Broken Archaeologist: Disability in Australian Archaeology

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But you don’t look disabled…
I started out in 2002 with my Bachelor of Archaeology at Flinders University and went on a Study Abroad student exchange in 2003-2004. It soon became very apparent to everyone, especially me, I suffered more than just a simple to treat mental illness with medication complications. Second semester 2004 I left Flinders Uni, moved north to be closer to my family for support while I received a DX and took up an English degree with a 2.1 honours degree at UNE after completing my BA while I started my journey to recovery. I had a few friends to thank for that: first Megan at Flinders, Navjot, Jess and Danny & Sam at Wright Village, Paul, Laura, Walter, Jacqueline and Gabe for putting up with my crap. 

 In 2013, I was fortunate that I had the opportunity to take a Master of Archaeology degree again at Flinders University and I was excited to be studying at postgraduate level. However quickly I discovered I had a number of limitations the other students didn’t have (think along the lines I have a Goldilocks zone) and discovered I was best at theoretical subjects, with a particular interest in cultural heritage tourism, (and lately the arts and creative culture industries), dark sites, and science communication. My GPA ain’t all that bad now and I’m about a year off writing a thesis.

I also enrolled in my university’s career leadership programme, Horizons, which conducts workshops and events in helping postgraduate studies in gaining experience like me that I missed out on from not being experienced in the workforce. But it doesn’t stop me feeling broken when others are able to do field work and surveys or other nifty archaeological gigs building the networks and camaraderie while my conditions leave me sidelined when a little planning and I might have been included. Or rumour has it, my archaeology department policy leaves students with my type of condition unable to participate in fieldwork because of a misunderstanding of mental health conditions (I’m in the process of confirming this). 

After awhile I became apathetic and stopped being involved with my university’s student archaeology society and department because I got tired of explaining about my invisible injury because I couldn’t help with physical tasks like setting up at BBQ and being told how well I looked (we all know how well a person with an invisible illness is as they grimace and are expected to smile and say thanks. Thank you Garnier for making me a healthy shade of olive…). So I just stopped going to social events for shy of two years because I was honestly tired of sitting alone in a corner ignored because I had no field work gossip or explaining my conditions are both episodic and can go into remission at any time so I couldn’t plan for next year’s event in Queensland or I can’t legally dive because my head will explode. And the other students kept on kept on ignoring me and pretending I didn’t exist at club social functions. When your life is like  that, it was clear I was going to have to help myself as a socially isolated dis/Abled individual and create my own professional network which is comprised of researchers at the SA Museum, paranormal investigators who run dark history tours and ghost hunts, local artists and authors and urban exploration photographers. I don’t have friends but I am getting a network of colleagues. 


The realities of my life often mean I have to be up at 4 or 5am for my medications to work well enough for me to be functionally effective, to able to walk without searing pain and be able to use my hands’ fine motor skills some days. On good days, those rare other days, when I am in remission, I can and  could fly about campus like a bat out of hell, even can write with a normal pen. 

In 2014, I was lucky enough to interview Michael Mills of Heaps Good Productions for the Flinders Archaeology Society journal (Dig It) which is how I found myself on the journey of becoming a science  communicator. Mills was the 2014 joint winner of the SA Science Communicator’s Unsung Hero award for his work with various institutions as his alter ego, Mad Scottish palaeontologist, Professor Flint. I’ve been proudly on most of his Museum at Night tours at the SAM for the last two years and have it on good authority the giant squid is red because it eats strawberry cheesecake. 

Overall, my varying degree of dis/Abilities have lead me to believe that my best career option is freelance consultancy within a small group of like diverse individuals or on my own eventually. I started this blog when it was clear to me I didn’t fit neatly into a round hole as a square peg as neurodiverse individual who is still mastering the art of group think seen as I’m naturally unconventional which is a strength and weakness. I’ve developed an interest in science communication since I saw what Michael Mills has achieved and that’s advice I’d give to a dis/Abled archaeologist looking to be enabled. Find your mentors and role models through attending events and learning to network. 

I can regularly be found at events talking to the scientific researchers to improve my skills and presenting in public like at the SA Museum’s Night Lab event this year where I ran a messy display table on different substances ground across history from spelt to acorn flour a friend had handground. Connection with other people needs to be the core of what we do as enabled archaeologists and I’m working with historical reenactors on a best practices methodology in working with craft experts in experimental archaeology. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel and you don’t need a degree to take advantage of a master blacksmith, archer or potter.


This year I was lucky to be in a stage of remission so I could do a speech at “Meet the Archaeology Students” at National Archaeology Week and communicate what archaeology was to the general public among other students who were speaking on specialist subjects as an exercise on science communication. Archaeology is important but people need to understand what we actually do and why we need it as much as physics and getting to Mars. The interview with the Mars scientist is being written tomorrow- not in jest! 


Last year my condition was so painful I had to pull out of a TAFE writing course and my role at Dig It despite doing a book review in 2014 and interviewing an award winning science communicator for that year’s published issue. There’s times it is okay to say “I can’t do this.” But I encourage you to do it sooner than later so reputations and credibility can be salvaged as I’ve learned the hard way. 

 In 2016, a few things have turned around for me. I’m writing two chapters in academic journals, the first on gender in popular culture in archaeology & science fiction. My holiday project is with the groups of reenactors I’m working on a paper on establishing a working relationship with experimental archaeologists and the second is still in a quick and dirty proposal I need to flesh out tomorrow based on my lived experience with PTSD and the story narrative as female victim as redeemer subverted by MCU’s Jessica Jones.

