Archaeology at Home - a Europa Nostra Award Winner in 2021
In early March 2020, the world went into lockdown. Like many other cultural heritage organisations, DigVentures realised the arc of the COVID-19 pandemic was a watershed moment for our organisational survival as well as the global future of the sector. Our project, ‘Archaeology at Home’ was launched as an instant response to the conditions imposed on the practice of public archaeology by COVID-19 lockdown. With field activities almost impossible, we remodeled ourselves, using a digital platform as a means of expansion when most others were confined to working on screens in isolation.
The questions of this time were huge: can we transcend physical visitation and drive enough deep touch engagement to sustain our organisation? Can we replace or significantly augment sharp decreases in funding due to the pandemic? And if so, how do we move past existing success metrics to embrace and understand what participation and impact look like in the post-COVID world, and what does this mean for the recovery of the global cultural heritage sector?
In March 2020, with our main activities on hold, DigVentures made the decision to reposition the social dimension of our archaeological fieldwork explicitly towards a digital audience. The aims of ‘Archaeology at Home’ were to define how far digital content could amplify, or replace, physical experience, whether these activities could be activated as revenue to replace in-person events, and whether this kind of activity could contribute long-term to our organisational resilience and sustainability, as well as that of the European cultural heritage sector, in the post-COVID world. The three streams of ‘Archaeology at Home’ comprised: a substantial increase of our daily social media content; a free, guided cohort of our digital ‘How to do Archaeology’ (HTDA) Virtual Fieldschool; and the weekend DigNation virtual archaeology festival.
On the 28th of March 2020, DV opened HTDA to registration, with a further cohort opening on 1st June 2020. This resulted in an exponential growth in enrolment, resulting in 7,942 participants from 80 countries, including entire year group intakes from universities unable to attend annual field schools (York, Sligo and Manchester).
A similar format was developed for DVs ‘How To Be A Junior Archaeologist’ course, designed for primary school children. The free junior course was opened on 20th July 2020 attracting a further 1,844 children and their parents/guardians from 11 different countries, introducing children to the practical role of the archaeologist and aimed at dispelling Hollywood tropes of treasure hunters in favour of the adventure of scientific enquiry.
One of the biggest events we cancelled as a result of the pandemic was our DigNation archaeology festival, scheduled for 13th-14th June at Sudeley Castle (Gloucestershire, UK). Following the decision to pivot this online, an open call was issued for presentations from archaeologists who’s summer fieldwork had been disrupted by COVID-19. This resulted in 34 presentations from archaeological teams in 26 countries. DigNation attracted 3,300 participants from 61 countries, resulting in 42,471 page views over the course of the weekend.
In total, we welcomed over 11,000 people from 90 countries across the three streams of the project (see distribution maps included below). We watched as our international colleagues and community made personal connections through the medium of a shared passion for archaeology, across language barriers and time zones, celebrating achievement, expressing fear, and helping each other cope with circumstances. ‘Archaeology at Home’ attracted a substantial number of European participants, comprising over 7,100 people from 19 countries across the Virtual Field School and DigNation festival. The international dimension was particularly apparent in the festival open call, resulting in 34 presentations from archaeological teams in 26 countries.
Europa Nostra Awards webpages:
DigVentures project page and video:
Being online broke down a lot of the usual barriers to participation and diversified the audience. The digital access became a great leveller, and gave us a much bigger geographical spread, plus involvement of people from all walks of life. Everyone was at home, not just people with children or part-time jobs; every educational level, every kind of professional and life experience was represented. That really blew the doors wide open. There’s an acknowledged elitist perspective that the ‘public’ doesn’t care or want to be involved in archaeology, but here we had direct and very loud evidence that this is not the case. If there are opportunities, then our project shows there is an audience waiting to take part.
It also allowed us to create a community of practice with our peers who had never spoken outside of academia about their work. There was work within the festival that would never have reached a general audience had it not moved online. We’re continuing to play with that model, and we think it holds a lot of relevance for the cultural sector in general.
We’ve learned that the audiences are absolutely limitless, and are very happy and willing to throw themselves into what you’re doing with participation as well as money. The ‘how do we make money out of this?’ question is what’s preventing some big European cultural heritage institutions from taking digital seriously: they can’t see how doing cultural activity online is going to help, because all they think about is euros and cents. I would agree that it’s definitely not an immediate gratification thing, but if you lean into it, have a good strategic plan for how digital is going to feed into your bottom line beyond just finances, then you’re going to see those huge benefits flowing into your organisations.