What is a Community Archaeologist?
I’ve been in post as the Community Archaeologist for the Northumberland National Park for six months. The Park wanted to engage more young people with the archaeology and heritage of the Park, to increase opportunities for people of all ages to participate in the research, understanding and enjoyment of this heritage, to make existing community archaeology groups more confident and independent in carrying out their research, and to contribute to community archaeology in the UK as a whole.
What is “Community archaeology”? I’ve heard it described as “archaeology by the community, for the community”, but both these terms are hard to define! Who is “the community”? People who live in or near the Park? Regular visitors, ramblers, long-distance walkers? Ancient farming families or recent immigrants like me? (Personally, I think “all of the above”!). And as for “what is archaeology”…? I think there are as many definitions of archaeology as there are archaeologists!
The definition of “community archaeology” that works for me involves cooperation between professional and volunteer archaeologists, heritage organisations, schools, and any other community-based interest group whose members would like to explore the past. My role is to make it easier for people who haven’t had vocational training in archaeology, but want to get involved, to get hands-on with the archaeology of the Park. I help them access the resources and expertise they need to really engage with their local history and prehistory, and to make sure what they discover is shared as widely as possible through promoting best practice in fieldwork, recording, archiving and publishing.
So, what am I up to today?
Today I’m back at my desk for the first time this week and catching a breath in between projects! I’m also planning future projects and looking back over the results of the last month’s fieldwork.
A couple of weeks ago I ran our third YAC meeting. YAC stands for Young Archaeologists’ Club – in our case, “the North Pennines and Northumberland Uplands Young Archaeologists’ Club”. We’re affiliated with the Council for British Archaeology and run monthly events focussing on the archaeology of Northumberland and the North Pennines. Our last event was based on flint-knapping and experimental archaeology – using the flint flakes for butchering meat – and in two weeks I’m taking my Young Archaeologists on a trip to Killhope Lead Mining Centre. This involves a lot of behind-the-scenes paperwork including risk assessments, volunteer leader applications, activity plans and handouts, but it’s worth it when I get kids and their parents coming back month after month. I’ve just sent out a reminder to my mailing list, and also advertised another free Experimental Archaeology activity I’m running on the same weekend (building a replica Roman clay oven).
Yesterday was the last day of 3 days of geophysical survey. I worked with Altogether Archaeology volunteers and Durham University Archaeological Services to do the geophysical survey around three milecastles on Hadrian’s Wall, looking for traces of Roman roads approaching them from the north. It’s generally thought that milecastles served to regulate north-south traffic through Hadrian’s Wall – but no one has actually found any roads! The survey data is being processed as I write this, and whether the answer is positive or negative we will have a new perspective on the function of Hadrian’s Wall.
Two weeks before that, I was working with the Tynedale Archaeology Group (a community group who got their start through Altogether Archaeology last year) and Oxford Archaeology North to do a week-long landscape survey of a prehistoric landscape north of Hadrian’s Wall. Hadrian’s Wall, and the Roman period generally, has had the lion’s share of antiquarian and archaeological attention, but this summer’s fieldwork is showing just how rich and intricate the prehistoric landscape north of the Wall really is. These projects would not have happened without cooperation between volunteer and professional archaeologists: their work is answering important questions about this World Heritage Listed landscape. Now that the fieldwork’s done, I’ve spent some time today sorting out the attendance records and sharing photos and a summary on facebook, twitter and my Community Archaeology Blog.
I’ve also just got an email from a local museum. They’re creating a series of history-themed loan boxes for schools to borrow, and I’m making free archaeology education packs and artefact collections for the Park, so we can definitely work together! Sharing resources like this is becoming more important as schools and other organisations face funding cuts – by cooperating we can ensure students get the best access to our resources and we can prove that we contribute positively to children’s education. The 2014 Curriculum also requires that teachers cover prehistory – and I can definitely help out with that! My “Iron Age Archaeology” education pack is almost done, so after I’ve put that draft to bed I’ll go back to working on my “Archaeology Excursions” guide for teachers thinking of visiting Northumberland National Park.
This morning I revised a community group’s risk assessment and project design: we’re negotiating with a landowner to access their property to survey some prehistoric features, and the farmer has asked for more information on the proposed survey. I’ll send that out this afternoon. And after that — if there’s still time, there’s always my World War One research proposal to go back to! I spend time every week drafting proposals for future community archaeology projects. I’m working with Coquetdale Community Archaeology group to complete their report on their 2008 excavations of some WWI training trenches near Rothbury, and I’m in the planning stages of another collaborative WWI project for the Park, local community archaeology groups and students for 2015.
Where to next?
I’m on a fixed-term contract, so it’s really important that I use this time to build a strong legacy for community archaeology in the Park. I hope that the Young Archaeologists’ Club will become self-sustaining, and I’m encouraging parents to volunteer and take control of the Club. Although I’ve not had time to work on them today, I’m also writing a Careers Guide for Archaeology and Classics students from a Newcastle college, and a Volunteer’s Guide to using the Northumberland Historic Environment Register, so that community archaeology groups make best use of the HER in designing their research and sharing their discoveries.
Two things I can say about a day in the life of a community archaeologist: it’s always interesting, and it’s always busy!