On Theorizing Vulnerability for Archaeology

Caroline Heitz, SNSF-PostDoc.Mobility Fellow and Associated Researcher at the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford, UK

You can find and download a PDF version of this Essay at the long-term archive Zenodo under the following DOI:



In this essay, I would like to redraw some of the insights that we had regarding concepts of vulnerability during the plenary discussions at the workshop ‘Theorizing Resilience and Vulnerability in Ancient Studies (TRAVAS)’. Far from giving a precise protocol of what was said, the following lines are what I compiled from my notes after rethinking and reconsidering what we had discussed. Our reflections revolved around three fundamental questions, which I will also raise in this essay – without the aim, however, of finding conclusive answers to them: What is vulnerability? Can vulnerability be discussed without touching on resilience? What conceptualizations of vulnerability could be useful for archaeological research?

Unlike resilience, vulnerability has so far barely been addressed in archaeology. Although both terms, sometimes understood as counter concepts, have been used since the late 1990s, vulnerability seems to have received less attention, in theoretical as well as empirical archaeological research. It might be due to the vagueness of the term, the difficulty of relating such an abstract concept to archaeological finds or that research on human success is preferred over research on human failure. While the reasons remain unclear without a sound analysis of the history of science in this respect, our discussion first addressed the fundamental question of our understanding of the term based on what we had learned during the workshop. There are seemingly endless ways to conceptualize vulnerability, of course. In the following, I paraphrase my current view in the form of a lively first sketch, which could be completed into a more complete, balanced picture in the future.

What is vulnerability?

In the midst of the second wave of the pandemic, which escalated to the third wave in January 2021 with new worrying variants of SARS-CoV-2 mutations, and after having already postponed the workshop from summer 2020, we were, unwillingly, in medias res. With the experience of our own societies being overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to gain some control over it, we shared a collective experience in which resilience and vulnerability were not only in daily public discourse at that time but could also be approached from a very personal perspective. Perhaps more than ever, but certainly to an unprecedented extent, we became aware of our vulnerability as we all tried to maintain our lives and well-being in the face of health risks, economic uncertainties and drastic restrictions on the freedom of movement, social contacts and cultural practices. It was a circumstance that threw many out of their set rhythms and off the familiar tracks of everyday life which, with their predictability, had provided a reassuring sense of security to some degree. Even if this seems to have been achieved with painful losses, a return to the initial state before the pandemic is hardly to be expected, neither on a personal nor on a social level. Rather, bouncing back seems to require embracing a new normality.

grayscale photo of man walking on tunnel
Fig 1: Empty streets and a warning message for people to protect themselves by staying at home due to the possibility of infection during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Lissabon, Portugal, in April 2020 (photo: Yohann Libot, unsplash).

Being aware of the temporality of such challenges, it becomes apparent that vulnerability is not the same as being wounded. While being wounded might be a temporary – sometimes fatal and thus definite – state, vulnerability is a permanent condition of all life. Being alive means being vulnerable as the continuation of life is likely to be threatened at any moment – by various threats and with varying degrees of probability. Accordingly, vulnerability addresses the ever-present possibility of becoming wounded or harmed, and this applies not only to humans but also to animals and plants and other forms of life.

Following the so-called new materialism approach, a contemporary field of inquiry in humanities and social sciences that adopts relational thinking, all living things are more than self-contained entities. The latter are only discerned, objectified or subjectivized as such for the sake of perception, orientation, identification and inquiry; they are material meaningful knots in the lines of life. Conceptualizing life as a process of the emerging and dissolving of material and non-material relationships, vulnerability concerns not only disparate subjects but social configurations and assemblages of practices far beyond one individual life. In such a framework, vulnerability does not only concern living organisms like humans, but also the whole way in which they are related to and enmeshed in this world, including non-living things. In a dynamic world of living organisms and lifeless non-organisms, where their forms of existence as well as their itineraries become intertwined with one another in an animated meshwork, it is the temporary stability of their assemblages that is constantly at risk of being threatened. The vulnerability lies in the possible destabilization of their continuity and hence their ability to carry on in their current form, to sustain. In other words, vulnerability concerns not only humans, but also forms of social configurations and cultural practices including, e.g. technical systems and entire landscapes of living and non-living things and their animated, intertwined, temporary coexistence.

