I attended the annual Wiltshire in Archaeology Conference last weekend. This is arranged by the Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Society (Wiltshire Museum) and the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group. It’s been a highlight of the year for me for several years now. I first attended as part of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site Coordination Unit. We were one of several organisations who took a stand at the conference. It was always a good opportunity to talk about the work of the Coordination Unit and future plans for the World Heritage Site and to distribute the annual newsletter Megalith.
Since becoming a freelancer I have continued attend. It’s a great way to find out about what’s going on in Wiltshire’s wonderfully rich archaeological landscape, catch up with colleagues and keep up to date on the latest trends and developments.
The format is tried and tested now and always begins with an excellent round up from Melanie Pomeroy-Kellinger, County Archaeologist for Wiltshire, of the projects and development led archaeology that her team have dealt with over the last 12 months. It never ceases to amaze me that we are constantly adding to our knowledge of the history of Wiltshire with not just new Roman villas but whole communities still being discovered. The chalk soil of many areas of Wiltshire means that the archaeological deposits are often very close to the surface and consequently vulnerable to ploughing or animal disturbance.
For the conference this year there were two particular stand outs. Firstly the work of the Map of Australia Trust (MOAT). This project has restored the map of Australia at Compton Chamberlayne which was created by Australian troops during the First World War. Spearheaded by the inspirational Helen Roberts who grew up in the shadow of the Map, the project was entirely run by volunteers with support from Historic England who undertook a landscape survey of the monument before restoration work began. This Scheduled Ancient Monument is now off the Heritage at Risk list and should be maintained for years to come by the Trust. Not only did Helen and her volunteers restore this monument but the project also sparked a wider interest in the history of this area during the First World War where a large number of Anzac troops passed through the camps established at the foot of the Salisbury Plain at Compton Chamberlayne. They will be marking Anzac Day on 25 April so why not join them?
The project demonstrates how a small number of people can make a positive difference. The ever increase in digital communication and our busy over pressured lives often lead to lack of involvement in our local communities. It was clear from Helen’s presentation that those who participated really benefitted from being part of a group that was making a literally visible difference. With so many good community projects out there crying for volunteers to commit just a small contribution of time how do we encourage more to discover that they get back so much more than they give and that they will feel so much better for it?
Linked to that idea the other stand out theme for me were two projects that further demonstrated the impact that archaeology and historic landscapes can have on our wellbeing. I think that the benefits of culture and heritage on wellbeing is now well established in the sector. There are numerous case studies and reports that reflect this. Social prescribing is being used more and more to tackle social isolation and mental health issues.
Daniel O’Donoghue of the Richmond Fellowship and Laura Drysdale of The Restoration Trust spoke about the Human Henge project which I have been following since it began in 2016. The Human Henge Project involves English Heritage, the National Trust, Bournemouth University, Wiltshire Council and the local NHS mental health partnership and is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This is a project which demonstrates how organisations working together as partners can produce extraordinary things. By its nature Human Henge has only impacted on relatively small numbers but the benefits have been already recognised and I understand that there are plans to roll this out to other parts of the country.
The project introduces people with mental health problems who may not normally access heritage sites to the wonderfully fascinating landscapes of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. Experts give their time to interpret and explain what they know about the ancient landscape. The participants are active, not passive, partners in the process who are valued and take part in the debate on how the ancient landscape was used throughout the 10 week programme. It uses guided walks across the landscape and music to help people explore the historic landscape. The funding enables key barriers such as entry fees and transport to be overcome.
By its nature Human Henge has only impacted on relatively small numbers but the benefits have been already recognised and I understand that there are plans to roll this out to other parts of the country.
Finally, Richard Osgood (2019 Archaeologist of the Year) of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation gave us an overview of the much lauded Operation Nightingale. This project has supported many serving soldiers and veterans to recover from physical and mental injuries through archaeology. Richard says soldiering has many parallels with archaeology and the participants love the camaraderie of sitting around the camp fire spinning yarns as well as the experiences of excavating a range of different sites. I am most familiar with the Barrow Clump excavations just north of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. There have been spectacular finds there but the Project has also worked on First World War practice trenches on the Wiltshire/ Hampshire border and on a Second World War aeroplane crash site. Again, the impact of archaeology on the wellbeing on the participants has been well demonstrated and several have gone on to train and work as archaeologists with commercial units. So it has not only provided healing but employment opportunities too.
The past is an endlessly fascinating area and everyone can find something to absorb them and take them away from their own personal issues. The physical nature of walking or excavating a trench takes us out of ourselves and provides much needed vitamin D and exercise. Being with others and being part of a communal activity helps put things in perspective. Reaffirming a sense of place and identity. All these and more can help us re-balance our lives and feel better.