Image of group of people on the beach at Sandwich Bay, Kent.
Guided walk of fishtraps and wrecks at Sandwich Bay, Kent in March 2020 © CITiZAN
Guided walk of fishtraps and wrecks at Sandwich Bay, Kent in March 2020 © CITiZAN

From Foreshore to Armchair

By Lara Band, Lead Archaeologist, CITiZAN’s East Kent Coast Discovery Programme

CITiZAN, the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network, is a National Lottery Heritage Fund supported community archaeology project. Within our six Discovery Programme areas we work with volunteers to record the rich archaeology of England’s coast and estuaries, to mitigate climate change effects and monitor coastal change.

By March each year we’re out on site. We’ve planned the majority of our fieldwork, training and workshops for the year. Volunteers have started to sign up and we’re looking forward to spending the rest of the season on the foreshore with them.

On Saturday 14 March this year the East Kent Coast Discovery Programme finished a week at Sandwich Bay. We’d been collaborating with the Nautical Archaeology Society to record wrecks and fish traps with our volunteers. It was the last day of a residential week in relative isolation: intermittent wi-fi, only snippets of news. We’d been handwashing diligently and practising elbow and foot bumps instead of handshakes and hugs. For us, and CITiZAN more widely, it still seemed possible we’d be on the foreshore over spring and summer.

Ten days later the UK was in lockdown. We discussed suspending CITiZAN but, not wanting to lose the momentum and the support we’ve worked so hard to build up, decided to expand our digital offering instead. Since then we’ve redesigned existing outputs, using both known and new digital formats, and explored whole new paths for engagement.

Our Low Tide Trails, guided walks providing archaeological diversions from the England Coast Path, have become threaded Tweets with a sense of a reveal such as for Flamborough Head, Yorkshire, or ESRI StoryMaps exploring sites spatially as for Ramsgate, Kent.

A walking workshop from Bantham Beach, Devon was recreated using ThingLink. Through being co-created with volunteers, a Tiki-Toki timeline for Mersea Island, Essex is exploring new possibilities for collaboration.

Our annual conference has always been accessible on YouTube. We’ve also started a series of webinars: the first featured Peter Murphy on Medmerry, West Sussex. And we’ve contributed to CovED Talks: NAS Weekly Webcast.

For the younger archaeologists out there, there’s Crafting with CITiZAN and we’ve joined the international Skype a Scientist initiative. We’ve also been running What is it Wednesday, a quiz that helps people identify archaeological features on the foreshore.

The South Devon Rivers Discovery Programme (SDR) archaeology round for a weekly virtual village pub quiz has been really successful. The local community are now talking of re-forming the local history society, inactive since 2006, and 10% have signed up for the SDR newsletter.

Continuing support for our current volunteers, Mersea Island Discovery Programme has set up an online reading group posting articles and questions for debate. We’ve launched Armchair Archaeology, inspired by Historic England’s Enriching the List, to help existing and new volunteers carry out online desk based research. We’ve also been sharing links to fantastic resources such as the CBA Archaeology Resources Hub, Dig School and Historic England webinars with our contacts.

For a project built around fieldwork with volunteers we‘ve adapted quickly. Ongoing evaluation of web statistics and user experience continues to guide what we offer.

When and how lockdown ends, and what it will mean for the way we work remains to be seen. We’re in a luckier position than many as most of our work is outside where social distancing will be easier, though it may be challenging communicating on a windy foreshore.

Coronavirus has given CITiZAN, and the heritage sector as a whole, unexpected opportunities to explore new digital platforms and tools, to expand on what we deliver, the ways in which we collaborate with colleagues and volunteers and how we disseminate research and engage with new audiences.

But the expansion of digital resources in these times across the heritage sector also presents a challenge. A DCMS policy paper from 2019 found a strong correlation between digital exclusion and cultural exclusion. The current situation has exacerbated the digital divide and a recent report by the BBC highlights its severity.

A synthesis of research into the digital divide, digital exclusion and the heritage sector with recommendations for mitigating digital exclusion and for the co-creation of digital resources would be of huge benefit across the heritage sector as we head into the new, unknown, normal.

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Editor's note: Information correct at time of original publication. The 'Enriching the List' project has since become the Missing Pieces Project. Find out more.