Archaeology on Prescription is York Archaeology’s award-winning programme which offers adults who are experiencing mild to moderate mental health difficulties, disability, chronic conditions and loneliness a chance to take part in archaeological fieldwork to improve wellbeing.
Participants work alongside professional archaeologists to excavate, record, and report the site of Willow House, an old care home that is due to be redeveloped by the City of York Council. Activities include excavation, finds washing and processing, site photography, and recording, plus post-excavation work during our Winter Programme when it’s too cold (and this year, wet!) to dig. Participants are also encouraged to take part in creative activities, such as contributing to the site scrapbook through drawings, paintings, poems, and collages. During our Winter Programme, they also learn historical crafts such as Viking nalbinding and trichinopoly, plus calligraphy and embroidery, to better understand some of the daily activities that have occurred at Willow House throughout the centuries. Additionally, participants help to curate and create a pop-up exhibition that is part of the JORVIK Viking Festival.
The goal of Archaeology on Prescription is to improve participants’ wellbeing by providing pathways to learn new skills, make new social connections, and inspire a sense of connection with place. To that end, the programme has been greatly successful. Overwhelmingly, participants have reported improved wellbeing because of their participation in the programme, with some continuing their involvement in archaeology and heritage through other volunteer opportunities and some have even gained employment in the sector. Enduring friendships have developed, and multiple participants have commented that their budding interest in history and archaeology has blossomed into a passion.
One of the more exciting outcomes has been the participants’ growing connection to Willow House and the wider Walmgate area. This part of York is just inside Walmgate Bar, on the southeast side of the city, and has historically been a slum area. As one participant said, “When I first moved to Walmgate, I passed through it and I used to try and blank it out because I thinking ‘it’s not proper York.’ But when I came [to the project], I thought, ‘No, no, it’s just a different part of York.’ And actually seeing all the photos of what was here before has really deepened [that feeling].” Through both excavation on site and through historical archives, the personal stories of Walmgate have come to life. Some of the finds from the site include pottery dating from the Romans all the way up to the mid-20th century, animal bones likely from the cattle market that was here until the 1960s, and even the walls of a Victorian basement. Archival research has uncovered stories of local labourers and a female butcher, Mary Ann Crow, who lived and worked in the area during the 19th century.
The historical stories, as inherently interesting and important as they are, have promoted participants to think about what life would have been like during various periods of Walmgate’s history. One participant said “it’s made me think a lot about the people living here, who would have been my great, great grandma. And how tough it would have would have been. And it’s given me more of a connection because the people of York who lived here are just the same as my great-great grandparents.” Many discussions during sessions revolve around how a particular find, such as building nails or a shady can, found their way into the ground or who might have been the last person to touch the object before it was buried.
Not only have the participants brought the history of Willow House to life again, the history of Willow House has impacted the participants themselves. As the participant above mentioned, many walk through the area now with a deeper appreciation of what life was like here, rather than writing it off as ‘not proper York.’ More and more attention is being given to the area through this research, including through the the multiple Open Days that York Archaeology hosts at the site throughout the year. The local community (especially the cats) now often stop by to check in and learn about the latest thing that has come out of the ground. A real sense of interest in the everyday lives of normal people in the area has emerged, perhaps best said by one of our participants: “My most enduring experience during the sessions has been the delight that follows from finding a contact with past people, whether natural or made.”
For more information and to read our latest blogs, check out our website at https://community.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/archaeology-on-prescription/ You can also visit our pop-up exhibition during the JORVIK Viking Festival on 17th February 2024 at SPARK in York.