interest in objects stems from a desire to access experience (Harvey, 2017). History is the discipline of past experience: historians aim to situate their objects (material, visual or written) in a context in order to reconstruct experience (comprised from ideas, feelings, relationships, structures and other factors). Through their interpretive actions they step through their inanimate documents to produce an account of the once living. The impulse to move through the object to experience is heightened when that object is the human body: as skeletal remains, their inadequacy as a record of lived experience is startling, yet they are also traces of a once living embodied person and contain information about that life that is invariably impossible to acquire in any other way. The human body as a ‘document’ or an ‘object’ is, of course, quite a different proposition to a ceramic punch bowl, a pair of velvet breeches or a fire surround. These skeletal remains were once not the inanimate objects they are now. In recognition of this, bioarchaeologists have carefully attended to the ethics of their work (DeWitte, 2015). For historians, the nature of the body as physical object means that their aim to move through these remains to a reconstruction of that person's lived experience is heightened. After all, and as discussed in the Introduction to this volume, for many historians the body contains the subject and the self; it is the very fact of this material subject that defines human experience, or ‘embodiment’.

Experience is illusive; past experience even more so. Examining experience is a contentious process and necessarily requires that the scholar in any discipline extends further than the evidence strictly permits (Scott, 1991). In this extension of analysis through or past the evidence, researchers employ contrasting practices of interpretation and modes of writing, both of which might include creative or imaginative steps. This is accentuated because experience is intrinsically diachronic. Historians seek to attend to lives that were lived and experienced in time. In this process, historians use narrative to plot the discrete moments of experience that are registered in the historical record, which they then link together using their disciplinary knowledge and skills. It is especially at these links that historical interpretation invariably takes place.


Bioarchaeologists also seek to use skeletal remains to reconstruct lives lived. The third key term or concept – biography – is central to these endeavours and exemplifies some of the shared interests of scholars in the two disciplines. The term ‘osteobiography’ has been used to refer to the study of a whole life course through human remains, thus creating a biography for those human remains. In John Robb's study of Neolithic Italy, osteobiography refers to ‘the study through human skeletons of the biography as a cultural narrative’ and comprises the cultural meanings of life events and the study of the remains after death (Robb, 2002: 160). Applying ageing techniques to skeletal remains, for example, allows the archaeologist to plot a person's osteobiography over the life course, aligning these with cultural meanings of particular life stages found in other evidence (Robb, 2002: 161). In this instance, the biography does not refer to an individual's life experiences but a broader cultural narrative. A different variation of biography, drawing on bioarchaeology, has been proposed by the medieval historian Robin Fleming. Fleming insists on the value of skeletal remains for historians’ reconstruction of the biographies of those medieval men and women who left no trace in the written record. Fleming's study of a seventh-century woman who died around the age of 20 years with leprosy, ‘Eighteen’ (the number given to the remains by archaeologists and chosen by Fleming as the moniker), situates the remains in the context of population-level data about early medieval Britain. Fleming's conclusion is that the numbers are important and, combined with the individual information, these data tell us things especially about individuals such as Eighteen. Such evidence will ‘betray the human cost of things often written about by historians as impersonal and faceless trends’ (Fleming, 2006: 47). As Fleming writes elsewhere, this supplements a medieval history of Britain that is so often devoid of ‘living, breathing human beings’ (Fleming, 2009: 607). As she writes, ‘Skeletons, first and foremost, are the remains of individuals, who, while living, had hopes and sorrows all their own. These were people with individually aching knees and their very own sore shoulders’ (Fleming, 2006: 29).

In attempting to bridge the disciplinary gap it is important to avoid simplistic characterisations of other disciplines, particularly in relation to the term ‘biography’. Historians would baulk at the suggestion that their discipline provides ‘textual biographies’ by arranging key facts and dates, that ‘the textual record tends to be static and closed’ and that their sources are ‘random textual citations’ which provide details that are external to a person's experience, compared to a skeletal record which can in turn provide ‘more complex or nuanced a portrait’ of a person's life (Robb et al., 2019: 28, 29). In fact, biography has long been regarded as ‘an inferior form of history’ (Sardica, 2013: 384). Reconstructing through written documents the events of an individual's life can occlude the wider cultural and social structures, and the power relationships, that have patterned experience. Nevertheless, an insistence on the lives of (especially non-elite) individuals, rather than large populations, through a practice we could call ‘biography’, ‘social history’ or perhaps ‘life reconstruction’, is a commitment shared between archaeologists and historians.


