Fighting the Taboo of Menstruation on Archaeological Sites

In celebration of National Period Day, this blog celebrates the progress being made within the professional heritage environment, to provide clean and safe menstrual products for all.

My name is Erin, and I am a fourth year archaeology student at the University of Glasgow. As part of my practical experience over the summer, I completed a week-long field-school, designed to teach me the practical skills involved in archaeological fieldwork and surveying.

Whilst as part of my undergraduate degree, we have been taught and have discussed how our discipline has historically been male-dominated and centred around the perspectives of cis-men, I had never fully recognised this as affecting my own professional practice until I set out to do my field-work. It was in the field that I began to recognise just how few provisions are made for other groups, specifically when it comes to providing for menstruating individuals on archaeological dig sites, and how this impacts the way in which we can engage in these activities. The hygiene facilities on the site I was working on consisted of a portaloo, some hand sanitiser, and a sink which could only be accessed by walking through the food preparation area.

Thus, I began to research how universal this experience was, and I was shocked to find that so few people had spoken about this issue previously, and that access to basic hygienic facilities were rarely provided on site.

In my research, I came across one prominent voice who was discussing these concerns and how archaeology as a discipline and the heritage sector more broadly, can move forward to ensure that menstruating individuals have access to safe and clean facilities on site. In doing so, they argue that we ensure that individuals’ access to field or commercial work is not limited by biological processes which are out-with their control.

This was the voice of Archaeologist Amy Talbot- Amy is a heritage consultant within the renewable energy sector, who in 2019 created the ‘Seeing Red’ menstrual hygiene movement, after 7 years of experience of poor hygiene facilities on site. 1

Seeing Red: the menstrual hygiene movement in archaeology | Festival of  Archaeology
The Seeing Red Campaign Logo. Image sourced from-

The Seeing Red Campaign promotes the use of period packs, which provide the necessary products to ensure that the menstruating individual is kept comfortable and clean during their time on site. In addition to these sanitary product packs, the initiative fights for the provision of proper onsite facilities, with safe sanitary waste disposal options. Similar to my experience, typical facilities on an archaeological site include porta-potties- a facility which is generally poorly sanitised and geared towards cis men. 2 Very rarely are there adequate hand-washing facilities, with nowhere to dispose of period products.

A full PDF of the organisation’s aims can be found here- (2).pdf.

As part of their promotion of the scheme, Seeing Red have compiled testimony from various individuals, attesting to the struggles they face on site because of menstruation. One individual wrote that:

‘I know plenty of people who came on a period early and had to leave site due to lack of supplies, as well as many cases of tampons being thrown into hedges. Those who couldn’t practically use tampons suffered the most’ (LB). 3

Emily Graslie, a science educator at the field museum in Chicago has posted a YouTube video which discusses these issues, and which gives practical tips for how archaeologists handle periods when working on site or in remote locations:

For many, because of the lack of onsite facilities which would enable them to change and dispose of their sanitary products in a clean and safe way, this has limited menstruating individuals to have to rely on tampons to deal with their periods. Even in this situation, tampons are not a safe option because if there are no safe facilities in which to change or dispose of the tampon, then individuals are put at risk of toxic shock syndrome.

Thus, for many archaeological workers, they may feel that they have to take time off, especially around the time of menstruation. Thus, leading to a gendered pay imbalance because site facilities are not equipped to deal with their needs. 4 This shouldn’t have to be said, but a safe, clean space for people to go to the toilet should be a part of basic welfare provision on site.

Interestingly, the Seeing Red Campaign explores the reasons behind the lack of facilities for menstruating individuals. One reason that they argue is that there is a culture within the heritage sector of trying to hide your periods to fit in with macho field culture. Because archaeology has traditionally been a male-dominated field, individuals may fear that having their period may lead to them not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts.

In order to challenge this traditional male culture on site, Seeing Red argue for accessible facilities for all, which make menstruation easy and private for the individual. If an individual does not have anywhere to discreetly conceal or change their menstrual products, this can lead to massive problems for non-cis individuals who are menstruating. I think it is important here to recognise the language we use when speaking about this issue, as it is not only cis women who menstruate- it is important that we recognise that all menstruating individuals should have access to safe and clean facilities on site. It is not anyone else on the site’s business what the individual’s genitals are- you may have someone who is male presenting but still menstruating. By providing safe and private spaces to deal with menstrual hygiene, this keeps the process as confidential as it should be, and does not allow it to affect the individual’s work. 5

These issues are discussed in a Webinar, which was held by the campaign’s creator Amy Talbot, where she discusses the wider implications of these changes. The webinar can be accessed here:

The packs provided by the Seeing Red Campaign contain all the items that an individual could need on site, to get them through their period for that day. Not only do they help individuals to properly care for their menstrual hygiene on site, it also helps to tackle period poverty. There may be many reasons why an individual is unable to access safe period supplies prior to being on site, and thus by providing these packs, Seeing Red helps to make their experience of menstruation more dignified and safe.

Thus far, the Seeing Red Campaign has had uptake from: CFA, Historic England, Museum of London Archaeology, University of Edinburgh Archaeological society, Wessex Archaeology etc, but there is still many more organisations who should work to ensure that provision for menstruating individuals is part of their basic welfare provision on site. As a sector, archaeology and heritage organisations still have a long way to go to ensure provisions are made for all on site.



2- (2).pdf

3- (2).pdf

4- (2).pdf


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