Archaeology on Prescription: Using fieldwork to support York’s mental health provision

An award-winning social prescribing project has been excavating thousands of years of history within the Walmgate area of York. Meg Barclay reports on its recent finds and how the initiative has been supporting the mental health and wellbeing of local residents.


Just inside York’s historic walls, in the shadow of its best-preserved medieval gateway, Walmgate Bar, excavations headed by York Archaeology have been exploring thousands of years of local history. Although today the site is home to Willow House, a former care home that is scheduled for redevelopment, until the 1950s it had been covered with residential buildings of a very different kind: closely packed terraces built in the 19th century to house the impoverished families who flocked to work in the city’s flourishing industries. Moving further back in time to the Civil War, this area was subjected to months of intense cannon-fire during the 1644 Siege of York. It is also the site of a medieval mystery: historical documents attest that the evocatively named church of St Peter-in-the-Willows was built somewhere close-by before 1279, but it was demolished in 1549 and very little is known about its wider story – including its exact location. Finally, we know that many of the site’s plot boundaries were established in the 10th century, when this was a bustling area of Anglo-Scandinavian trade and, as in so much of York, there was a good chance of uncovering Roman remains, too.

Excavating possible 19th-century backyard walls on Archaeology on Prescription’s Willow House site.

Taken together, Willow House seemed like a promising location for a productive community dig – but there is another key facet to our ongoing project: it forms the focus of Archaeology on Prescription (AoP), an award-winning social prescribing project that uses fieldwork as a tool to support mental health and wellbeing for York’s residents. Now in its second year (thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund providing core financial support until 2025, which has been generously matched by other parties including the City of York Council and the NHS), AoP caters for adults experiencing mild to moderate mental health conditions, as well as those with learning difficulties or physical disabilities, and people who are neurodivergent or experiencing loneliness and isolation. Since its initial pilot AoP has had a visibly transformative effect on the wellbeing of our participants, demonstrating the potential power of heritage to support mental health in wider society – but to achieve this, projects like AoP need to become sustainably embedded in local mental health provision.

How does our initiative work? Social prescribing is a well-established NHS innovation, in which GPs are able to offer their patients physical or cultural activities as a form of non-medical support within their local communities. AoP operates within this model, meaning that our participants are already on a wellbeing journey with a defined start and end date, and with us they are able to take part in outdoor excavation sessions at Willow House (York Archaeology has been granted use of the building and surrounding land for this purpose by the City of York Council). While our main finds have related to the remains of 19th-century housing, including brickwork, drains and refuse pits with pottery and animal bone, and tobacco pipes, we have uncovered artefacts spanning millennia of York’s story, from Bronze Age arrowheads and Roman pottery to fragments of Norman gritty ware and green-glazed medieval ceramics. While the construction of the care home has disturbed the site’s stratigraphy, it does mean that there is a really diverse range of finds for our participants to uncover just below the surface. Above all, we aim to make archaeology more accessible for those who come through our programme, providing opportunities to excavate, record, and report results; to learn about local heritage; and to gain real archaeological research skills. Those who complete the project are part of something larger than their individual experiences: they are producing the site’s archaeological record.

AoP offers participants a range  of excavation- and non-excavation- related activities.

Participating in the past

Being a social prescription project, we work closely with organisations and link workers across the city, including the York Centre for Voluntary Services and the NHS, through appropriate referrals from primary and secondary care providers. Following an initial taster session, referred participants attend weekly sessions and undertake activities across the archaeological process, including excavating, finds-processing, and recording; from 2022 there were 18 referrals, with a further 26 taking part in our current dig. We also work with local non-statutory well-being organisations supporting adults’ access to learning resources, as well as people in recovery, and young adults with learning differences. From here, a further 85 participants have currently been recruited, and this number is set to increase by the end of the 2023 season.