This commitment is consonant with a focus on identity, the fourth key term or concept. Arguably, it is here that the interests of the two disciplines come into closest proximity. Expressed as an ‘archaeology of personhood’ (Fowler, 2004) or an ‘archaeology of a socially contextualised self’, in archaeology such an approach examines the distinctive and lived social identity of the individual, ‘the experiences, expectations, and rights a person derives from ascribed and achieved statuses or identities’ (Clark and Wilkie, 2006: 337). Rather than a choice of either approach or form of data, searching for this lived social identity is best achieved by ‘textually informed archaeologies’ (Marshall, 2013: 207). Such an even-handed combination of archaeology and history is promoted by Megan Perry, who underlines historical bioarchaeology as a ‘uniquely inter- and intra-disciplinary approach’, and one which should include ‘the relationship between human biological data and information derived from other historical and archaeological sources that exemplify a contextualised bioarchaeological study’ (Perry, 2007: 488). Perry draws out the commonalities and conflicts between different datasets on particular communities within the Roman and Byzantine Near East, exposing the possible motivations of ancient writers in the process.

Interrogating archives of embodiment for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Combinations of archaeology and history are not new; synergies clearly emerge around these four concepts of the material body, experience, biography and identity. Yet, significantly, all of the work cited so far concerns prehistory or the pre-modern (medieval) past. For post-medieval Britain, the period covered by this book, it is also established practice for bioarchaeological analysis to draw upon parish records, census data and other historical evidence to provide context for archaeologies of burial sites and skeletal remains. A small but growing body of published work on a range of non-elite population groups exploits these techniques. In work on admissions to London general hospitals over the long eighteenth century, for example, Madeleine Mant has utilised written and bioarchaeological material to reconstruct the working lives of the labouring poor (Mant, 2020). Rebecca Gowland's study of twenty-one unidentified adolescent pauper apprentices in North Yorkshire demonstrated how these bodies had been shaped by poverty, both before and after birth, contributing to our understanding of the lived experiences of poverty (Gowland, 2018). Studies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century individuals, rather than large populations, have also been undertaken. One instructive study of the burial vault at Darnall's Chance House, in Maryland, built in c.1741–2 by the Scottish merchant James Wardrop and his wife Lettice Lee, examined both the bioarchaeological and historical record. Even here, though, while there are extensive records for the house and its inhabitants and the skeletons were aged quite precisely, only three of the adults out of a total of nine individuals could be identified with some certainty. The study was able to comment on the experiences of people of genteel rank, the social practices in recording (or not) children's births in a context of high infant mortality, and the importance of kin relationships that were observable in the burial of Lee's siblings in the vault (Owsley et al., 2018). Yet, the authors are left to surmise whether the woman at the centre of the burials is, in fact, Lettice Lee. Connecting the specific bioarchaeology of the remains to the lived experiences of a named individual is frustratingly eluded. Even for a period of British history that has an apparent surfeit of both archaeological and historical evidence, overcoming the distinction between the material and the experiencing body remains a challenge.

This chapter extends this existing scholarship, underpinned by the aforementioned concepts of the material body, experience, biography and identity. It builds on work begun during a pilot project in which bioarchaeologists and historians of the body worked together to identify collections of skeletons from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with surviving associated historical records which would sustain research on co-designed topics. 2 The pilot developed a template for research – ‘from skeletal biography to social biography’ – designed to connect the population-level studies of skeletal collections to both general historical and specific biographical research. This method included record linkage of bioarchaeological information and historical documents (parochial records and other sources) for any named individuals in archaeological collections, which allowed for in-depth case studies. It was therefore also a requirement of the collections that the skeletal remains could be identified (from grave goods such as a coffin plate, for example) and traced in the historical record and that they were in a sufficiently good condition to be the subject of detailed osteological analysis. Of the six sites initially considered, together holding 791 skeletons, only three sites held remains that could be named from the archaeological record. The 546 skeletons from these three sites included thirty-eight named individuals and five where likely or partial names were detectable. These are low proportions: just 4.93% of the individual bodily remains in all six surveyed collections were fully identifiable (Swales, 2016). Furthermore, only two of these sites had associated accessible parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials (arguably the most useful initial historical documents initially): Carver Street, Sheffield 1806–1855 and St Hilda's Church, Coronation Street, South Shields 1818–1855. These sites gave rise to a set of case studies, including the chapters on history of maternity (Craig-Atkins and Fissell, this volume: Chapter 2) and impairment or disability (Newman and Turner, this volume: Chapter 7) in this collection. This chapter focuses on the individuals that could be clearly named and that survived in a good enough condition for osteological analysis. Only three individuals met these criteria (James Simpson, Jane Prince and Ann Purvis), out of an original possible 791 (less than 0.4% of the total sample). As Jane Prince had an indeterminate date of death in the archaeological record, she was judged potentially difficult to find in the historical record. This chapter thus focuses on James Simpson and Ann Purvis to explore the interdisciplinary practices drawing on bioarchaeology and history undertaken by an historian of the body drawing on bioarchaeological data and approaches.

