On community archaeology

This month I was lucky enough to spend a week at the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) in north-west Norfolk. A long-term research project, started in 1996 by Neil Faulkner, SHARP is exploring the origins and development of an English village with its manor, church, graveyard and local lands. The project is an experiment in democratic archaeology that rejects formal research designs in favour of a flexible approach to aims, methods and interpretation (1). Perhaps best-known for its excavation of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery – known locally as The Boneyard –  the project encompasses evidence for settlement here from the Stone Age onwards, including a Roman villa, the 17th century manor, and the 20th century airfield. 
 
The project runs for 6 weeks each summer and many volunteers spend the whole period camped at the site, working six days a week on excavation. Other less hardy folk (such as myself) stay off-site and go for a shorter time, but everyone arrives at 8.20 each day for the morning briefing and open forum, and everyone eats together in the central marquee.
 
 
The small army of volunteers (around 40 during my week, but sometimes up to 80) consists of professionals, amateurs, volunteers, and local people. Many participants are students, some from Europe and the USA, while others are older people developing their interest in archaeology during their retirement. A significant number of these volunteers make the SHARP season an annual commitment in their calendar. Most of the conversations around the lunch table revolve around interpretations of the morning’s excavation and there is enormous enthusiasm for the work, even when it rains. I excavated a small section of a ditch which may have contained a palisade. Although I could only attend for a week, I was able to experience the sense of a community working together with a strong sense of purpose and an enthusiastic work ethic. 
 
While I was there a nascent community archaeology group was visiting to find out how SHARP works. This is surely one of the project’s most valuable contributions – to be able to provide a model for a self-sustaining but rigorous archaeological research project with volunteers at its heart. A very enjoyable week with much food for thought.
 
(1) For more background see ‘The Sedgeford project, Norfolk: an experiment in popular participation and dialectical method’ by Neil Faulkner http://www.ai-journal.com/articles/abstract/10.5334/ai.0506/
 
News in brief
 
  • In the news: EDP coverage (03.08.2015) of the annual service at St Benet's Abbey, and The Friends of St Benet's Abbey (TFOSBA) special boat trip (all 100 tickets sold)
  • Sunday August 15th 3.00pm: Special guided tour at St Benet's Abbey - one of a series of guided walks taking place across England on the same day celebrating our National Parks. More details: https://speakout.38degrees.org.uk/campaigns/national-parks-hub
  • TFOSBA guided tours continue throughout August: Saturdays & Sundays, commencing at 3pm; and each Wednesday commencing at 2pm