Extending an earlier post from 2019 in which I surveyed the first 3 events, this post reviews and briefly evaluates the 6 University of Chester Archaeology Student Conferences from 2016-2021. Synergising student learning, research and public engagement through a series of final-year student archaeology conferences, in 5 instances they have led to peer-reviewed academic publications involving student editors and student authors. Each with a distinctive and original theme hitherto not addressed in UK academia and involving the participation and organisation of final-year Archaeology students, they simultaneously served as academic conferences, public outreach events, and formative pedagogic exercises for students taking the module HI6001 Archaeology and Contemporary Society.

Background – Archaeology in Contemporary Society

Archaeology is as much about our present and future as our past. At Chester, we have long delivered a core module for final-year single honours Archaeology students called ‘HI6001 – Archaeology and Contemporary Archaeology’ in which the ethics, politics and practice of archaeological research in today’s world is explored.

The module critically explores the many intersections and significances of the discipline for contemporary society, addressing a range of key issues from climate change and digital and media archaeologies, to the insights and critiques provided by archaeologists on today’s global diasporas and the rise of pseudoarchaeology and alt-right misuses of the past.

More than ever before, our society needs solid, informed, loud and clear voices to communicate the latest research on the past in order to evaluate, critique and challenge the uses and significances of the past in the present.

The conference idea

To further foster student participation in, and communication of, archaeological research within their undergraduate degree programmes, a key pedagogic innovation in this module took place from 2016 until 2021. As a formative exercise leading to their summative assignments, final-year single honours Archaeology students were tasked with designing, advertising, organising and populating a public free academic day conference on a specific and key theme in public archaeological research.

Cheshire West and Chester’s Grosvenor Museum kindly agreed to host the events up to the COVID pandemic lockdown circumstances from March 2020 made this no longer possible and a fully digital 2021 conference took its place. This made the first 5 conferences fully accessible and free face-to-face events within the heart of the city of Chester to as many people as possible. The 6th conference was distinctive in its own right, delivered via multiple media incorporating live and pre-recorded contributions.

What was the benefit for students and our academic institution? As well as enhancing opportunities for students to research, communicate and debate archaeology’s significance in contemporary society, the events would also show-case the University and Department. Equally, they provided a venue to invite guest speakers on the topic to enhance student learning, and encourage students to develop not only knowledge and skills but also their confidence as both proficient researchers and public debaters. Through the combination of public talk, debates and video-recorded dissemination, the aim is to afford students with an appreciation of how archaeologists might operate as public educators and (in some regards) as public intellectuals, applying their ideas and approaches to broader societal debates.

What was the benefit for the public, researchers and practitioners? By creating free, public conferences as formative student exercises in liaison with, and generous hosting by, CWAC’s Grosvenor Museum, and supported by the Department of History and Archaeology, the events operated as staging points for a bigger strategy of student engagement in original research in public archaeology.

To publication

Early on, the decision was made to augment the conference experience with a further opportunity for learning about how archaeologists work to communicate their research to each other and wider audiences. So, I proposed taking forward select proceedings of each event to publication with those students involved in editorial and authorial roles who wished to participate. Each volume includes chapters by established and expert heritage practitioners and academics, as well as forewords and afterwords by leading voices in the fields addressed by each book. The books stemming from conferences 3-5 also include interviews with leading experts on the topic being addressed.

The student conferences thus created the potential to subsequently involve students in a series of academic research outputs. I committed to leading each conference towards peer-reviewed publications and this has now been concluded for conferences 1-4, with a book stemming from the 5th conference forthcoming in 2022.

The decision was made not to pursue the proceedings from the 6th conference through to publication. This was partly because the entire event is digitally available in any case, but also because of the phenomenal workload involved in producing conferences 1-5 and, also because there was no ongoing support for the publication element of this venture. My colleagues have this year tried something different: students working on heritage interpretation panels linked to their second-year CAER excavation project in the Grosvenor Park.

Dead Relevant? Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society The 1st University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference 19 April 2016

The first University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference was hosted by CWAC’s Grosvenor Museum as a free public event. It focused on a key area of my research: ‘public mortuary archaeology’ – the ethics and practices of public engagement with human remains and mortuary contexts (tombs, cemeteries, memorials and grave-goods) in museums, heritage sites, academic and popular publications and digital media. With support and guidance from me as module leader, the event was designed, promoted and organised by students who sorted out the programme and chaired sessions. As such, it built on my previous work in field of public mortuary archaeology.