Risk, youth and masculinity: James Simpson (1815–34)

The experiences of young men in the British past were profoundly shaped by gender and the patriarchal nature of their society. Young men – blessed with the privileges of manhood and not yet having acquired the status of householder – could enjoy considerable license (Shepard, 2006: 93–125). Yet, manhood brought with it anxieties to conform to (and juggle) the patriarchal expectations of self-control, strength and independence, ultimately expressed in the ability to sustain and successfully manage a household of which one was head (Harvey, 2012; Shepard, 2000). For the consolidating middle class, their young men were the future (Barker, 2008; Davidoff and Hall, 2002: 416–49). It was into this world that James Simpson was born on 26 December 1815. He was the first son of Robert and Rebecca (neé Blacktin) Simpson (then aged 24 and 20 respectively), who had been married less than a year when their son arrived. Robert hailed from Wirksworth in Yorkshire, while Rebecca had been born in Cheshire. They were married on 19 January 1814 at Sheffield Parish Church, and it was in this town that they went on to have their ten children. Their youngest child, Rebecca, was born in 1839, when her mother was 44, following the loss of three children all aged 3 years or less in the previous five years. Just four of their ten children outlived them (one boy and three girls).

Robert and Rebecca's migration to Sheffield occurred during a momentous transformation in the town. Like other northern towns such as Leeds and Manchester, Sheffield experienced a dramatic increase in population and huge changes to its urban environment during the period 1780–1830 (Barker, 2004). This both reflected and impacted a changing economy and social structure. Dominated by the metal industry, early nineteenth-century Sheffield witnessed considerable deprivation. Most of the metal production took place in small workshops in which artisanal craftsmen were prominent; yet, by 1844 Friedrich Engels used the Sheffield grinders as an exemplary case of the degraded English proletariat (Engels, 1892). However, alongside the grinders, cutlers and steel workers in Sheffield were many other trades and these became greater as a proportion of the population as the Sheffield economy diversified to accommodate the growing middling-sorts there and in the region (Barker, 2004: 181; Hey, 1998). Robert Simpson was a currier and leather cutter, taking the material that had already been transformed from skin to leather through the tanning process and preparing this into the appropriate state for those who would make the leather goods (be they shoes, saddles or gloves). Such trades had previously been organised into guilds, but these struggled to maintain control of manufacture and such companies were in abeyance by the early nineteenth century (Rusbridge, 2019: 19–20, 99). Simpson carried on this trade for many years and was evidently successful. From 1825 until 1846, for example, he paid for his entries in a series of trade directories (Gell, 1825). By the time James entered his teens, his father's respectability in the town was well established. In 1832, he was named as a trustee to a local coach maker, Robert Robinson (Sheffield Independent, 14 January 1832). In 1836, Robert was named as one of two trustees for Samuel Barker the boot and shoemaker from Sheffield, along with another currier (Perry's Bankrupt Gazette, Saturday 5 November 1836). His reputation amongst the leather trades extended further, and in 1840 he was trustee for a wood turner, William Lee (Sheffield Independent, 23 May 1840).

James Simpson died, aged 18, on 15 March 1834. He left behind seven siblings, four aged less than 10 years old and four of them girls. It is the tin coffin plate that allowed archaeologists to identify this as James Simpson's burial: a tin plate (rather than the more common iron) also suggests a degree of wealth (Swales, 2016: 5). The nature of James’ burial underscores the relative financial security of this young family. He was buried at Carver Street Methodist Chapel in Sheffield, on 18 March 1834, and his interment cost £2 12s 6d (Chapel Keeper's funeral book). Subsequently, the family were able to install a gravestone to memorialise James, along with three of his siblings who had died in the intervening three and a half years (see Figure 1.1). 3 This material culture chimes with the status of this early nineteenth-century artisan's family.

Figure 1.1 The Simpson gravestone at Carver Street Chapel.

The Simpsons were also members of the thriving Methodist community of early nineteenth-century Sheffield. Methodism was well-established across Yorkshire, but its vibrancy in Sheffield may have been what attracted Robert and Rebecca, or their families (Wolffe, 2008). Looking back from 1835, one writer remembered the ‘extraordinary revival of religion in Sheffield’ that took place from 1794–6, part of a national expansion in nonconformity (Rigg, 1835: 608; Watts, 1995). The Carver Street Chapel was built in 1804 and generated ‘much talk’ on its construction (Holland, 1823: 792). Though northern Methodism is often associated with the industrial workers, town-centre chapels attracted ‘wealthy and influential’ members in ‘easy circumstances’ (Rigg, 1835: 609). Carver Street was ‘one of the largest and most handsome’ and became more successful than the existing Norfolk Street chapel for a time, eventually leading to a split amongst the Sheffield Methodists in 1831 (Rigg, 1835: 608, 610). By the time of James Simpson's death, there were thirty-two Methodist ministers and nearly 12,000 members operating in the extensive Sheffield Circuit (Rigg, 1835: 607). This Methodist context meant that James was likely to have been well-educated. By 1823, one Methodist Sunday school in the town had forty-seven members (Holland, 1823: 794). There were at least three Methodist day-schools in Sheffield, in addition to a school of the National Society dedicated specifically to the education of poor boys and girls; the Carver Street Chapel fostered very close relationships with several of these schools, with its own school room opening in the yard in 1834 (Carver Street Methodist Church, 1955: 7; Rigg, 1835: 610; Wooler, 2016: 48).

