Past Lifeways and Deathways of the Disabled in 14th-18th Century Central Europe


Why disability matters?

There are currently between 785-975 million people (~ 20%) with disabilities worldwide. In the European Union, around 14% of the population aged 15-64 is registered as disabled. This indicates that the disabled are a significant part of the worldwide society.

Within the academic realm, disability studies aim to raise awareness and ensure the human rights of disabled people. While research has widened our understanding of contemporary disability, the lifeways and deathways of the disabled in the past is still little known. Disabilities are a critical element of the reconstruction of the past because conflict, punishment, accidents, diseases, inherited disorders and limited medical knowledge would have contributed to a significant number of physical impairments in the past.

Socio-cultural aspects of disability

Project's logo

Project’s logo

The three-year research project, whose acronym is ‘DIS-ABLED’, aims to reconstruct the lifeways and deathways of the disabled in 14th-18th century Central Europe. Archival research indicates that Central Europe offers unique and rich data in terms of archaeological, osteological, and textual materials for research on disability. The materials provide a rare look at particularly interesting socio-cultural aspects of disability.  

The project specifically explores these questions:

  • Are the same diseases and conditions defined as disabilities in the past so defined now?
  • How did people define disability and which afflictions were perceived as disabilities?
  • How were the disabled treated in their societies?
  • Did disabilities influence the manner of burial, e.g. atypical burials

This is the first interdisciplinary research project on disability in Central Europe. The answers to the above questions are found through the detailed study of skeletons and integration of these data with an extensive literature review on health, disease and disability. The project encompasses four fields: bioarchaeology, archaeology, history and ethnography. This approach embeds the project in the biohumanities which advocate a complementary and interdisciplinary approach connecting social studies and humanities with biology to study phenomena like disability.

The international project is based at the University of Liverpool in partnership with Arizona State University and Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland. The project is led by Dr Magdalena Matczak in collaboration with Dr Jessica Pearson, Professor Jane Buikstra and Professor Andrzej Marek Wyrwa.

Archival research

Heritage and social awareness of disability


The project uncovers the heritage of disabled people from Central Europe that is part of European and global heritage. This project aims to raise awareness of the disableds’ history and show that the disabled are a significant part of society by means of:

  • Websites
  • Seminars
  • Local communities and schools


All relevant output associated with the project is listed here. 




Matczak M. D., Buikstra J. E., Wyrwa A. M., Pearson J. (2022). “The Problem of Assessing Intervertebral Disc Disease as Impairment and Disability in Bioarchaeology. The Case of a Male Individual from the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period in Łekno, Poland”. Forum Kritische Archäologie 11, 167–194.

Matczak M. D.Krenz-Niedbała M.Łukasik S.Buikstra J. E.Wyrwa A. M.Pearson J. (2022). “Skeletal dysplasia of an adult male from medieval Łekno in Poland, Central EuropeInternational Journal of Osteoarchaeology 32(6), 1300-1309.

Matczak M. D., Buikstra J. E., Pearson J., Wyrwa A. M. (2020). “Bioarcheologia niepełnosprawności [The Bioarchaeology of Disability]”, Teksty Drugie 2, 158-174.

Matczak M. D., Buikstra J. E., Pearson J. Wyrwa A. M. (2019). “Bioarcheologia niepełnosprawności: przegląd obecnych badań i perspektywy na przyszłość [The bioarcheology of disability: review of current research and prospects for the future]“, Museion Poloniae Maioris 6, 35-57.

Popular science articles:

Matczak M. D. (2021). “Jak traktowano osoby niepełnosprawne w przeszłości?”, Archeologia Żywa 3(81), 48-53.



Invited Research Talks: 

  • International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, UK, 4-7 July 2022, paper with A. M. Wyrwa, J. E. Buikstra, J. Pearson: The Borders of Disability and Ability, Ill-health and Health in Medieval Poland
  • Poznań Young Researchers’ Archaeology Conference, Poznań, Poland, 17 November 2021, paper: Lifeways and deathways of the disabled people in medieval and early modern period in Poland

Conference Papers: 

  • 7th Portuguese Conference on Paleopathology, Portugal, 24-25 September 2021, paper with M. Krenz-Niedbała, S. Łukasik, J. E. Buikstra, A. M. Wyrwa, J. Pearson: Skeletal dysplasia diagnosed as achondroplastic dwarfism in an adult male from the 14th-16th century in Łekno, Poland
  • Funeralia Gnieźnieńskie, Gniezno, Poland, 21 September 2021, paper with A. M. Wyrwa, M. Krenz-Niedbała, S. Łukasik, J. E. Buikstra, J. Pearson: Osteobiografia mężczyzny z karłowatością achondroplastyczną w XIV-XVI wieku w Łeknie
  • British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, Teesside University, UK, 17 September 2021, paper with J. E. Buikstra, A. M. Wyrwa, J. Pearson, M. Krenz-Niedbała, S. Łukasik: Advanced degenerative spinal disease as impairment and disability in adult female from early modern period in Łekno, Poland
  • European Association of Archaeologists, Kiel, Germany, 11 September 2021, paper with J. E. Buikstra, J. Pearson, A. M. Wyrwa, M. Krenz-Niedbała: Advanced degenerative joint disease as a disability in the 14th-18th century in Łekno, Poland
  • Social History Society Conference, UK, 29 June 2021, paper with Andrzej Marek Wyrwa, Jane E. Buikstra, Jessica Pearson: Disability and impairment in the Middle Ages in Poland
  • Post-Medieval Archaeology Conference, UK, 28-30 May 2021, paper with Jane E. Buikstra, Jessica Pearson, Andrzej Marek Wyrwa, Marta Krenz-Niedbała, Sylwia Łukasik: Osteobiography of a male with achondroplastic dwarfism in the 14th-16th century in Łekno, Poland


  • Center for Bioarchaeological Research at Arizona State University, 2 May 2019, paper: Past Lifeways and Deathways of the Disabled in 14th-18th Century Central Europe

Public outreach

I give popular scientific lectures for high school pupils: 

  • a lecture about bioarchaeology, diseases, and disabilities in the Middle Ages at the 3rd High School in Poznań (Poland) on 29 of November 2018.

I presented bioarchaeological research to adults, teenagers and children during Arizona State University Open Door Day on 23 of February 2019. 

Project in media


Radio interviews:

University media:


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme within Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions under grant agreement No 796917.


More information

You can follow updates on the project’s Facebook page.


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