Archaeological theory

The Past Sense Project: Pioneering Approaches to Therapeutic Archaeology


My post for this year’s Day of Archaeology covers work I’m undertaking for a pilot community archaeology project that I co-direct (‘Past Sense’, or ‘PSP’), with the other project co-director, Debra (a psychotherapist). PSP is a voluntary community and public project that adopts archaeological and psychological approaches in examining the material histories of violence in the home, and using such histories within trauma therapy. We explore the significance of material culture within and after situations of domestic and sexual violence and abuse in the past, through archaeological data and artefacts; objects within public archives and private collections; and a range of historical sources (including written evidence, photos, and oral histories). And we’re using this research in developing therapeutic archaeological workshops.

The project works within the fields of Contemporary and Historical Archaeology, analysing postmedieval material (for the purposes of PSP work, 17th – 21st century, focusing on the 19th – 20th century). We primarily examine material from Derbyshire (centring on Derby), but also investigate contexts within other areas in the East Midlands, and other parts of Britain. Though mostly looking at housing, we also consider other buildings, and landscapes. I sometimes investigate sites of recreation and sociability (such as pubs and parks); commerce and industry (such as shops and factories); education and religion (such as schools and meeting halls); law and order (such as courts and prisons); and care and burial (such as hospitals and cemeteries). Where it may be useful to do so, this may include looking at the homes of the family and friends of victims and perpetrators of violence, and of police officers and magistrates.

What I’ve been doing today

Much of my time is spent reading previous work, and thinking how I might develop and apply this research in socially beneficial ways; my day began by re-reading an academic article (and the notes that I made) that provides useful grounding for project work. (I use Archaeological Theories that integrate and develop approaches from other disciplines – such as Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Philosophy, and Geography – to inform my work, particularly research on archaeologies of emotion and sensory experience.)

I then returned to a presentation that I’m preparing, which briefly explains how Debra and I are developing educational and therapeutic workshops and other resources, and how community participation might enhance knowledge surrounding understandings of material culture in the past. This slideshow outlines the ideas behind the project (which began about five years ago with the recognition of common ground between archaeology and therapy: the direct involvement of material culture in managing trauma within Debra’s psychotherapeutic work provided a starting point from which we might explore other ways to integrate archaeological approaches. But we only began to implement preparations for project work at the very end of 2014). It also introduces some of our work in progress – and today I’ve been working on one slide that will demonstrate this.

This involves putting together artefacts and survey data, with texts and images that relate to domestic and sexual violence in the past. These will provide examples of how we might use archaeological and other historical sources within project workshops and other resources, to consider how the home environment may have affected the ways in which people experienced violence in the past, in comparison to more recent situations of abuse.

‘Tea and Sympathy’

PSP uses data from another community archaeology project that I direct (‘Living in the Past Community Archaeology Project’, or ‘LIP’ / ‘LIPCAP’ – which featured in posts for the 2013 Day of Archaeology, here and here). Today I went through the collection of ‘finds’ photos so far obtained during building and garden surveys, to see what might be used in workshops, and the presentation. I’m creating a MS Powerpoint slide entitled ‘Tea and Sympathy’, and have found a photo that may be suitable for this topic: of a 19th century ceramic sherd found in the garden of a terraced house in Ashbourne, Derbyshire (which is described and illustrated briefly here and here). The artefact depicted is made of refined white earthenware, decorated with a floral blue transfer print, and is probably part of a teacup. The photo’s not great quality, and I’d prefer a slightly older sherd than this, but it’s acceptable for present purposes. So I’m preparing the image in Adobe Photoshop, removing the ‘noise’ from the white background on which the sherd was placed when it was photographed.