Class is buried deep within the body. The status and prosperity of Rebecca and Robert's household is not only evident in the material culture of James Simpson's burial but also within the material remains of his body. His bodily remains indicate that he was well nourished and had not experienced lasting disease, perhaps suggesting the advantages of rank. James Simpson's body is, at least in its current state, fairly unremarkable. Though an initial report indicated that the skeleton was relatively complete, in fact a significant minority is missing and many elements (for example, all the ribs) are incomplete. Nevertheless, apart from post-mortem damage to the left fibula and sacrum, the only notable pathology in these skeletal remains concerns the mandible: there is a small cavity on the left second molar (Campanacho, 2017a: 4). The partial evidence of James Simpson's physical remains indicate a body free from chronic disease with no responses indicative of environmental stress or trauma.

The cause of James’ death remains unknown. Given the absence of significant parts of the skeleton, it is possible that he died from a major trauma to his torso, perhaps as a result of accident or assault. A second possibility is acute infectious disease. It is important to note that there were three bodies in this grave. Though it is not clear to whom the third body belonged, we do know that the 18-year-old James was buried with his much younger brother, William, who died less than three weeks later the day after his 3rd birthday, on 8 April 1834. The remains of William were in too poor a condition to sustain a full skeletal analysis. Yet the coincidence of their deaths in quick succession, and the lack of a cause of death detectable from James’ skeleton, might indicate infectious disease as a cause of death. The historical record provides no evidence to support either possibility. Local newspapers for that spring, summer and autumn do not report any major accidents or assaults, no coroner or court inquest into such incidents, nor any widespread disease at this time.

The attempt to connect the archaeological skeletal record for James Simpson with the historical written record produces just three direct meeting points: a record of his birth and baptism and of his death and burial in the parish registers, along with the record of the internment cost in the Methodist Chapel Keeper's funeral book. No other record can be found for this young man. He was too young to have established himself in trade or to have created a business. He was almost certainly working. The eldest child and the eldest son in a family where there were several younger siblings, James would have shouldered a considerable responsibility to work. It is highly likely that at the time of his death he was assisting his father, just as his younger brother John was listed as an assistant to his currier father in the census of 1841. James was too young to have married and established his own family. He was also too well behaved to have done anything sufficiently disorderly or criminal to make the local or national newspapers. So we do not know how he died and we know very little about how he lived.

Both the bioarchaeological and the historical record for James Simpson appear to bespeak silence, yet these are only silences if we are searching for a particular pathology or social event. In fact, we are able to reconstruct a rich and quite specific context for this young man. James benefited from having a skilled father who lived and worked at home at his own business. Though Robert would eventually face periods of financial difficulty, his business was still advertised in the trade directory of 1846 (Slaters 1846 Directory). This context of the comfort and security experienced by a respectable family we can observe in the skeletal remains; James’ burial and remains indicate clearly the advantages of class.

Yet, as the oldest son and an important potential economic contributor to the household economy, James’ death was perhaps a significant factor in his father's apparent downward trajectory towards insolvency. By the directory of 1849, Robert was no longer listed and in summer 1850 he was reported as ‘out of business’ (bankrupt) and a ‘prison case’, being held in jail for debt. This last newspaper report noted that he had moved from Brook Hill to Change Alley, though had previously been on Market Street. This was evidence of his precarity and also of the newspaper's desire to identify him for readers (Sheffield Independent, 1850). Imprisonment for debt was not unusual for a tradesman, however; nor did it mean an inevitable decline for the entire family (Paul, 2019). Indeed, some of Robert's children went on to have some considerable success. This was especially notable for the girls. Two of his three daughters who survived until adulthood – Emma and Rebecca – remained unmarried and enjoyed successful careers as teachers, Emma becoming principal of the private day school in Sheffield at which they both taught by 1881, and the women also served as landladies to clerical and professional lodgers (1881 Census). Emma and Rebecca both lived until the age of 75; their elder sister, Mary, died aged 82. This longevity amongst the women was in stark contrast to the sons of Rebecca and Robert. In addition to the loss of James and William in 1834, the family buried George Henry at Carver Street just one week after his 1st birthday on Christmas Eve 1837, later losing their youngest remaining son Robert aged 23 on Christmas Eve 1850 (Yorkshire Burials, PR-138-2-24; PR-138-2-15). 4 John, the only son who lived until adulthood, was a clerk, though he predeceased his three sisters when he died aged 59 in the Sheffield Union Workhouse. The life expectancy of the women in the Simpson family outstripped that of the men.

