Chester’s archaeology students get to learn about the past, how to investigate the past, but how to debate and interpret the past using material evidence. Integral to these pursuits, they also get to appreciate and tackle public archaeology’s many faces. They debate the politics and public aspects of archaeological research, but also how to engage the public with archaeological evidence and issues. To this end, for third-year module ‘HI6001 Archaeology and Contemporary Society’ students organised and presented their own free, public day-conference on 5 April 2017.

Me between our guest speakers – Dr Mike Heyworth (left) and Dr Lorna Richardson (right)

This was the second-ever University of Chester Student Archaeology Conference following on from the successful first public day conference Dead Relevant in April 2016.

While last year the focus was mortuary archaeology, this year the emphasis turned to public engagement with communities. Therefore, the students addressed the theme ‘Archaeo-Engage: Engaging Communities in Archaeology‘. With guidance, the 13 students had to organise and publicise the conference, including designing their own logo, setting up social media accounts, setting up a blog and creating their own logo. They had to liaise with the venue – the Grosvenor Museum, Chester – and with guest speakers (see below). They also were expected to identify and research their own topic and offer a presentation at this public, free day confereence.

Mike Heyworth on the origins of the Council for British Archaeology

The students had to organise the day, acting as greeters and five of the students chaired the panels and guest speakers. They brought the biscuits too!

Final-year students listening to their peer talk about citizen sciene and archaeology

This year, 13 students gave presentations on different dimensions of public archaeology from the archaeological and heritage themes in video games and the virtual reality interfaces being developed for heritage applications, to the archaeology of homelessness and the portrayal of archaeologists in television.

Dr Lorna Richardson talking about perceived threats to professional identity from public engagement

The conference is a formative element leading to a summative assignment for students taking HI6001 addressing the question: ‘What is the future of archaeological engagements with communities?’ I’m looking forward to reading the student essays, enhanced and revised following reflection on the issues raised by each other, the audience, the guest speakers, and further research following their conference presentations.

The modes of delivery varied considerably and this was a really distinctive aspect of the day. Eight students gave talks supported by Powerpoint, one presented a poster and explained its contents, another presented a vlog and one a podcast. There were also two students presenting via installations: one created drawings of archaeological contexts, one creating a Playmobil museum. You can learn more about the conference here.

In addition, we had two superb guest speakers – Dr Lorna Richardson of Umea University, Sweden, and Dr Mike Heyworth, Director of the CBA – both of whom offered different perspectives on the future of public archaeology.

Student Aaron Clarke created a Playmobil Museum

With vibrant and incisive Q&A and discussions over breaks and lunch, this was a stimulating, diverse and important day. Almost all papers had some relevance to mortuary archaeology.

For instance, Aaron Clarke’s talk addressed a Playmobil museum, including the display of human remains. Meanwhile Jonathan Felgate discussed the rise of citizen science in the context of long-term ‘amateur’ involvement in archaeology since before archaeology as a discipline existed, including barrow-digging. Hannah Proctor’s paper focused specifically on the challenges faced in reconstructing early medieval graves by artists in museums and publications.

Barrow-digging debates

Because the students still have to write up their papers for submission as assessed coursework, I won’t discuss their content any further here, but to shout out congratulations on all the students for being a credit to the Department, the University, and showing their rich potential as future archaeologists and heritage professionals.

Bryony discussing homelessness and archaeology

Along the way, postgraduate students Abbie, Brian and Gary helped them achieve this conference, and my colleagues Caroline and Amy were key to supporting their learning and addressing key debates during the module.

In short, Archaeo-Engage was a top conference and an important one for driving forward new ideas for how archaeologists engage communities.

The University of Chester’s video of the entire event can be viewed here.