Cultural Wellbeing Grants Support Archaeology on Prescription Project

As part of York’s Culture Strategy, Make It York, York CVS, and City of York Council have come together to award funding of more than £60,000 to nineteen social and cultural initiatives across the city – with the aim of easing loneliness, isolation, and mental ill-health across the city. 

The grants, which were made available via the Better Care Fund and Ways to Wellbeing, were set up in recognition of the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on people’s wellbeing – through shielding, self-isolation, and social distancing. This series of case studies profiles each of the 2021 recipients: 

One of the projects which has been supported by the grants is Archaeology on Prescription – the nation’s first archaeological dig ‘on prescription’ for individuals who have experienced mental health difficulties, instigated by York Archaeology (YA). 

In the Autumn of 2021, 38 residents took part in the new pilot project led by York Archaeology. The residents were all referred by wellbeing providers, with the project aiming to provide an opportunity for those who experience mental health to take part in developing their skills and knowledge of archaeology, as well as providing a social environment to break patterns of negative thinking and offer mindfulness.  

During this project, the residents were encouraged to take part in an archaeological dig on site at the former nursing home Willow House on Walmgate. The residents were empowered to make their own decisions about what activities they took part in each day, with those were physically unable to dig never feeling excluded from the archaeological work and other activities planned for bad weather days, including the logging of data, preparing the site, and creating artwork to portray the findings.

Over nine weeks, the perceptions and experiences of participants were gathered through participant observation, interviewing and case studies.  

The findings of the project can be identified in four main themes:  

  • Mental health improvements- the participants were aware of a positive change in their mental health over the course of the project 
  • Supportive and knowledgeable staff – the value and importance of the staff contributions in making people feel welcome and confident to engage in archaeology 
  • Belonging to a team – participants expressed the importance of feeling part of the archaeological team, which took place from the outset of the project 
  • Learning and Discovery – people felt that they had learned a great deal throughout the project and spoke about a sense of discovery/appreciation of the variety of tasks on the project 

One participant said – “As the dig went on, we all became more confident in what we were finding, identifying and ageing pieces of pottery. The number of items which were good enough to keep was amazing. The tactile shards hidden for hundreds of years almost came alive, inspiring imagination and amazement- what was it used for? The decoration on pieces and how it was made and by whom absolutely captivated me, every time I found something.” 

Katrina Gargett, Community Engagement Manager at York Archaeological Trust, says, “Even though Archaeology on Prescription is still a relatively new project, we’re thrilled to say it’s been a success in meeting its aims to positively improve wellbeing, foster new social connections and develop skills and knowledge, helping to contribute to a general sense of belonging for our participants.  

So far we’ve had individuals referred from a number of third-sector organisations across York and through the NHS via Social Prescribing Link Workers. Very few of our participants have taken part in archaeology before they join the project, and many have spoken about their excitement at being given the opportunity to have a go. The excitement is palpable on-site at Willow House, with every object discovered providing a tangible and fascinating link to York’s past. Archaeology really is powerful in the way it can connect people both with each other, through a shared sense of discovery, and with the people who lived before us. 

We are extremely grateful for the support of the Culture and Wellbeing Fund in enabling us to pilot using archaeology for social prescribing. The funding has helped us demonstrate the power of taking part in archaeology to improve well-being and will enable us to continue expanding the project to benefit as many people across the city as possible.” 

Archaeology on Prescription has provided rich insights into the running and results of the project and will allow the team to make a series of recommendations for similar, future projects. The scheme has already been extended into 2022 through the Government’s Community Renewal Fund, and further development of the project is expected. 

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