Another opportunity to appear since I went my own way, was the unrevised version of this post attracted the group I am part of now – an online support group of international archaeologists who are also dis/Abled and through crowd sourcing solutions, we are creating solutions and answers to the problems we face as diverse individuals in the profession across the world; one such incident was what kind of wheel chairs were suitable for excavation and field work in Australia’s rough terrain but still affordable. A small number of members are starting a foundation to employ enabled and diverse archaeologists like us in London very soon. So I encourage other dis/Abled students to reach out and communicate with each other, social media is a tool create change and be that change by leading it. Reach out and talk to the people around you that could use education on dis/Ability – I’ll be visiting my department to talk to them about my type of condition next week.  

And of course there’s being proactive about something you are passionate abou, like this blog I created and it’s sister Facebook page I curate daily. Right now, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing alongside my university studies in archaeology and tourism. The academic department at Flinders has been great at accommodating my unusual situation but it hasn’t been that way with the other students and being due/Abled has certainly been an isolating experience at times which is why I threw myself into this blog and my own personal research and published material . 

Sadly at a recent Archaeology Society  trivia event, this didn’t happen. I actually felt like I was ready again to try to be part of the club and participate, definitely, hoping ? maybe ? I could be included without explaining my limits since trivia is supposed to be fun and fully enjoy the event as a paid member.

 Instead, I discovered the situation had not improved since 2013/4 and I sat alone by myself for a hour & a half  in the uni bar with no one to talk to me. It was a long time. Then I was landed on a random table named “Mixed” for the trivia night with complete strangers. Nothing makes you feel more alone than to be lonely in a crowd of cliques where you are the freak and the others don’t understand you. To be honest my self esteem is low right now and I have to keep telling myself I’m not a taco and can’t please everyone. I even reenacted Indiana Jones boulder scene when me as a nazi.

 The trivia night just reinforced an earlier email in the year about a debate they wanted to hold with the palaeontology department. They say to effect a culture change in a group, lead it and be that change. So I put my hand up and volunteered to co-chair the debate with a palaeontology volunteer so I wasn’t taking away a position from a “legitimate student” but the the current leadership sent me an email explaining I’m not really welcome at an event as a participating member -chairs don’t judge or do anything but announce if you prefer tea duelling. If you as an enabled student find yourself in this position, there are plenty of friendly clubs on campus that are just crying out for volunteers. Go join one of them! 
This sadly isn’t an uncommon experience for dis/Abled students, so I’m voting with my money and feet by finding places that appreciate my membership like the Australian Science Communicators Network who have room for postgraduates among their membership base with diverse backgrounds.As for professional affiliation and development, don’t be tricked into seeing the student club as your only option.  

I’ll happily rejoin the Australian Archaeology Association in 2017 as an student member. But here’s a hint for other dis/Abled and diverse students, when you are not treated as a full member of a club and what they allow you to participate is conditional on their understanding of your limitations and not your capabilities unless it is for WHS reasons, I suggest you don’t let that stop you from doing archaeological, historical or voluntary activities that also improve your professional development. Join an archaeologically or historical adjacent group or one relevant to your specialisation. For me that’s the Science Communicators I discovered by accident! 

Enrol in a leadership programme or work ready unit and gain extra skills, try give a public speech or join toastmasters to improve your presentation style, heck start a blog where you spend a month watching burlesque as a way of accepting that you are in need of body acceptance because disability makes you feel disgusting in your own skin, you could become a tour guide for a cemetery. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination, budget, location and your ability to convince the right people around you that you aren’t broken, you can still contribute a lot more than they can imagine  and  you have a right to participate as much as any other individual. 

Disabled archaeologists and part-time post grad students often get the worst of human behaviour because we aren’t often perceived as belonging anywhere in our own departments, let alone a club or on a field school. We are there at uni longer but don’t develop the same relationships as peer cohorts that move through classes together. Sometimes individual limits and often changing health conditions often mean we can’t live up to the same accessible teaching components such field schools, surveys. Or social events like pub crawls that can be physically demanding and medications mean unable to drink alcohol and pub crawls can be hell on your knees. 

Then there is peer acceptance, the research students don’t socialise with you because you do not have access to the same office or postgraduate resources as they do where they get to know each other from three years locked in an office doing a phD or research master’s degree. You are alone in a system where you are already different from the average archaeology postgrad and that can hurt a lot. Robert M Chapple talks about mental illness in particular at: http://rmchapple.blogspot.com.au/2013/09/the-four-and-half-inch-pointing-trowel.html

The U.K. has created a system to accomodate disabled archaeology students and one of the things it discovered is that we are under pressure to be macho as archaeologists and hide our invisible limitations. I wish personally I’d been told disclosure wasn’t necessary at a young age and to shut up about my conditions. An interesting blog about this is found at: https://dougsarchaeology.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/professional-archaeology-disability-friendly/

But my answer today as as a perceived  broken archaeology student at this time is no. If you can hide it without detrimentally hurting yourself, on the advice of my disability officer, you can’t expect the other students to understand especially if there is an intergenerational and/or cultural gap. The Flinders archaeology department who did need to know are fantastic at helping me accomplish my aims and are doing what they can to include me and being very inventive about my situation. Yet the response of the the archaeology club at my university which is something I hope to change in the near future, isn’t inclusive at all. I suggest you find other activities, societies and organisations to volunteer for that will appreciate you and include you. 

And do check out the careers office for work experience opportunities and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there for what seems impossible because you don’t know who is watching and might note you down as a future contender. I was invited to speak at the state parliament twice this week as part of my hokey little blog and the Enabled group found me, their first Aussie member.
Clara Rose Santilli 

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Author: lonelyarchaeologist

I'm an archaeology grad student with an interest in gothic archaeology, tragedy tourism and dark sites. Most of my friends don't appreciate my interests so I've taken it into my own hands and I'm going I've established this blog to chronicle my solo adventures and hopefully give you a look behind the scenes at cultural heritage and the local arts.

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