James Simpson's remains might suggest physical health and resilience. Yet we contend with the fact of his death. Only five from a total of thirty-eight males excavated from Carver Street died between the ages of 18 and 26 years. Overall, 13% of the adult males died as young adults compared with 7/29 or 24% women; thus, James Simpson's death does not appear to be part of a landscape of the inflated risks of mortality to young men in this town (McIntyre and Willmott, 2003: 38). Moreover, burial registers for Sheffield from 1831–55 suggest that there is an underrepresentation of older adults amongst the skeletal remains excavated from the Carver Street burial ground, which means that the skeletal sample consistently underestimates life expectancy for young adults by over 20% (McIntyre and Willmott, 2003: 41). Life expectancy at birth in Sheffield in the 1840s was 32 years; cemetery records from 1860–2 suggest life expectancy for manual workers was 32.5, compared to 47.1 for professional and managerial workers (McIntyre and Willmott, 2003: 40; Szreter, 2005: 186). Indeed, had he died three months earlier James would have been classed as an adolescent (13–17 years in the Carver Street excavation) (McIntyre and Willmott, 2003: 36). As Lewis points out, children whose remains fall into the hands of bioarchaeologists are exceptional because they are a minority of non-survivors (Lewis, 2007: 186–7). As a young man who died shortly after his 18th birthday, James is unusual. He may have been a victim of the many accidents which took place in increasingly mechanised manufacture and for which there was no established legal framework for compensation until the end of the century (Bronstein, 2008; Moses, 2018). As noted earlier, James might also have succumbed to an infectious disease invisible in his skeletal remains. His death might also be placed within a broader context of the specific risks inherent in being a young man in early Victorian England. The risks to young men were highly gendered. Women certainly behaved violently and were the victims of violence, but violence was embedded in working-class manly sociability in ways that would have simply been unacceptable for most women, and certainly women from the skilled rank from which James Simpson hailed. Whether playful or murderous, fighting amongst young working-class men was learned from an early age and ‘could be seen as a normal, even playful part of young men's lives’ (Carter Wood, 2004: 79). Juvenile crime was a pressing issue in this society (Shore, 1999). Indeed, historical records indicate that men habitually committed violent criminal acts more frequently than women (Kesselring, 2015; Walker, 2009: 25). Though there are lively debates about how gender impacted the nature of criminal activity, levels of indictment and prosecution, and forms of punishment – plus considerable regional variation – Peter King has demonstrated that the proportions of female offenders indicted across a range of regional and national courts remained fairly consistent in the period 1750–1850, with a national average of 17.31% in 1834–8 (King, 2009: 222). For non-felonies (misdemeanours), women were probably a higher proportion (23.9 % of the prison population held for assault in London in 1816, for example) (King, 2009: 219).

Where scholars have compared the historical records of crime with the skeletal evidence, the same pattern emerges. In one dataset including coroners’ records from 1232–1452, women were recorded as victims of violent acts 13.3% of the time and as perpetrators 4.4% of the time), while skeletal records from the same period show that men's bodies displayed fractures at twice the rate of women, though these data vary considerably between different towns and urban and rural locations (Grauer and Miller, 2017). In her study of the admissions records of the Royal London Hospital and skeletal remains from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London, Madeleine Mant has found a far greater proportion of men present with fractures in the hospital and skeletal record (74.1% and 84.5% respectively) (Mant, 2016: 48). Interestingly, male admissions to hospital peak in the 18–30 years age bracket; in contrast to the comparable peak for women in the 41–50 years age bracket (Mant, 2016: 51–4). In a more recent study including data from a larger sample of London hospitals, men comprised 77.4% of all cases of fracture (Mant, 2020: 456). Though this difference may be down to a number of influential cultural and social factors, the risks of fracture in young men's lives is striking. Elsewhere, Mant shows that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries men were twice as likely to have multiple fractures than women, one aspect of the ‘accident hump’ in men between the ages of 20 and 50 observable in many societies (Mant, 2019: 10, 11). The majority of these fractures were not explained by intentional violence or other criminal activity, and Mant convincingly argues that most multiple fractures were the result of a range of accidental factors in urban settings or working environments. Arising from social, cultural or economic factors, younger men's bodies appear to have been particularly at risk of damage. James Simpson's skeletal remains suggest the advantages and the promise of his class, but his death demonstrates the combined risks of gender and age for young middle-class men in the early nineteenth century.