Decorated 19th century ceramic sherd (transfer printed refined white earthenware), found in the topsoil of a terraced house garden in Ashbourne, Derbyshire (LIPCAP)

Decorated 19th century ceramic sherd (transfer printed refined white earthenware), found in the topsoil of a terraced house garden in Ashbourne, Derbyshire (LIPCAP)

Workshops will integrate a broad range of historical sources, including literature – in this instance, I’ve decided to use this artefact alongside material from Charles DickensOld Curiosity Shop. I selected an extract from an appropriate scene in the book, in which the character Betsy Quilp (whose husband, Daniel, treats her with cruelty) and her mother take tea in their home with female neighbours:

 “…it was extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of mankind to tyrannise over the weaker sex, and the duty that devolved upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and dignity.”

Workshop handouts may present further extracts, and other historical information, to provide the ‘bigger picture’, and related artefacts provided for participants to ‘handle’, to stimulate discussion regarding material culture and female support networks.

Betsy Quilp, mother and neighbours at tea: Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens, 1841 (Source:

Betsy Quilp, mother and neighbours at tea: Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens, 1841 (Source: Project Gutenberg)

‘Home, sweet home?’

I’m also preparing illustrations for a slide titled ‘Home, sweet home?’, which will show how we’re using studies of housing and neighbourhood landscapes to consider the environments (and potential causes and effects) of the abuse that appears to have taken place. Workshops will involve a case study of a family, the wife and mother of which summonsed her husband to the magistrates court in 1883, complaining of his violence towards her (information on this case can be found on the project website, here).

I’ve been carrying out research into the background of family members, and into what happened to them after the court case. This has involved going through various archives to examine newspaper reports and magazine articles; trade directories and maps; census and civic records; parish and poor law records; and photographic and art archives and collections; oral histories and other recollections of local people. I’ve looked at local and other historical sources in order to consider the context in which this family lived, and examined archaeological reports (the area of the family home was excavated a few years ago) and historic environment records, to find out more about their domestic and community surroundings. I still have some sources to consult before I’m able to complete the picture of home life for this and other families in the area at the time, but what I’ve found out so far has proved useful.

1921 aerial view, showing location of the family home (circled) at the time of the court case (Source of image: Britain from Above:

1921 aerial view, showing location of the family home (circled) at the time of the court case (Source of image: Britain from Above)

The photos, maps, and descriptions of this housing within newspapers, and in the recollections of local people; and archaeological excavations and standing building surveys of similar housing; suggest how the arrangement of domestic and neighbourhood architecture and space may have affected movement (limiting opportunities to escape from violent incidents), and access to possible support networks – for both victim and perpetrator. It is also clear from this evidence that the children in the family, and neighbours, would have likely heard, and perhaps seen, violence (and yet from the newspaper reports, no witnesses appeared in court to support the claimant). This analysis suggests how surroundings may have enabled or prevented particular acts of violence, and resistance to abuse, and how such behaviour might have affected the lives of others, as well as those directly involved.

My workday shall end with continued reading of a study on domestic abuse and violence in 18th and 19th century Britain. Not, it might be thought, uplifting bedtime reading. But research on violence between the 17th and 20th centuries demonstrates that, despite those in authority not always supporting those terrorised and abused in their homes by spouse, family member, supposed friend, or neighbour, and contrary to popular belief today, many in the past saw such behaviour as unacceptable. Not only friends and family, but communities and members of wider society, often expressed disapproval at domestic and sexual violence.

So I’ll end this post with a short video (this is not of my making: thanks instead go to the ‘Marchers’ – a ‘LARP troupe’, I think – for putting this on Youtube). This demonstrates ‘rough music’ – one way that communities (most often women) in the past used material culture to demonstrate condemnation of domestic and sexual violence, when those in power could not (or would not) punish the offender.

More information on PSP is available through our website and social media, through which anyone interested can follow the project:



Twitter: @P_S_Project

Communicating Archaeology

I was reminded by the blustery wet south-easterly tail wind on my cycle to work this morning that summer has yet to arrive to this part of the world. However, as an Archaeological Information Systems Manager for English Heritage based down in Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth, I’m mostly office based so the weather is only an issue when I venture out to get a cup of coffee.

It has finally become apparent to me that communication is one of my main focuses. I am always asked what period or location I specialise in, the truth is I don’t take this approach to archaeology. My passion is for archaeology and archaeologists, how we communicate with each other and how we communicate with the public (who’s support we depend to continue doing what we do).

