Archaeology and Dementia

Romans at Home artefact handling session

When we designed the multisensorial archaeological outreach project, Romans at Home, we weren’t sure how it was going to go. We wanted to reach out to people living with dementia in care homes. In the summer of 2021, they were still relatively isolated for COVID precautions–a couple of kilometres away, but effectively off limits. This isolation has been disastrous for many people, but especially difficult and even fatal for this extremely vulnerable population, with lockdowns increasing memory loss, agitation and loneliness. At the same time, archaeologists are increasingly interested in archaeology performed in service to public benefit and wellbeing.

Romans at Home was primarily designed by the extraordinarily gifted Eleanor Drew, a recent Digital Heritage MSc at the University of York and in partnership with York Archaeological Trust. It draws on immersive multisensorial storytelling and interpretation developed as part of OTHER EYES, my UKRI-AHRC funded project. Chris Tuckley at YAT did a stellar job setting the scene and deploying non-threatening and creative prompts to help participants think about the artifacts. The project has been featured as an Open Research case study and we hope to further develop it and publish in due time.

But more importantly: I was struck, watching the elderly woman turn over that distinctive glossy orange-red piece of Roman terra sigillata in her hands, that this was the best use of archaeological artifacts that I’d ever witnessed. Sure, dig them up, wash them, catalogue them, put them on shelves and publish them in books–but this was the most alive these artifacts could be, under the scrutiny of a very cheerful woman with bright pink nails. As something connecting her to us, to others.

Ceramic bowl containing flints (© The Photographic Unit, University of Glasgow).

So it was with great interest that I read Nyree Finlay’s article, An archaeology of dementia, recently published in Antiquity. Finlay examines and compares the assemblage of a woman who’d been an artist and a keen avocational archaeologist who is currently living with dementia. This woman is named within the Antiquity article, to recognise her as “the originator of these creative works” in accordance with ethical approval at the University of Glasgow. This is interesting as the woman would generally be held strictly anonymous as a member of a vulnerable population and it is very tricky. Ultimately I agree with the disclosure of her identity in the article, as it is an intimate celebration of her ability and interests and I am confident in the sensitive handling of this subject with her and her guardians. Yet I’m going to keep her anonymous within this other context, a blog post, a circumstance that was not covered by the ethical approval.

Finlay notes this woman’s “extensive, systematic fieldwalking and landscape surveys” performed with friends during research and her work at a local museum. She was self-taught, and recorded artifacts she found by looking at regional publications and discussing typologies with specialists, including Finlay. This previous assemblage is compared with a later assemblage, which includes flint pebbles collected from her gravel drive, artifacts that occupy a difficult position within archaeology in that they are surely modified by humans but are considered incidental and generally not worthy of notice. But this woman living with dementia noticed them for various sensorial aspects, shape and color, and comprise, as Finlay states, “a collection of distinctive, creative dementia works and lithic assemblages.” The woman collected these in different but adjacent ways to her previous, systematic collection of artifacts. They offered this woman “tactile and audible pleasures” in the act of sorting and processing and the woman noted the coolness and smoothness of flint as an important feature, as Finlay states, “stone becomes both a comfort and companion as dementia progresses.”

This article is brilliant–very useful to archaeologists who seek to broaden our understanding of how people relate to material objects and how they shape our lives. We still rarely consider the impact of dementia or other disabilities in our consideration of archaeological remains. But moreso, I found the article deeply beautiful and melancholy. The woman’s connection to stone and to the everyday actions of archaeology changed as she aged and went through more advanced dementia, but persisted. I should not find it melancholy, as her connection and use of the gravel was agentive, creative and important to her, but…I do. It sits with me.

Finlay’s article is Open Access, and I highly encourage a read:

Finlay, N. (2022). An archaeology of dementia. Antiquity, 96(386), 422–435. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.186

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

3 thoughts on “Archaeology and Dementia”

  1. This is one of the most interesting and unusual studies that I came across. I don’t have dementia, and I no longer practice archaeology either, but the tactile pleasure of holding smooth chert in your hand never goes away.

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