Archaeology, Heritage, and Wellbeing: authentic, powerful, and therapeutic engagement with the past

Review by Timothy Darvill

Using archaeological sites and museum collections in new and imaginative ways to improve people’s wellbeing has become a significant theme in recent years. This wide-ranging volume of essays provides a welcome addition to the fast-growing literature on the subject, its chapters exploring the context of heritage and wellbeing, and providing a varied selection of detailed case studies.

The big question of what we mean by ‘wellbeing’ is incisively explored in the first chapter, where the authors recognise that the term is widely applied, capturing various aspects of mental and physical health. Archaeology has tended to take a similarly broad perspective, with much recent work aimed towards social prescribing, whether as preventative or remedial therapy. Other chapters contributing to the wider context are rather mixed, ranging from Everill’s highly personalised account of his own journey in archaeology to various attempts to theorise, systematise, and provide strategic structure to heritage and wellbeing programmes.

By far the most interesting chapters are those that provide case studies of the content and effectiveness of therapy programmes run over recent years. These are diverse geographically, in terms of the heritage used, and with reference to the audiences targeted. Five chapters focus on ex-service veterans and the particular mental-health issues that they face, while museum collections and landscapes are important recurring themes. It is clear from the results presented that many of these programmes are having a significant effect on wellbeing.

Many chapters rightly emphasise the importance of using recognised measures to document impact, and many examples of good practice are presented here that will be of use to others. It might be argued, however, that archaeology has contributed to the enhancement of wellbeing for decades through activities such as lectures, field trips, surveys, and excavations run by local groups. This one of the reasons why these groups are so important not just to archaeology but to the very fabric of society. Recognising and promoting the work of these communities is perhaps the next step in strengthening the links between heritage and wellbeing.

Archaeology, Heritage, and Wellbeing: authentic, powerful, and therapeutic engagement with the past
Paul Everill and Karen Burnell (eds.)
Routledge, £120 (hardback); paperback and e-Book also available
ISBN 978-1032021652