So back to my day…

After arriving in my office and making a cup of coffee I turned my attention to finalising a paper I’ve been writing called ‘Can you hack (the) communication?’ I gave a presentation on this at CAA in Southampton ( (it’s a computers and archaeology conference) back in March. This paper looks at how we as archaeologists capture digital information in the field and particular my perspective on the experience of implementing a digital recording system for archaeological excavation called Intrasis to our teams. We’ve used the system now on our last few projects.

Simple location plan with trenches to south of road and Silbury Hill to the north

This is a screenshot of a map of the excavations of the Roman Settlement across the road from Silbury Hill.

As main ringleader of social media at the fort, I started receiving my colleagues’ posts for Day of Archaeology by mid-morning. That I know of two others are participating, one from our zooarchaeologists and another from @nicola_hembrey, our finds archaeologists.

Through out the day, like most days I’m keeping an eye on my Twitter feed for good content and information @hscorley. I also am keeping an eye on the @EHArchaeology twitter account which I am primary curator. This account has been active for about 3 years now and I’m amazed how popular it has become.

Looking at Twitter today, it is of course, abuzz with Day of Archaeology content. Particular praise is due to London Archaeological Archive & Research Centre (LAARC)  for the LAARC Lottery. If only I had thought if it myself. You pick a number for a shelf, they then go and find what’s on that shelf and blog about it. I like this for several reasons, not only is it interactive and raises awareness about their archive but it also means no one has to think to hard about what to write about, it’s all there just waiting to written about.

As my day wraps up I’m going to prepare to face the elements again, the wind does not appear to have shifted and despite a bit of sunlight earlier it looks like it might rain.

Hugh Corley


My Project: “Dig for Victory”

I’m Sarah, and I’m a part time archaeology student. As I was on holiday on the actual Day of Archaeology, I’ve decided to write about a current project of mine entitled “Dig for Victory”.

My situation is a little complicated, but in summary I’m a distance learning student with the Open University but also doing practical courses with the University of Southampton. I’m finishing up my degree at the end of next month and I’ll be starting my Masters with Southampton in October. I’m particularly interested in prehistory, specifically human origins, but I’ll have to wait until October to join the postgrad world. For now I’m digging around in the dreaded depths of theory.

As a distance learner I’m somewhat limited in my project choices, and therefore cannot run out into the field wielding my trowel very often. Instead I found myself oddly drawn to archaeological theory, and in particular to an assignment I did in my first year about the politics of archaeology. Although I investigated many cases in many different countries, for my project I decided to focus on archaeology in Nazi Germany and wartime Britain. In particular I’m investigating how national identity was in part built by archaeological findings, and how these were used to include and exclude certain groups of people.

In Britain various national icons, such as the British Museum, were used to promote national identity and to unite the country during in between the World Wars. Museums in particular provided an avenue for people to explore their history and develop national pride in their country.

But in Germany it was rather a different story, with archaeology being used to prove ideological arguments and to legitimise the actions of the leaders of the Nazi party. The field of archaeology quickly came under the jurisdiction of the military, as many areas did, and was being used to investigate the “great Germanic people”. At one point excavations were being planned near every SS unit to help instil a sense of national pride. But, of course, excavations were expected to support the ‘right’ version of history, not necessarily the true version. Prehistory in particular was used (despite Hitler allegedly not thinking highly of prehistory) to write the history of the Germanic people, and therefore justify the invasion of other countries.

I’ve recently been focusing on the German archaeology, and moving onto the British side next week when I visit various museums in London. I never really realised before just how much archaeology was used, and how archaeology in Germany was littered with references to the military – for example, I’ve many images of Nazi officers attending the opening of museums and of Nazi banners at conferences.

Although I would, of course, love to be out in the field digging for my project, I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to sit and consider theory in more depth. As a first year I was too baffled by theory (as is every archaeology student!) to fully appreciate why it was important, and it wasn’t until the final lecture that I really understood why we were learning this stuff!

