How community digs can inspire the next generation of archaeologists

Related Articles

Related Articles

The saying goes the past should be left in the past, but not of course when it comes to archaeology. In fact, if recent figures are anything to go by, it seems many of us can’t get enough of the past influencing our present – over 70% of adults visited a historic site in England within the last year.

Membership of the two largest voluntary heritage organisations in the UK has also increased significantly in the last ten years – this is despite the recession. National Trust membership is up by 8% with 4.3m members, and English Heritage is up by 10%, with 932,000 heritage enthusiasts now on its books.

Hands-on experience has been key to this growth, and the Heritage Lottery Fund has been a big driver in encouraging members of the public to participate in the survey, excavation and research of their own past. Between its founding in 1994 and 2010 the fund awarded £144m to more than 850 projects that focused on archaeology. And of these 550 were community archaeology projects.

 

These are projects like “Revealing Oldknow’s Legacy” which aims to conserve the Stockport-based Georgian industrial pioneer Samuel Oldknow through the remains of his cotton mill and lime kilns. Or the “Thames Discovery Project”, which since 2008, has been training volunteers in the recording of archaeological features and artefacts at low tide on the Thames foreshore.

Supported projects also help to communicate the value of archaeology in understanding the past – such as CITiZAN, which is training members of the public to record coastal archaeology before it is lost. This is alongside projects that help to improve archaeological sites, like Roman Maryport, where excavation and survey has uncovered and helped preserve a huge Roman settlement. And the Vindolanda, arguably Britain’s best explored and interpreted Roman fort along Hadrian’s wall.

And then there are those projects that save local historic buildings like Finchingfield Guildhall in Essex and Stotfold Watermill on the River Ivel in Bedfordshire.

Future finds

It seems strange then that all this excitement about the past is happening at a time when in the educational world, archaeology seems to be falling out of favour – with the exam board AQA recently announcing they will be dropping the subject. This has led to a campaign to save A-level archaeology, and which was recently debated in parliament.

But while it may be tempting to view the campaign to save the archaeology A-level as the reaction of a small, educated, middle-class elite, devoted to a hobbyist past-time, this is simply not the case.

Yes, only around 300 students took the full A-Level in archaeology and just 600 the AS Level archaeology course in 2016. And yes, the archaeology profession only employs around 5,500 people in the UK. But the reach of archaeology goes much wider than that.

Archaeology challenges many of the more traditional approaches to the past by focusing on a bottom up approach. This helps to spread involvement across all sectors of society. And can be seen in the numbers of people involved in volunteer and community-run dig sites all across the country.

‘I dig therefore I am’

One strand of the Dig Greater Manchester community archaeology project run by the Centre for Applied Archaeology at Salford University between 2011 and 2016, was the “I Dig therefore I am” research. Undertaken with my colleague Sharon Coen, the research explored the role played by volunteers participating in community-based archaeological projects in developing and constructing place-identity and attachment.

Our research showed that the project enriched volunteers not only at a personal level, but also at a social one. This was because the archaeological activities gave them the opportunity to make new friendships – with people they wouldn’t ordinarily meet – as well as encouraging them to engage with their community.

And Historic England estimates that such volunteers contribute significantly to research on archaeology and heritage. Between 2011 and 2016 around 12,000 volunteer projects contributed over 20,000 research outputs towards understanding a shared past, representing a huge well of citizen science expertise.

The excitement of discovery

In 1985 a report by the Council for British Archaeology showed there were around 100,000 archaeology volunteers spread across roughly 450 societies. In 2010 this had grown to around 215,000 volunteers who, annually, undertook archaeological work across roughly 2,030 organised groups.

While excavation is the most common activity of these groups, they also attend talks or lectures, lobby on heritage issues, undertake landscape field walks and record finds through photography.

But of course, archaeology is not all about excavation. The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Surveyfor example is an entirely volunteer-led community project, and is the first large-scale study of early graffiti in the UK.

The images and writing that are being revealed are changing our understanding of the way we look at medieval church heritage and the everyday life of the people who used these buildings. And it shows that some of our modern graffiti artists are not quite as rude or wry as these medieval voices of the past.

Written by Michael Dafydd Nevell

Head of Archaeology, University of Salford

The Conversation

The Conversation

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Pace of Prehistoric Human Innovation Could be Revealed by ‘Linguistic Thermometer’

Multi-disciplinary researchers at The University of Manchester have helped develop a powerful physics-based tool to map the pace of language development and human innovation over thousands of years - even stretching into pre-history before records were kept.

Study Sheds New Light on the Behaviour of the Giant Carnivorous Dinosaur Spinosaurus

New research from Queen Mary University of London and the University of Maryland, has reignited the debate around the behaviour of the giant dinosaur Spinosaurus.

New Skull of Tube-Crested Dinosaur Reveals Evolution of Bizarre Crest

The first new skull of a rare species of the dinosaur Parasaurolophus (recognized by the large hollow tube that grows on its head) discovered in 97 years.

Women Influenced Coevolution of Dogs and Humans

In a cross-cultural analysis, Washington State University researchers found several factors may have played a role in building the mutually beneficial relationship between humans and dogs, including temperature, hunting and surprisingly - gender.

Dinosaur Embryo Helps Crack Baby Tyrannosaur Mystery

They are among the largest predators ever to walk the Earth, but experts have discovered that some baby tyrannosaurs were only the size of a Border Collie dog when they took their first steps.

First People to Enter the Americas Likely Did so With Their Dogs

The first people to settle in the Americas likely brought their own canine companions with them, according to new research which sheds more light on the origin of dogs.

Climate Change in Antiquity: Mass Emigration Due to Water Scarcity

The absence of monsoon rains at the source of the Nile was the cause of migrations and the demise of entire settlements in the late Roman province of Egypt.

Archaeologists Discover Bas-Relief of Golden Eagle at Aztec Templo Mayor

A team of archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) have announced the discovery of a bas-relief depicting an American golden eagle (aquila chrysaetos canadensis).

Popular stories

Exploring the Stonehenge Landscape

The Stonehenge Landscape contains over 400 ancient sites, that includes burial mounds known as barrows, Woodhenge, the Durrington Walls, the Stonehenge Cursus, the Avenue, and surrounds the monument of Stonehenge which is managed by English Heritage.

The Iron Age Tribes of Britain

The British Iron Age is a conventional name to describe the independent Iron Age cultures that inhabited the mainland and smaller islands of present-day Britain.

The Roman Conquest of Wales

The conquest of Wales began in either AD 47 or 48, following the landing of Roman forces in Britannia sent by Emperor Claudius in AD 43.

Vallum Antonini – The Antonine Wall

The Antonine Wall (Vallum Antonini) was a defensive wall built by the Romans in present-day Scotland, that ran for 39 miles between the Firth of Forth, and the Firth of Clyde (west of Edinburgh along the central belt).