Vulnerability, care and older women: Ann Purvis (c.1793–1849)

Middle age was reputedly a challenging time for women in Georgian Britain. The loss of visible youth was particularly damaging for a woman's social esteem and it often came at the same time as retirement from work and the end of a woman's reproductive life: this is perhaps why the process of ageing for women was seen as most pronounced around menopause than in frail old age, even though old age in general was often placed at 60 years of age (Ottaway, 2004: 41; Vickery, 2013). Yet, historians of older women also insist on their varied experiences, often shaped profoundly by class, and the ‘period of unprecedented freedom and autonomy’ that was enjoyed by many (Botelho and Thane, 2001: 5). Ann Purvis, who was buried aged 56 years at the Anglican church of St Hilda's in South Shields on 17 October 1849, prompts a reconsideration of the experiences of middle-aged women in this period. Ann was then living half a mile away on Shadwell Street, the most northerly thoroughfare skirting the edge of the South Shields promontory and running behind the quays at the mouth of the River Tyne. In contrast to the wider and more attractive commercial roads, the street that followed the line of the shore was ‘narrow, crooked and inconvenient’ (Parson and White, History, Directory & Gazetteer of Durham & Northumberland, 1827: 284). It was in a house on this street that, in 1841, Ann was listed as aged 45 and living in the household of William Purvis, a pilot on Shadwell Street (Census Returns of England and Wales, 1841). On the night of the census, the 70-year-old William and the 45-year-old Ann were accompanied in the house by the 15-year-old John Purvis. Deciphering the relationships between these three from the historical documents is not straightforward. Family relationships were not provided in the census, and women's marital status only recorded if a woman was the head of household. William had previously been married to Isabella Skipsey in 1792, and together they had several sons (but no daughters); Isabella died aged 36 and was buried on 25 June 1809 (Bishop's Transcripts, Durham University Library). William may have subsequently married Ann, because although no record of their marriage can be found, the brief notice of her death in the newspaper did identify her as William's widow (The Newcastle Courant, Friday 19 October 1849). Parish records do not record a John, son of William and Ann Purvis. They do, however, record a John Purvis born in June 1826 at South Shields, to the pilot John Skipsey Purvis and Mary Purvis, and a John born to William's son Andrew and his wife Thomasine in 1822 (England Births & Baptisms 1538–1975). John was certainly related to William (Wallace, 2018: 1–2). Whatever the precise relationship between the elderly man, middle-aged woman and teenage boy on the evening the census was taken in 1841, we can be sure they were close relations.

The vast majority of the families in South Shields were employed in trade, manufacture or handicraft (Wallace, 2018: 5). Women must have worked because they were the majority of the population. In South Shields, Ann was one of around nearly 9,000 inhabitants, of whom over 5,000 or 59% were women. The sex ratio of South Shields was characteristic of ports such as Portsmouth, Hull and Bristol, which had sex ratios of 70, 82 and 81:100 (male:female) respectively (Butler, 2012: 132). The wider Tyne area may not have seen the growth in population witnessed in other towns in the early nineteenth century, but the sudden demand for coal meant that the town had seen considerable population growth in the 1820s (Butler, 2012: 58–9). The expansion in coal and growth in the population meant that traffic on the Tyne River also increased. In the early nineteenth century, South Shields was a thriving port town, thronged with shipyards, dry docks, roperies and collieries. As a result, one commentator wrote, ‘there are usually about 500 vessels lying at one time’ (Parson and White, 1827: 283). Such an environment sustained many pilots – 120 sea pilots and 40 river pilots according to this writer – whose job it was to guide ships in and out of the mouth of the River Tyne, to help them negotiate their way along the crowded river (often from aboard the vessel), and to notify the Pilot Office of the arrival and departure of vessels (Parson and White, 1827: 283). William Purvis was himself a pilot, and father to several pilots. Pilots were licensed by Trinity House in Newcastle, and their highly respected work sustained the safety, health and legality of commercial shipping into England's ports (Mackenzie, 1827: 679–88; To Masters of Ships), though the South Shields Pilot Office was located on Shadwell Street (Wallace, 2018: 8). The job of pilot was skilled and, in the context of a port, a high-status occupation. A trade directory of 1828–9 listed only six pilots in South Shields, none of them Purvis’, but by 1834 no less than seven Purvis men (including William) were listed in this occupation (Pigot & Co, 1828: 179; Pigot & Co, 1834: 43).

In addition to his job as pilot, William at one time rented a pub and beer shop which extended from Shadwell Street down to the river (Newcastle Journal, 17 March 1838). Given that William would have been out on the shore or the water at various times of the day, it would have been entirely in keeping with women's working patterns if Ann had not only worked in the pub and shop but also taken responsibility for their day-to-day operation. The census records no occupation for her, as wives’ occupations were not required in the 1841 census (Higgs, 1987: 63). Yet we know that in the early nineteenth century, large proportions of women – around 40% of those listed in trade directories – worked in food and drink, dealing or shopkeeping, and by the 1851 census the extensive employment of women in ‘dealing’ was given as 38% (Barker, 2006: 62–7; Higgs, 1987: 75; Shoemaker, 1998: 188). Even greater numbers of women's work in these sectors would have been hidden behind their husband's or father's occupations. It is almost certain that as the younger of the two adults in the house, but as the only woman, Ann also fulfilled the demanding housewifery and care duties required by the inhabitants, not least for the 70-year-old William who was to die in 1843 from ‘decay’.