In the framework of such a dynamic world, vulnerability is relational, situational and contextual and might concern different aspects of existence. For the purposes of this inquiry, it is helpful to heuristically distinguish and define the subjects to be studied as such, be it a machine, an organism, a set of relationships, a field of practices or a landscape. It would be too short-sighted to attribute one single vulnerability to each analytically defined entity. It is more helpful to conceptualize vulnerability as an ontological characteristic of all animated assemblages and then differentiate, describe and understand the multitude of their situational vulnerabilities. While vulnerability can be understood as something fundamentally given, it is the various vulnerabilities in their plurality that can be the subject of inquiry in different fields of research. In the practice of case study-oriented research, it is paramount to specify which analytically-determined entity under study is vulnerable in which of its aspects in what situation and relation and to ask: The vulnerabilities of whom, from what and in relation to what?

When it comes to studying humans and their social configurations, vulnerability is significant from two different perspectives: the perspective of the subjects involved in the challenges, who perceive themselves as being vulnerable and the perspective of the researcher, who is not involved in the challenges but identifies the vulnerabilities of the subjects under study. The two perspectives do not have to be congruent, although both are socially constructed. From a subject-involved perspective concerning the possible threats, perspective vulnerability is ontological in so far as the term refers to a basic experience: the awareness followed by judgement that one could be at risk or being threatened with harm by something or someone in a specific situation. This awareness might be accompanied by fearful feelings and the urge to seek protection. It should be emphasised that, while subjects might not be aware of their vulnerabilities, researchers still might identify some from their observers’ perspective, or vice versa. Furthermore, from an uninvolved perspective, some subjects might be more vulnerable than others in a specific context: for example, newly born babies are more vulnerable compared to adults to hypothermia in a cold snap, or fragile household pottery is more vulnerable than textiles to damage in an earthquake. However, there might be specific situations where the opposite turns out to be the case, where a teacup was luckily sheltered, and the curtain was ripped apart. This again shows that vulnerability is a concept that addresses the possibility of becoming wounded or harmed but woundedness and harm occur during respective, emerging, threatening situations, in which the variety of situational mutual influences leads to a certain unpredictability. Nevertheless, vulnerability seems to be strongly related primarily to the awareness and thus the predictability of the possibility of being wounded or harmed. And with the question of how vulnerability can be reduced, woundedness prevented or, if it has occurred, overcome, a need for a counter-concept seems to be inevitable. 

Can vulnerability be discussed without touching on resilience?

During the workshop discussion, it was difficult to discuss vulnerability without a counter-concept. The proper counter term to vulnerability would be invulnerability. However, its exclusive, absolute and finite connotation roots the latter rather into the realm of myth and shows the unsuitability of the term for a conceptualization in research. Vulnerability is a likely possibility; invulnerability is rather a fait accompli. We have discussed at some length whether resilience could be used as a counter-concept to vulnerability. Although both terms could in themselves be replaced by others with somewhat different connotations, such as ‘resonance’ instead of ‘resilience,’ they have something in common: they draw on fundamental aspects of experience, which can be considered not so much as opposite but as complementary: While vulnerability can be understood as the awareness and assumption of possible risks or threats that might harm a subject, resilience could be taken as the emerging potential and capability to cope in harmful situations of woundedness. The relation of both phenomena becomes apparent when one takes a further quality of human beings as a constitutional part of meshwork and assemblages into account: their ability to learn. Personally and socially shared experiences of repeated (similar) threats might lead to learning how to cope with them, to be protected from them or even to prevent them from happening. Accordingly, when studying the human past and present, resistance and resilience in terms of coping practices as well as the capability of preventing or reducing the harm that threats might cause are important to the research on mitigation and the reduction of risks and vulnerabilities – and thus one’s understanding of social transformations. 

