The value of voluntary research

I spend a lot of my time talking to people whose passion is to disappear down the rabbit hole of historical or archaeological research. After an evening talk, over a well-stewed cup of tea in a village hall, or spreading a motley assortment of fieldwalking finds over a tabletop, the conversations follow a well-trodden path: “Well, you see, it started when I found an old photograph/scrap of pottery/interesting ancestor… and it got me thinking about… and so I ended up writing a history of the school/factory/church!”

I love hearing these tales. They’re a wonderful mix of enthusiasm, obsession, and more than a little exasperation. Researching the past is an itch that’s never quite satiated. I struggle to resist the temptation to hoover up every detail: a simple query about the location of a 1960s excavation and I emerge hours later with antiquarian accounts of Roman coin hoards used as currency in the markets of Evesham. But there’s a story for another post…

I often ask local researchers where their research ends up. A book? A website? A leaflet in the Church, or in the local studies section of the library? The next question goes one of two ways: “Have you ever”, I venture, “been in touch with your local Archaeology Service?” Some have, of course. They’ll have looked up sites, asked advice, given advice, pored over tithe maps or databases or pottery type series, and sent their work to the Historic Environment Record (the local database which records all sites, buildings and historic features and  investigations). But these are the minority. So many aren’t aware of the full range of what we do, as archaeologists, and the ways in which we look after so many aspects of the historic environment, whether it be buildings, historic hedgerows or below-ground archaeology. At a wider level, the records held by archaeologists go into planning strategies and priorities for further research (Research Frameworks), identifying threats and mapping how our landscape is changing. It’s so much more than holes in the ground. That’s why it’s vital to capture as much relevant research as we can.

The lack of awareness is our fault, and our problem. And it manifests itself cruelly, at times. We see people crestfallen, bewildered and angry when it transpires that their decade’s work on the history of site X or building Y hasn’t been considered in a planning decision, because it wasn’t in the records. The same reactions surface when a comprehensive piece of research isn’t the ‘silver bullet’ that protects a site from harm. Getting your voice heard isn’t a panacea for all ills. But it’s a start. Unreported heritage is unprotected heritage.

All of this has been at the front of my thoughts over the last year, as I’ve been working on a project for Historic England to try to get a better understanding of the amount and potential value of the work carried out by voluntary and community groups and researchers. The report is now out: you can read more about the project on Historic England’s website, and download the full report (PDF, 3.6MB) or summary (PDF, 1.3MB).

Why did we do it? Well, community archaeology has increasingly become a focus of research over the past decade, as have the effects and dynamics of participation in voluntary projects. But much of this work has focused on the outcomes for the participants: how did they benefit, how were they organised, where do they come from? We wanted to turn the spotlight onto the research itself, and try to unpick how much is out there, the types of activities undertaken by different groups, and crucially, what barriers or pitfalls they encountered and where the fruits of their labours ended up.

Here are some of the key numbers:

Assessing the value of community-generated historic environment research: key findings

Summary of key findings from national survey of voluntary and community researchers

Numbers aside, the fascinating aspect of this project was the opportunity to get a glimpse of the quiet corners of local libraries, the trenches sandwiched into a local park and the myriad other means by which thousands of people, up and down the country, come face to face with their pasts, and build their own narratives of exploration. Many archaeologists are prone to viewing local history as a nostalgia-ridden exercise in extolling the virtues of bygone eras. Of course, the quality varies widely. But so much of what I see is rigorous, challenging and, above all, enriching. We expend a great deal of effort evangelising, agonising over how to teach people to look at places with the eyes of an archaeologist. There are situations where this is called for. But we should spend a lot more time absorbing, listening, and teasing out the patterns in the pasts brought to life by the cumulative efforts of thousands of dedicated researchers.

The key, for me, is enrichment. An appreciation of a place. Because, I guarantee, there is no corner of this country without a tale to tell, and those tales will weave right across the spectrum of human experience. The thought that, for thousands of years, people have lived, laughed, loved, and trodden the ground you walk is a powerful one. It instils the notion of custodianship, the responsibility we bear to our descendants, and brings new perspectives on familiar places. And this effect is tangible. Just look at Leicester. I was there for a conference recently. The ‘Richard III effect’ was visible everywhere: heritage-led regeneration, in a city so buoyed by their pride in their past that the long-deceased king has even been credited with the surprise success of their football team. Anecdotally, I heard that falling crime rates in the city centre have been attributed to the discovery – a discovery that came about in part thanks to the tireless efforts of voluntary researchers.

All those thousands of projects across the country, shining a light into unexplored corners of our pasts, play their part in the creation of better places. And the more we can feed the fruits of this enthusiasm and knowledge into research resources and make them open and accessible, the better, for both the places and the participants. After all, the knowledge that your painstaking work will have a legacy and an impact is, in itself, part of the reward.