Aerial view of circular crop marks
Crop marks found by aerial photography, near Foxley Farm in Oxfordshire © Historic England
Crop marks found by aerial photography, near Foxley Farm in Oxfordshire © Historic England

Digging in Isolation

By Neil Redfern, Executive Director at the Council for British Archaeology

Archaeology is all about people, it is a very collective experience. Lockdown presents archaeology with a series of difficult challenges. It strikes at the heart of participatory activity and collective endeavour - planned digs are cancelled; archaeology groups can’t meet, including our own Young Archaeologist Clubs; projects are on hold; university study has become disconnected; the commercial sector is at a near standstill; archaeologists are on furlough; and self-employed pottery and finds specialist are out of work. The wider archaeological family has seen the closure of museums and archive centres.

For the CBA our challenge has been to keep our activities with the public live, engaging and manageable from home. This has two main elements: firstly, moving delivery online where possible and secondly, maintaining our presence as the lead organisation supporting public participation in archaeology. We have created an online archaeology resources hub with links to appeals for help, a huge range of digital learning and entertainment resources for all ages and the latest practical advice on Coronavirus for those engaged in archaeology.

A concern at present is that not all archaeological groups may survive this crisis and what would that mean for future public participation? Some YAC groups might struggle to find alternative free venues if museums or heritage sites shut permanently. As many groups are run by paid staff associated with heritage organisations, if these organisations fold or reduce staff numbers, it may result in the loss of key volunteers and the potential closure of branches.

One direct response has been to launch an online teaching platform ‘Dig School’ that guides teachers through the basics of archaeological investigation through a series of video workshops. Developed in partnership with Carenza Lewis, University of Lincoln, and Historic England it will run from April until July and is aimed at children still going to school and home-schoolers.

Our on-the-ground Festival of Archaeology have postponed events to October this year, with a week of digital activities now taking place in July. We are keen to use this to engage in different and more creative ways. The programme of events we are developing for July will be a great celebration of archaeology in lockdown and how people are using imaginative and creative ways to stay active such as our YAC branches who have gone virtual using the #YACatHome handle.

In the long-term we have real concerns about the impact on voluntary participation.

Many heritage organisations rely on older volunteers to welcome visitors and we don’t know if those older volunteers will be able or willing to return when visitor attractions reopen? We are also likely to see a much higher degree of youth unemployment. Therefore, the need to help people stay active, return to volunteering and to learn new skills will be critical. We need to maintain CBA’s capacity in youth engagement so that we can help young people thrive in the future. It will also help us contribute to the recovery of the wider voluntary sector and reconnect people.

Never has the CBA mission ‘Archaeology for All’ been more needed to boost participation and keep people active and engaged.

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