When facing possible or emerging challenges or threats, being aware of one’s vulnerabilities might be a strength that reinforces a subject’s resilience and might enrich its agency in coping. Conversely, awareness of not being resilient could minimise vulnerability insofar as one does not allow oneself to get into a situation where one needs to be resilient in the first place. However, vulnerability is synonymous with weakness. Everyday risks, such as participation in road traffic and the associated threat of becoming involved in an accident can serve as an example. The awareness of the latter – and thus the associated vulnerabilities – shape social practices of preventing and coping, such as traffic rules and technological protection measures by means of transport and systems of emergency care. As a consequence, being aware of one’s possible vulnerabilities by experience and learning might lead to specific social practices of risk reduction, mitigation, resistance and resilience. Such social coping practices, as well as situational acting with foresight as such, might lead to an inner silencing of fearful feelings that otherwise are fuelled by the perceived uncertainty. Hence, vulnerability understood as the possibility of becoming wounded is not the exclusionary antithesis to resilience: subjects are not exclusively resilient or vulnerable in an emerging harmful situation, they are both to different degrees. Vulnerability is a likely possibility, resilience an emerging potential, capability and capacity. 

In conclusion, resilience and vulnerability are both temporarily, simultaneously and relationally emergent qualities. They are to be understood as gradual phenomena, rather than as absolute mutually exclusive states or outcomes. It therefore seems helpful to further examine and conceptualize the relationship of both in the future as well as their connectedness to uncertainty, certainty and safety and their temporality.

Ein Bild, das Wasser, Himmel, draußen, Natur enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung
Fig 2: Islands with conifers near Arendal, Norway, in March 2019, that are vulnerable to the destructive force of a tornado and the possibility of it making landfall (photo: Espen Bierud, unsplash).
Ein Bild, das draußen, Himmel, Natur, Hügel enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung
Fig. 3: A conifer growing on a rocky mountain top where it is particularly exposed to threats by tornadoes and thunderstorms and vulnerable to breaking or catching fire. Although it has lost one major branch and was damaged, it has recovered, is still alive and thus has so far been resilient against environmental threats, Olmsted Point, Yosemite Valley, United States, August 2018 (photo: Casey Horner, unsplash).

What conceptualizations of vulnerability could be appropriated for archaeology? 

Besides borrowing from neighbouring disciplines, an overarching conceptualization of vulnerability in archaeology, beyond using a brief definition of the term or using it in a metaphoric manner is, to our knowledge, still lacking. More theory-building needs to be done before we can propose one that might be useful beyond specific case studies. During the workshop, however, we discussed some aspects of a future conceptualisation that could have potential for operationalisation in archaeological research. Theoretical work from neighbouring disciplines such as sociology, social anthropology, human geography or risk management studies, which also address social configurations, way of life and living spaces using qualitative and quantitative methods, could serve as a starting point. The transfer of concepts, however, usually requires appropriation, archaeology-specific adaptations, additions and transformations, because the nature of the sources and the way in which data can be collected are somewhat different in all these disciplines. Concepts of vulnerability that particularly focus on the perception of the subjects and their perspectives seem to be less suitable, as their operationalisation requires the observation and interviewing of people. Theories that are situated in recent research perspectives, such as the spatial and the material turn, and which thus derive from disciplines like human geography, sociology or social anthropology might offer avenues in archaeology worthwhile to work on. Understanding that the primary sources of archaeological research are the material traces from the past that reach into the present, and that we as researchers recognize them as such and relate to them, materiality, temporality and spatiality might offer obvious starting points. In the following, I shall give a few short examples that could be used in future research to develop a proper methodology of vulnerability research in archaeology. 

Approaching subject-involved perspectives, the material traces of the perceived vulnerability – the possibility of becoming wounded and harmed – from the perspective of a settlement community might be means of protection, such as fences, ditches, walls or other fortifications installed around a place. Possible threats and dangers might be suspected in the ‘natural’ but also in the social and political landscapes in which the habitants of these places were enmeshed. Different forms of clothing – from shoes over vails to armour and weapons – might, among other things, indicate the sensitivity for and exposure to, and thus the need for protection from, threats such as unfavourable weather conditions, social marginalization and exclusion or physical violence. Assemblages of social practices for bodily hygiene but also rituals involving worship could be understood as attempts to reduce possible dangers evolving around illness or accidents. Many more examples could be suggested here. Taken as a starting point, such observations by archaeologists offer to examine practices of risk reduction and the relation between human and non-human in it. 

