Archaeology on Prescription (AoP) is an award-winning social prescribing project using archaeology as a tool to support mental health and wellbeing for York residents. At the time of writing, 110 people have attended AoP.
Currently in its second year, AoP takes referrals for adults who experience poor mental health, including social isolation, depression, and anxiety, who can also have learning and access needs, and who may also be disabled.
The project pilot was launched by York Archaeology in 2021, with subsequent funding secured from local and national grants, including the National Lottery Heritage Fund which provides core funding until 2025.
Participants are socially prescribed to AoP through link workers and social prescribers from the York Centre for Voluntary Services, local GP practices and local community organisations. The project operates on the site of Willow House, a former care home inside Walmgate Bar. York Archaeology was granted use of the building and surrounding land by the City of York Council.
Participants attend weekly for two periods of outdoor excavation during April- September, and one period of indoor reflective practice and post-excavation activities during the winter. Finds from the site include remnants of 19th-century housing such as drains and refuse pits as well as artefacts spanning the whole of York’s story – from a Bronze-Age arrowhead to shards of Roman pottery and medieval green-glazed ceramics.
Keys to success
Maintaining close relationships with link workers, social prescribers, and community organisations is key to understand participants’ access needs, knowledge backgrounds and historical interests, and so tailor sessions accordingly. Sessions are delivered in small groups, with one member of staff to every two participants to ensure a positive, welcoming environment, free from “big group anxieties”.
Although our staffing budget is subsequently rather high, this staff to participant ratio is essential for creating a positive environment where wellbeing can flourish. It also allows for the archaeology to be explained in understandable units using non-academic language, enabling participants to access all stages of the process: excavation, recording, finds processing.
Staff training is another key element. Delivery staff are not mental health clinicians or support workers, so we provide training in mental health first aid, professional boundaries, safeguarding and disability awareness. We commission externally-led monthly staff supervisions for staff to discuss delivery situations, and have designed the working day to include staff debriefing and reflective practice. We regularly review this approach to cater for the needs of staff and maintain best practice methods.
Several other techniques have been effective in enabling access. Creating a tiered trench, divided lengthways, with half excavated to 1.2m before the other half is dug allows participants to excavate while sitting or standing. It enables easier visual understanding of stratigraphic layers and phasing historical time periods. We also ensure trenches have enough space between them for easy wheelchair movement and have stools/chairs available for anyone who is physically unable to stand or kneel.
Participants finish AoP with the Winter Programme. This includes post excavation activities where participants write up the site records and research the local area, thus contributing to producing the site’s archaeological report. Participants also have the opportunity to reflect and respond to their experience on AoP, producing creative outputs which form a celebration exhibition as part of the wider York Archaeology Jorvik Viking Festival.
Lastly, an informal graduation celebration positively recognises each participant's experience to conclude their time.
Since the pilot, we learned that some participants find these endings difficult to manage. As such we ensure participants have a clear route through the programme from the beginning and celebrate them “graduating” onto further opportunities. A monthly graduate newsletter contains information about other archaeology volunteer opportunities in York, as well as updates from the site and artefacts uncovered since their participation.
In May 2022, the project’s success was recognised at the Museum & Heritage Awards, winning Community Engagement Project of the Year. Judges’ feedback stated the initiative was a “simple, strong, confident concept, one which is not limited in ambition or scope...It is both impactful and scalable and is actively changing lives”.
We intend to embed AoP sustainably in the mental health and wellbeing provision for York. We aim to remain at the forefront of the evolving social prescribing sector, be part of research into community mental health and wellbeing provision, build new partnerships with organisations in other social prescribing regions and continue to highlight the impact such heritage projects have in local communities.
AoP is currently the focus of a number of academic papers, MA research degrees and articles, and York Archaeology is connected with local and national museum, heritage and archaeology networks.
We are always willing to share our knowledge with organisations looking to explore social prescribing as part of their community engagement offer.
Meg Barclay is the community engagement officer at York Archaeology