Developing close relationships with link workers, social prescribers, and community organisations is key to supporting our participants’ needs and interests. Keeping these communications open means that we can be aware of any access requirements, while knowing about individuals’ knowledge and historical interests helps us to tailor sessions to the people taking part in them – there is a broad range, too, of excavation and non-excavation activities available for participants to choose from. We also prioritise working in small groups, with one member of staff to every two participants per session. This creates a positive, welcoming environment, free from ‘big group anxieties’, which we find helps social relationships between participants to flourish. Keeping numbers limited also ensures there is time to break down archaeological skills and knowledge into manageable, accessible, and understandable units, explained using non-academic language.

In terms of making archaeology more accessible, there are a number of techniques that we have found to be particularly effective. One of these is creating a tiered trench, divided lengthways, with half excavated to 1.2m before the other half is dug – this allows people with mobility needs to excavate while sitting or standing. It also enables easier visual understanding of stratigraphic layers and the phasing of historical time-periods. We always ensure that trenches are spaced far enough apart to allow for easy wheelchair movement between them, and have stools/chairs available to accommodate those who are physically unable to stand or kneel.

Time to reflect

The creation of tiered trenches and provision of seating helps to make archaeology more accessible for people with mobility needs.

Each phase of AoP finishes with the Winter programme, which is a period of reflection and creativity inspired by participants’ time on the project. It includes indoor sessions dedicated to digital post-excavation recording, and to research for the final archaeological report, and was developed alongside participant interest, as the site activities came to an end, in maintaining the effects that we had been working to boost. By ending with an exhibition and an informal graduation celebration, this programme has become a natural conclusion to the project that recognises participants’ experiences and allows for reflection and reconnection with their AoP journey.

When their time with us is over, participants are signposted to further volunteer opportunities within AoP as peer mentors, within York Archaeology, and on other community excavations in Yorkshire, through a graduate newsletter. Clear archaeological follow-on opportunities are essential to underpin improvements in participants’ wellbeing, inspiring these to continue, and they have helped to make AoP a reliable, trusted part of mental health and wellbeing provision within York. Participants have positive, focused direction into future opportunities where relationships formed, and knowledge and experience gained, continue after the programme ends.

A reflective crafting session, which forms part of AoP’s Winter programme.

Our staff, too, are always learning as part of AoP. We provide training in Mental Health First Aid, professional boundaries, and disability awareness, and would recommend this for any organisations running wellbeing activities with vulnerable people. We commission monthly, externally led staff supervision to provide a safe forum to discuss any support needs, and we have also restructured the original programme design to include time for debriefing and reflective practice within the working day. Above all, we continue to review our methodologies regularly to maintain a best-practice approach, and AoP continues to evolve.

The success of our project so far is encouraging, highlighting the potential power of other heritage and archaeology initiatives to make an important contribution to the wellbeing of society generally. To help quantify this, we undertake various non-medicalised evaluation activities to get immediate and long-term responses from participants, highlighting the impact that AoP has had on them. One participant, for example, said: ‘My family have noticed a huge difference in my mood and motivation the night before my AoP sessions and then my excitement after the session talking about what we have found.’ A link worker noted that: ‘I had a wonderful visit to AoP this morning with a patient who has now enrolled in the programme – [they] wasn’t feeling confident about going out and doing anything but came away from the session with a huge smile on [their] face – thank you so much for the amazing work you do.’

In May 2022, AoP’s transformative effects on York’s residents was recognised at the Museum + Heritage Awards, where we won Community Engagement Project of the Year. Judges were impressed by the initiative’s ‘simple, strong, confident concept, one which is not limited in ambition or scope…It is both impactful and scalable and is actively changing lives.’

In the future, we intend to continue to embed AoP as a long-term, sustained social prescribing offer in York, remaining at the forefront of the evolving social prescribing sector. We will continue exploring new opportunities, while building new partnerships with organisations in other social prescribing regions beyond the city, disseminating the impact that such a project can have on the lives of as many people as possible.

Further information
For more details of Archaeology on Prescription, see

Meg Barclay is Community Engagement Officer at York Archaeology.

Images: York Archaeology