Studying the materiality of protection and prevention practices also bears the potential to examine the mutuality of relations in such enmeshments, networks, entanglements or assemblages of practices. Dependencies and power relations in them, as well as their transformation over time, offer further interesting ways to gain a deeper understanding of both: the possible threats and the subjects’ exposure to them as such, but also how they coped with them in the face of emerging challenging situations. Here, the archaeology of vulnerability and risk management would also touch upon the archaeology of resistance, resilience, resonance or collapse. Interestingly, by combining both fields of inquiry, archaeologists can approach the temporality of these phenomena and travel back and forth in past times. Here is what I mean by that: The material traces from the past reach into the present, i.e. the archaeological finds that we study in relation to vulnerability and resilience studies, might encompass both: the foresight and foreboding of the possible threat, the coping, the resistance or the wounding as it happened and the resilience and resonance after the eminent threat has passed. The archaeology of vulnerability might also include possible threats that never happened. It must also deal with the fact that such threats, which are obvious to external observers at a later date, could not have been foreseen by those affected. 

The theorizing of temporality here would certainly need more thought. But instead, I would like to elaborate briefly on the emic perspective of vulnerabilities and its potential for archaeology. Regarding specific fields of research, one could define a set of factors or criteria that enhance or reduce the vulnerability of the subject under study, which opens up quantitative methodological avenues of index calculation beside qualitative descriptions. Here, approaches for risk management research could offer interesting methodological solutions, such as the calculation of vulnerability indices or agent-based and predictive modelling that one could appropriate for archaeology. As a last thought, the archaeology of vulnerability also reaches into the future, as the vulnerability of archaeological sites in conflicts or regarding global warming can also be addressed.

Suggested readings

Antczak, K. A. & Beaudry, M. C. (2019). Assemblages of Practice. A Conceptual Framework for Exploring Human–Thing Relations in Archaeology. Archaeological Dialogues, 26(2), 87–110. 

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, London: Duke University Press. 

Christmann, G. B. & Ibert, O. (2012). Vulnerability and Resilience in a Socio-Spatial Perspective: A Social-Scientific Approach. Raumforschung und Raumordnung, 70(4), 259–272. 

Conolly, J. & Lane, P. J. (2018). Vulnerability, Risk, Resilience: An Introduction. World Archaeology, 50(4), 547–553. 

Daly, C. (2014). A Framework for Assessing the Vulnerability of Archaeological Sites to Climate Change: Theory, Development, and Application. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites, 16(3), 268–282. 

Fleisher, J. & Norman, N. (2016). Archaeologies of Anxiety: The Materiality of Anxiousness, Worry, and Fear. In J. Fleisher & N. Norman (Eds.), The Archaeology of Anxiety (pp. 1–20). New York: Springer New York.

Hodder, I. (2014). The Entanglements of Humans and Things: A Long-term View. New Literary History, 45(1), 19–36.

Ingold, T. (2011). Being Alive. Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London, New York: Routledge.

Jervis, B. (2019). Assemblage Thought and Archaeology. Abingdon, Oxon, New York: Routledge.

Knappett, C. (2011). Networks of Objects, Meshworks of Things. In T. Ingold (Ed.), Redrawing Anthropology. Materials, Movements, Lines (pp. 45–64). London: Routledge.

Etzold, B. & Sakdapolrak, P. (2016). Editorial to the Special Section “Geographies of Vulnerability and Resilience – Critical Explorations”. DIE ERDE. Journal of the Geographical Society of Berlin, 147(4), 230–233. 

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lucas, G. (2008). Time and Archaeological Event. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 18(1), 59–65. 

Lucas, G. (2017). Variations on a Theme: Assemblage Archaeology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 27(1), 187–190. 

Norris, F. H., Stevens, S. P., Pfefferbaum, B., Wyche, K. F., & Pfefferbaum, R. L. (2008). Community Resilience as a Metaphor, Theory, Set of Capacities, and Strategy for Disaster Readiness. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41(1–2), 127–150. 

O’Rourke, M. J. E. (2017). Archaeological Site Vulnerability Modelling: The Influence of High Impact Storm Events on Models of Shoreline Erosion in the Western Canadian Arctic. Open Archaeology, 3(1), 1–16. 

Riede, F. (Ed.) (2015). Past Vulnerability: Volcanic Eruptions and Human Vulnerability in Traditional Societies Past and Present. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.Wisner, B. (2016). Vulnerability as Concept, Model, Metric, and Tool. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Author Information:

Caroline Heitz: Caroline Heitz, SNSF-PostDoc.Mobility Fellow and Associated Researcher at the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford, UK

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