Archaeology in East Oxford

Community Archaeology in England

Sorry there are no pictures in this post.  Check out the links where you will find plenty of good ones. On Wednesday 6th March we had an interesting day.  We attended a Conted course (title above) subtitled ‘Exploring Challenges in Research, Management and Participation’. Most of the participants worked professionally in archaeology or some other part of heritage and four were volunteers with the East Oxford archaeology and History Project (Archeox).

David Griffiths introduced the day by saying the theme of the morning was research strategies and outcomes.  Two things he mentioned stuck in my mind: how to make projects self-sustaining in the long-term and how to evaluate success.  He hoped the day would provide ideas towards providing answers to these problems.

The first talk was by Nathalie Cohen of the Thames Discovery Project .  It was fascinating and the project obviously deserved its CBA Best Community Archaeology Project last year.  Check out their website – they have done far more than I could describe here.  Their remit was to investigate the inter-tidal foreshore of the Thames throughout the whole of tidal  Greater London.  They have had 388 people out on the foreshore and have engaged 2000 through their excellent website.  Structures have been at the centre of their work since artefacts can only be collected by licensed ‘mudlarkers’.  Fishtraps are a good example and many new ones have been identified. It looks like they have a sold future with many groups emerging to undertake further projects.   Nathalie asked for feedback on the website so get checking!

The second talk was by one of Archeox’s own Project Officers, Olaf Bayer.  A friend of his, who worked for English Heritage, had identified some interesting crop marks in aerial photographs of an uninvestigated piece of Cranborne Chase at Damerham on the boundaries of Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire.  He wanted to establish a research project to see if there were remains on the ground and asked Olaf and others to help in their own time.  They decided (as they were all outsiders to the area) to involve locals.  One woman in particular, Robin, proved invaluable in getting others to help and in organising their time.  The landowners were also helpful.  The team surveyed the area of the crop marks and found clear evidence of ditches and a larger circular structure.  A long barrow was exactly where they expected and still shows clearly above the ground.  There was an anomaly showing in the barrow which they decided to dig.  Olaf hoped to find evidence of previous antiquarian investigation but actually the site proved to have been used as a chalk quarry.  The whole area in under deep ploughing so the investigation was timely.

A most perplexing response followed from some of the first participants to ask Olaf a question.  One woman asked why, when so many long barrows had already been dug, did they feel it necessary to dig another.  Was it just to give some digging experience to the volunteers?  I think I have given a clear outline of what Olaf said so I could not imagine why she asked this.  Olaf responded by repeating some points from his comments and pointed out (again) that the whole area is under heavy agricultural use and the sites were likely to disappear in the next few years.

The next presentation was extraordinary. Lesley Hardy talked about the Folkestone project.  As she told us, she is a social historian not an archaeologist and although there was much talk of  ‘the centrifugal pull of archaeology’ the actual part of the presentation covering the archaeology was skimmed over.  She seemed to have a somewhat patronising attitude towards volunteers which was reflected in the following discussion.

After some comments, Swii (another member of Archeox) spoke up.  Swii pointed out that she has two degrees in archaeology but was working as a volunteer on the project.  There was a distinct frisson when the assembled company realised VOLUNTEERS were present.  Swii went on to say that she would rather work with many of the volunteers on the project than many of the professionals she had encountered.  This rather put a damper on proceedings and we all went to lunch.

The published programme was slightly re-arranged for the afternoon.  The first speaker was Tara-Jane Sutcliffe who is the Co-ordinator of the CBA Community Archaeology Training Placement Scheme.  Tara-Jane directed us to some general information about the CBA and then went onto describe the work of previous bursary holders.  They have been involved with a variety of organisations and projects and all have gone on to permanent work often with the organisation with their bursary was placed.  It appears to be a very successful scheme in identifying and supporting young archaeologists to broaden their experience and learn on the job.

Next up was Jane Harrison of Archaeox whose brief was to discuss training in archaeological skills on community projects.  Jane said that the project started with workshops and talks before proceeding with practical digging.  The latter started with test pits to develop volunteer  skills.  From experience, Jane believes in training on the job.  You are taken through what needs to be done at your own pace and, once confident, left to get on with it under increasingly light supervision.  Jane emphasised that, in her experience, volunteers knew when to ask questions and the team all encouraged this.  ‘Core’ (ie highly trained) volunteers would be used to train newer volunteers and a mixture of both would be involved in all aspects of any part of the project.  I then said my piece on the NVQ which some of the volunteers with Jo, our CBA bursary holder, are doing.  I emphasised the advantages for community volunteers in that the NVQ is not academic but practical.  It provides a method of getting formal credit for work you are doing anyway.  When achieved, you have the right to join the Council for British Archaeology so can officially call yourself an archaeologist.

Jo Robinson, the CBA bursary holder, took up the tale with an account of her year with the Archeox project.  The amount of outreach Jo has been doing was unknown in total even to the Archeox volunteers present (though we all knew some) and we found it very impressive.  Social media outreach has been part of Jo’s brief as well and she has been very successful in getting ‘followers’ on Twitter and Facebook.  Leigh then stood up to describe how he started this blog, emphasising that archaeology is all about communication or it is pointless. (There had been some muttering from other participants on the lines of ‘what is the point?’)  I somehow doubt whether most of the audience will ever bother to read this.

The last session, after tea, was fascinating.  Richard Osgood of the Ministry of Defence Estates had been asked to set up an archaeology session for a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Apparently, the only thing which prevented him from committing suicide was watching back-to-back episodes of Time Team.  Richard duly set up Operation Nightingale which involved archaeology sessions with a very clear-headed project design.  The first soldiers to be involved were the Rifles who have the worst level of PTSD.  Many are very young and have little education and the social aspects of the project are crucial.  Many of the participants were sent straight home on returning from Iraq or Afghanistan and had no chance to talk through their experiences.  The project won an award for rehabilitation. Richard hopes to extend the project to other regiments as it has been so successful in providing soldiers with skills and confidence.  A very impressive end to the day.

The overall impression at the end of the day was that no two community projects are alike.  The best advice came from Richard in the last talk when he described their project design:

  • Define your community
  • Define why you are undertaking the work (for participants and site)
  • Define your objectives for results
  • Define your methodology to achieve results
  • Define your methods of assessing results
  • Examine ways of improving
  • Start process again



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