‘Archaeology on Prescription’ health and wellbeing project launched in York

A community archaeology pilot project is underway at Willow House in the Walmgate area of York

York Archaeological Trust, which also trades under the name York Archaeology, has launched a new community project at the former Willow House care home in the Walmgate area of York, specifically designed to improve participants’ health and wellbeing while teaching them new skills in archaeology.

‘Archaeology on Prescription’ is a nine-week pilot project encouraging local residents to get involved in an excavation at the site, just a stone’s throw from York’s city walls, which the Trust hopes will build a fuller picture of the history of the area, from the medieval period through to the present day.

The team behind the project has been working with local partner organisations to recruit participants, including Converge (an education hub for adults with mental health needs, run by York St John University) and Changing Lives (who work with people in crisis, including those recovering from addiction). Katrina Gargett, Community Engagement Officer for York Archaeology, said the initiative was geared towards improving social connections, self-esteem, and confidence.

York Archaeological Trust The initiative has been designed to get people involved in archaeology while promoting health and wellbeing.
Image: York Archaeological Trust

The excavation at Willow House has rich archaeological potential. Arran Johnson, Project Officer with York Archaeology, explained that the site had been occupied by terraced housing and a cattle market in the Victorian era, while in the Middle Ages the area was home to the church of St Peter-le-Willows.

Sarah Maltby, director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust, said, ‘This would be a great site for archaeological exploration at any time, but this scheme will see us working with a host of organisations from across the city to identify groups of people who would benefit from experiencing this kind of excavation first hand.

Participants have been experiencing archaeological discovery first hand.
Image: York Archaeological Trust

‘We’ve had a team on site clearing the overgrown foliage, including volunteers from Good Gym, and at the start of this week and we’ve removed the turf from the area we’re planning to dig working with our first groups of participants from York St John’s Converge programme and Changing Lives.’

The project blog reports that participants have already started to make important archaeological discoveries. Converge student Nana Nelly found fingerprints on a medieval roof tile during the first week of excavations (6-9 September), while in week two (13-16 September) fellow participants Chad and Anna found sherds of Staffordshire Slipware. The dig has also uncovered fragments of 12th– and 13th-century glazed pottery, but the oldest find reported so far is a piece of Roman pottery, uncovered by Converge student Jane.

Nana Nelly found an intriguing fragment of medieval roof tile, complete with historic fingerprints.
Image: York Archaeological Trust

The team held an open day on Saturday 11 September, at the end of week one, to introduce the project to members of the local community, who are also being invited to take part in the excavation. ‘Over the coming months, we’ll extend the invitation to take part to anyone who feels they would benefit from this kind of outdoors activity – and we are particularly keen to hear from people who have never been involved in a heritage or archaeology project before. We are therefore also working closely with the Walmgate Community Association and Red Tower Community Hub,’ said Sarah.

The project is focused on community engagement and building social connections.
Image: York Archaeological Trust

The team behind the project is also interested in speaking to people from the local area as part of an ongoing oral history project. ‘We are really keen to hear from local people about their experiences living and working around Walmgate, too, as part of our Voluntary Voices project,’ said Sarah.

‘How has life changed here, with different communities coming and going over the last few years? We want to hear people’s memories about life in this part of the city so that we can record today’s history for future generations, as related by the people who have seen major events and changes as they happened,’ Sarah added.

The Trust hopes to secure enough support and funding to facilitate running ‘Archaeology on Prescription’ on an annual basis. The pilot scheme has been supported by the Ed De Nunzio Charitable Trust, City of York Council and Make It York’s ‘Culture and Wellbeing’ fund, and the Arnold Clark Community Fund.