Ann's skeletal remains suggest that at this time she would have been experiencing some infirmities herself. The skeleton of Ann Purvis is not well preserved, yet several observations can be made from its analysis (see Figure 1.2). We know that she suffered considerable tooth loss, with clear signs of decay caused by poor dental hygiene and/or sugary foods, as well as poorly developed teeth as a result of childhood disease or malnutrition. In fact, Ann only had three remaining teeth at the time of her death (Campanacho, 2017a: 2). Signs of periosteal reaction in both femurs and one tibia (caused by stress to and overuse of muscles or by infection) were virtually healed at the time of death, and were thus related to her earlier life. She showed signs of degenerative joint disease in her second cervical vertebra (in the neck) which may have been age related (Campanacho, 2017a: 3). It was impossible to detect if this spinal degenerative joint disease was more widespread because all other vertebrae were missing (Campanacho, 2017b: 3). However, Ann's humerus (in the upper arm) also displayed degenerative changes, in this case formation of new bone at the joint margins known as osteophytes (Campanacho, 2017b: 13). This joint disease may have caused Ann aches and pains. At 56, and with bodily markers widely recognised as symptoms of ageing in the eighteenth century, Ann would have certainly been regarded as an older person. Of the thirty individuals in the St Hilda's sample who were identified as adult women and assigned an age at death, ten were in the 45+ bracket (the other groupings were: 18–25 years (five), 26–35 years (seven), 26–45 years (one), 36–45 (six), 36–45+ (one)) (Raynor et al., 2011: 45). In the context of these data, then, Ann's death was not an anomaly. We do not know how she died: neither the burial register nor the newspaper announcement of her death provide any details (nor did the register give a cause of death for the other twelve people listed as having died in South Shields that week).

Figure 1.2 Skeletal remains of Ann Purvis.

At the point of her death in October 1849, Ann Purvis was still living in Shadwell Street. We do not know if she was living alone, with the younger John Purvis, or perhaps with one of William's three sons from a previous marriage who also lived on the street. Yet, with the death of William, in the house on Shadwell Street in October 1843, we can imagine that Ann may have been left somewhat vulnerable as an unprotected ageing spinster or widow. Older women's susceptibility to poverty, especially if alone, has been well established (Thane, 1978: 33; Thane, 2000: 193, 271–2). Women lived longer, had more restrictive work opportunities and lower wages when in work; they had lower rates of remarriage and arguably suffered in a cultural context where old women were vilified much more viciously than old men. No records survive that record Ann independently at work and she may have resorted to support from others.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the system of poor law provision for the elderly was patchy and stagnating, as well as being relatively less generous in the north (King, 2000: 147, 191; Ottaway, 1998). The detrimental impact of the New Poor Law on the elderly was considerably delayed and in the 1840s over half of women over their mid-60s received Poor Law support, a gendered pattern replicated in many counties (Goose, 2005; Thomson, 1984a: 267; Thomson 1984b). In 1851 Northumbria, for example, the sex ratio (male to female) of indoor relief via the workhouse was 81:100 and for outdoor relief it was 30:100; the English average was 97 and 45 respectively (Goose, 2005: 372–3). Yet, at 56, Ann may have been too young to fall into the category of the elderly (those over their mid-60s) widely considered bound for community support though the Poor Law (Thomson, 1984a: 267). Aside from poor relief, the facilities for healthcare and treatment were limited. Only 4.7% of the admissions to the Newcastle Infirmary in 1851 were from South Shields, no doubt because of the cost of travel along the River to Newcastle on top of the cost of admission (Butler, 2012: 138). South Shields town had a dispensary on East King Street from 1821 supplying the poor with free medical and surgical aid, along with a Society for the Relief of the Indigent Sick (established in 1818) under the auspices of which women would visit the homes of the poor (Parson and White, 1827: 280). By 1875, the dispensary alone listed 4146 patients (Whitfield, 2016). In principle, Ann may have also been able to access the support of Trinity House in Newcastle, which licensed the pilots on the Tyne. In addition to housing twenty-five pensioners in their alms house, it provided for up to 100 out-pensioners receiving between £5 and £7 per annum, though being located in Newcastle it was again unlikely she would have accessed this (MacKenzie, 1827: 687). Work and access to the well-documented systems of neighbourly support amongst her respectable artisan family and kin were likely to have been Ann's strategies for survival (Hindle, 2004: 15–95).

