The Archaeology of Disability: An Interview with Alexandra Morris

Alexandra Morris and I have known each other for about 5 years now. We met when I was about a semester or two into my Master’s program at Hunter College. We became friends over siding bone fragments in the osteology lab and cried of frustration into dusty boxes of broken phalanges. Alexandra had already received a Bachelor’s in Archaeology and completed a Master’s in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations (Egyptology) from the University of Pennsylvania. As I got to know her and her research, I was fascinated by a subject that I hadn’t come across before. Alexandra was interested in learning more about representations of disability in the archaeological record and the lives of disabled people in the past. She went on to earn a Master’s in Museum Studies from NYU and is currently in the UK working on her Ph.D. I’m so grateful that she managed to find time to answer a few of my questions about herself and her research for the blog!

*Please note that some responses have been edited or abbreviated for the blog post, but none of the responses have been altered to distort Alexandra’s meaning or context. 

RSA: Tell me about your research.

AM: For my Doctorate, I am researching disability in the Hellenistic/Ptolemaic World (time period immediately following the death of Alexander the Great/the conquest of Egypt by Alexander, circa 330-30 BCE). The aim of my research is to examine the lives of the disabled of the ancient past, particularly during the Hellenistic Period, and to share this research. I am using an interdisciplinary historical & disability studies approach.

My secondary and tertiary research aims are:

A) to determine whether the mixing of cultures during this period impacted the treatment of the disabled

B) how to possibly make the material I’m discovering accessible to a larger museum audience.

I chose to focus on this time period specifically because 1) there has been limited research on it so far and 2) given my prior research background in both Egyptology and Classics, from which I know there were slightly different attitudes towards disability, I thought it would be interesting to see what, if any, societal changes resulted from the convergence of these two cultures with different worldviews.

Tell me more about your prior research!

    From my prior research on ancient Egypt, it seems that society was integrated, tolerant, and understanding of disability. As seen in artwork, textual, and skeletal evidence, the disabled were employed in jobs they could work, married, had children, and were buried in tombs in locations that were considered important by societal standards. Some disabled also held high-level societal positions such as pharaohs or members of the royal family or were members of the nobility class. The research done by myself and others on Ancient Greece seems to indicate two separate but distinct classes of disability occurred- that of the congenitally disabled and that of the war-wounded/ occupational-related disability. Societal treatment of disability seems to have been more mixed, with it also varying by city-state/geographical location

…I have personally been surprised by how much I’ve found that has been sitting in plain sight, often on display in major museums, but without the proper identification. My research has also shown me that many of these artifacts are not being recognized for what they are. This may be because a lot of the historical and museum world are able-bodied, so they don’t have the default understanding of disabled physicality that so many of us disabled people do, and we as a disabled community are still, unfortunately, an afterthought when it comes to things like hiring processes for the positions which help shape the historical narrative.

How did you get interested in anthropology?

Image of old 'Pyramids' book laying on a quilt
Image of Alexandra’s ‘Pyramids’ book provided by Alexandra Morris.

I have been interested in Egyptology for as long as I can remember. The book that honestly started it all for me was Pyramids: A First Discovery Book by Claude Delafosse and Phillip Biard.  For some reason, I was fixated on a particular set of pages that showed Howard Carter discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb, and my name for Howard Carter was “Mr. No-talking man.”

Alexandra's "Mummies" report. Image via Alexandra Morris
Alexandra’s “Mummies” report. Image via Alexandra Morris

I also as a child went around collecting “pretty rocks” and dead insects, and did not discover until late high school/early college that all the rocks I kept bringing home and annoying my parents with since I would often leave them in my pockets and they would go through the laundry were, in fact, artifacts. I was also the weird child that insisted on doing my first-grade book report on Mummies by Joyce Milton when most kids my age were reading stuff like Clifford the Big Red Dog.

 

When we had to create our own myth in third grade, I chose to do mine involving Greek gods. My parents finally gave in after my Mom took me to work with her one day in either third or fourth grade (she is a retired public-school teacher), and found me over in the corner of her classroom reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I also decided I wanted to be an Egyptologist the summer between fourth and fifth grade after reading Conversations with Mummies by Dr. Rosalie David. I have a very clear memory of sitting at the dining room table with my mom and paternal aunt, and announcing to them “I want to do that!” My Dad and paternal aunt took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time the following summer, and we spent the day in the Egyptian and Greek & Roman Galleries. I was also the annoying sixth-grader who got into arguments with my social studies teacher by telling her that what our textbook had on ancient Egypt was factually incorrect. She gave up after I came to class a couple of times with Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon biography as my independent reading. Basically, when I tell people I never outgrew my Egyptology phase, it’s true. 

How did you become interested in your research focus?

I first became interested in disability in the ancient world during my first graduate program. I have cerebral palsy, but never actually considered connecting or studying disability in the context of my research until then. Cerebral palsy had never been seen by anyone as a problem or issue before then. At the university’s museum, one of the mummies they had on display whose name, unfortunately, is unknown, was buried in a coffin with a walking stick, with their left leg being shorter than the other. This mummy was a middle-aged man who dates to the 5th dynasty (c. 2500 BCE, towards the end of the Egyptians building pyramids). He is believed to have had polio and had used the walking stick as a mobility aid. This man in addition to my own struggles at the time in getting my disability accommodated by the university acted as the catalyst for my shift in research interests.

Can you share an interesting narrative/ story/ epiphany that came from your research?

Something interesting that’s come from my research is all the places I’ve been. When I first started this, I never dreamt I’d be in any of those places. While I was in my first graduate program, besides completing my MA thesis, I worked independently on a theory I had on Alexander the Great and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). That research led me to present at conferences in South Dakota and Athens, Greece. The Athens conference ended up leading to my doctoral program in the United Kingdom. I’ve also gotten to present my research in Missouri and elsewhere in the United States, various places in England, and have kept doing presentations for the social studies classes in my former school district in New York where I grew up as well.

What are 2-3 ideas that you hope people get from your scholarship and research?

  1. The disabled are the biggest minority group in history, and it is high past time that we were rewritten back into the historical narrative. We deserve to see ourselves in history, know our own history, and this history can potentially help shape the disability rights movement.   
  2. Museums have so much potential to do more to connect with different communities, including the disability community, and make themselves more accessible for their audiences. The ability to learn about all minority histories, including disability history, can benefit society as a whole. 

What’s Next?

On June 29 at 8 AM BST/ 3 AM EDT, there will be a panel and discussion on both being a disabled scholar in ancient studies, and the lived experiences of disability in antiquity. To our knowledge, this is the first time ever a panel on this subject has been made entirely of disabled voices, and the first time disabled voices have been centered from the beginning, going all the way back to the planning process. Other fantastic panelists will include: Kyle Lewis Jordan (Postgraduate, University College of London, UK), Professor Isabel Ruffell (University of Glasgow, UK), David Chapman (PhD Candidate, Macquarie University, Australia), and Mason J. Shrader (MA Graduate, Texas Tech University, USA).

This is the link to register and attend: AWAWS Panel: Disability in Ancient World Studies

If you’d like to learn more about Alexandra and her work and research, check out the links below:

  • https://research.tees.ac.uk/en/persons/alexandra-morris-morris
  • https://tees.academia.edu/AlexandraMorris
  • https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandra-f-morris-914362a7/
  • https://www.disabilityhistory-ancientworld.com

Thank you so much Alexandra for your time and your work!

 

For more on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, click here