I think it’s important for archaeology students to learn about the history of archaeology itself, and that it’s not just about what we dig up but also about the impact that knowledge has on others. Archaeology has gone through many changes in the last century, and is bound to go through many more in years to come.

I’ve certainly found an invaluable but cautionary tale in my researching, and I hope to share more details with you once I have finished. If you would like to follow me while I complete my research and move onto my Masters, you can follow my on Twitter at:

Thank you for reading, and happy (belated) day of archaeology!

Archaeology on the web

My name is Tom Goskar, and I am Wessex Archaeology‘s web manager. I am also one one of the team behind the Day of Archaeology, an international online event which has taken months in the planning.

Like the rest of the Day of Archaeology team, my day has been an incredibly busy one. Essentially it began in earnest yesterday evening (if that’s not cheating) putting the final touches to the DoA website, through to seeing the first post from the Guardian’s Maev Kennedy go online.

After some sleep, I have been helping to keep the website well-oiled and ticking along. I have been doing this whilst publishing and planning web content for Wessex Archeology, who have helped to support the Day of Archaeology by providing some of my time during the day to help run it. Today, I have published some updates about a large excavation that is happening in the heart of Dorchester, the Roman town of Durnovaria. I’ve also been following back people who have recently started following Wessex on Twitter, planning some future web content for an industrial site that we are working on in the north of England, and looking at ideas for publishing some of our content as e-books (in EPUB format) and how we might fit that into our existing design workflows. There are some promising tools out there, and it’s exciting to think of the possibilities of publishing content that will look good on devices from smartphones to Kindles, iPads, etc. Especially when you have a back-catalogue of titles which are now out of print. We could give some publications a new lease of life. Specialist books which when printed are only ever available to a small number of people could have global distribution and benefit many more. Keep your eyes on the Wessex Archaeology website, there’s lots of exciting things planned for the future.

Today I have also just finished an article for a forthcoming publication based upon a talk I gave earlier this year as part the Centre for Audio-Visual Study and Practice in Archaeology (CASPAR) “Archaeologists & the Digital: Towards Strategies of Engagement” workshop in May 2011 at UCL in London. My paper is called Wessex Archaeology and the Web, a simple title, but one that explores how the organisation’s website has grown from a small nine page brochure-style website in 2001 to the  socially connected 4000+ page site that it is today. Major archaeological discoveries, such as the Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowmen amongst others were catalysts to expand and change the way we published information online. We’ve been earlier adopters of many “Web 2.0” (despite my hating that term) technologies and web services, as well as starting the first archaeology podcast, Archaeocast. Many other heritage organisations have looked to us for trying things out first, so we have been in the spotlight on many occasions. It’s been some journey since I relaunched the website in May 2002, and it still feels like this is just the beginning.

My philosophy has always been that archaeology is all about people; as archaeologists we have a duty to make our work available to as many people as possible, otherwise there is little point in what we do. We run the risk of becoming irrelevant to society if we do not broaden access to the information that we uncover. The web is instrumental to helping us to help people learn about their pasts, and the Day of Archaeology is a fantastic way of showing the sheer diversity of work that goes on inside archaeology, and how exciting and relevant it all is.

It has been wonderful to, throughout the day, read many of the posts as they have been published. It makes me excited to see so much happening in the world (literally – see the map of posts!) of archaeology, and that so many people have been passionate enough about their subject to tell the world about it through the Day of Archaeology website. I do hope that it inspires more archaeologists to shout about their work (we’re often quite shy) and see the benefits of the web, and that it inspires readers of this site to follow up the projects that they see here. Maybe some will be moved to take up archaeology in some way, maybe as a volunteer, joining a local dig, or even thinking about archaeology as a profession.

So, a big thank you to all who have contributed an entry to the Day of Archaeology so far, and to fellow organisers Lorna, Matt, Dan, Jess, Stu, and Andy. And thank you, dear reader, for supporting us by visiting and reading all about a day in the life of what is now 422 archaeologists.

It’s been a fun journey, and fingers crossed, there will be a Day of Archaeology 2012!