The material culture of Ann Purvis’ burial is pertinent here. Ann's skeletal remains are identifiable because of the survival of her coffin breastplate. The predominant use of iron coffin decoration at St Hilda's suggests the working-class nature of the community buried here (Swales, 2016: 11). Ann's breastplate was the only one that was complete: two angels held palm fronds above a draped urn and winged cherub, the latter representing the departed soul (Raynor et al., 2011: 87). Ann's wooden coffin was also more elaborate than the others unearthed from St Hilda's. The coffin lid was edged with tin which had been punched into a decorative pattern, while the interior of the coffin featured copper upholstery studs (Swales, 2016: 11). Ann's coffin was therefore more ornate than burials close by at St Hilda's, yet still modest compared to middle- and upper-ranking assemblages from the same period (Raynor et al., 2011: 89–90). This might align with what we know about the social status of Ann's head of household, William, but it is not the burial an historian would expect for a poor and vulnerable older woman in the 1840s. Arguably, it is also in tension with the state of Ann's body. While it is difficult to be precise about the chronology of her dental deterioration or skeletal lesions, Ann's skeletal remains suggest her possible exposure to malnutrition or hard labour or other physical challenges. The material culture of Ann's burial disrupts the bioarchaeological record and encourages us to rethink past experiences of ageing (Appleby, 2010). It is indicative of Ann Purvis’ community status and the care with which she was treated.

In this way, Ann's skeleton provides evidence of material embodiment, of a life lived, that is missing from the documentary record. Both the historical and archaeological record for Ann Purvis are incomplete. These patchy patterns of survival suggest the existence of historic patriarchy and the challenges with which women daily wrestled. Aligning these partial archives exposes an apparent tension between the body as a material object on the one hand, and the body as experienced on the other. The physical processes of ageing, and the marking of biological age on the skeleton, do not correlate consistently with social status or social identity in the past. Indeed, social status and social identity are not consistently recorded in the physical body (Appleby, 2010). As Sofaer has commented, ‘the notion of social age – what it means and how it is understood – is not well articulated in relation to skeletal remains’ (Sofaer, 2011: 290). In coupling the material, documentary and archaeological records for Ann Purvis, we disrupt the conclusion that Ann may have experienced a reduced social status according to the interaction of her age, gender, marital status, class and compromised bodily state. A poor older woman with physical infirmities and no husband, Purvis was certainly vulnerable, but she was also firmly held within networks of family and kin.


The archive of embodiment encompasses both the archaeological and historical record. It allows scholars from different disciplines to combine their methods to reconstruct the experiencing body as a material body and to interpret the material body as an experiencing body. In so doing, scholars are enabled to expose both the commonalities and conflicts between the data and our interpretation of these. This can produce new knowledge about the lived experiences of non-elite individuals in the past that would otherwise simply be inaccessible. The information generated through bioarchaeology is unrivalled. From the perspective of the history of the body it offers us ‘history from the inside’ (Robb et al, 2019: 29). Historical documents can provide incomparable evidence of quotidian social relationships, structures of thought and shared meanings. Combining the data and approaches of these two disciplines does not restore anything approaching a full account of the lives of men and women like James Simpson or Ann Purvis: as non-elite individuals, so much of their individual experience remains frustratingly out of reach. Nevertheless, bringing them together is the most productive way of accounting for all the many facets of the past that have comprised lived experience and the condition of being a thinking, feeling and embodied person.


Though this is a single-authored chapter, the work has also drawn on the research of Vanessa Campanacho, Diana Swales and Hannah Wallace, and the expert advice and guidance of Elizabeth Craig-Atkins.


1 This contrasts with a common characterisation of the two disciplines, in which historical written sources have been seen as the more reliable for meaning, but it accords with the traditional view of archaeology as struggling to sustain analyses of social and spiritual life. See John Moreland, Archaeology and Text (2001), p. 13.
2 ‘The Material Body: An Interdisciplinary Study in History and Archaeology’ (British Academy Small Grant SG151375; 2015–2018).
3 The gravestone was for four siblings, also for Sarah Ann and George (Dec. 1837). The inscription reads: Sacred/ to the memory/ of James the son of Robert/ and Rebecca Simpson/ who departed this life/ March 20th? 1834, aged 18 years./ Also William their/ son who departed this life/ April 8th 1834, aged 3 years/ Also Sarah Ann, their/ daughter who departed this life May 26th 1835?/ aged 1 year and 8 months/ Also of George Henry, their/ son who departed this life/ December 21st 1837 aged 1 year. From: www.findagrave.com/memorial/146601899/james-simpson (accessed 3 August 2023).
4 On George Henry see PR138-2-24; Yorkshire Burials, Find my Past. On Robert see PR-138-2-15; Yorkshire Burials, Find my Past.


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Wooler, F. (2016). ‘Educating the workers of Sheffield in the 18th and 19th centuries: St Luke's National School, Garden Street, Sheffield’, Industrial Archaeology Review, 38(1): 47–58.

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The material body

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


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