In addition to the student presentations, the day also included a fabulous and far-ranging keynote lecture by Dr Ing-Marie Back Danielsson of Southampton and Uppsala Universities.

The first conference was also recorded by Learning and Information Services at the University, thus creating a permanent record of the event for public dissemination.

Subsequently, I worked with those students who wished to be involved in both the editing process and authoring contributions. The long and complex editorial process resulted in a peer-reviewed edited collection published in January 2019 by Sheffield-based academic publishers Equinox Press. This co-edited book contained both student contributions and high-profile heritage professionals and academics. The book also benefitted from expert reflections on the pedagogic value of the conference and publication for students as co-creators of research by Dr Karina Croucher and Dr Jodie Lewis. Not only does it constitute a quality academic book, it was one of only a few collections to consider mortuary archaeological theory and practice in its contemporary popular culture context:

The Dead Relevant 1st UoC conference proceedings reaches publication in Jan 2019!

ArchaeoEngage – Engaging Communities in Archaeology – The 2nd UoC Archaeology Student Conference – 5th April 2017

The second student conference took place on 5 April 2017 and tackled the theme of ArchaeoEngage: Engaging Communities in Archaeology. The conference theme originated as broader one than the first, allowing students to explore a range of ways by which archaeologists might engage communities digitally and in the real world. This theme tied my research interests and experience with the expertise of colleague Dr Caroline Pudney. Again, this was a free public event hosted by CWAC’s Grosvenor Museum deployed as a formative exercise for final-year single honours Archaeology students taking HI6001 – Archaeology and Contemporary Society.

There were two keynote speakers for the first time, affording their perspectives on public archaeology in the UK today: Dr Mike Heyworth and Dr Lorna Richardson. A further distinctive feature was that the students innovated in a wider range of presentation formats including vlogs, posters and podcasts. Once again, LIS video-recorded the entire event: https://vimeo.com/album/4579092

Student Aaron Clarke presents using a Playmobil museum

The edited book adopted a new title and focus, since art/archaeology collaborations and interactions emerged as a distinctive focus for both the student contributions and those proposed and commissioned from heritage practitioners and academics. Thus Public Archaeology: Arts of Engagement was published in the same year as The Public Archaeology of Death but we selected a different format. This involved more work and responsibility for me as lead editor, but it is secured the publication of the book rapidly and as part of an open-access book series by Archaeopress: their ‘Access Archaeology’ series. Again, the book was co-edited with a student, Afnan Ezzeldin. A further distinctive element was the editorial input of my aforementioned colleague, Caroline.

Dr Caroline Pudney, Afnan Ezzeldin and me

Digging into the Dark Ages The 3rd UoC Archaeology Student Conference – 13th December 2017

The third student conference was another successful event, focusing attention on the controversial topic of public archaeologies of the Early Middle Ages (often popularly referred to as ‘The Dark Ages’ but widely known as the ‘early medieval period’ in Europe). As well an exciting range of formative student presentations, the event incorporated two keynote talks by leading experts in digital public archaeology and early medieval archaeology respectively: Dr Chiara Bonacchi (University of Stirling) and Dr Adrian Maldonado (National Museum of Scotland).

Me, participating in student promotional activities for the conference

Note: given the particular sensitivities of the topics addressed, the decision was made not to video the student presentations, contrasting with the videos made for conferences 1 and 2.

The Digging into the Dark Ages logo!

With a broad series of UoC undergraduates joining a host of commissioned papers on the public archaeology of the Early Middle Ages, the book was also published open access by Archaeopress. Again, this was co-edited with a student, this time Pauline Clarke.

In addition to the student chapters and peer-reviewed chapters by academics and heritage practitioners, a distinctive new strand was a series of interviews exploring dimensions that might otherwise not have reached print. This third book was a first of its kind: never before had their been a study dedicated to the investigation of public archaeologies for the Early Middle Ages.

Dr Chiara Bonacchi and Dr Adrian Maldonado delivered superb talks at the third UoC Archaeology Student Conference: Digging into the Dark Ages, December 2017
A selection of the final-year students who organised and presented at the ‘Digging into the Dark Ages’ conference

Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands The 4th UoC Archaeology Student Conference – 20 March 2019

I selected another unique and original theme for the fourth public archaeology conference. Taking place once again as a day conference at the Grosvenor Museum, it was the first student conference to feature three keynote speakers who delivered talks on the heritage and politics of frontiers and borderlands: John G. Swogger, Dr Penelope Foreman and Professor Keith Ray. Students presented in groups for the first time, selecting specific themes relating to frontiers and borderlands past and present, from a public archaeology perspective.

Significantly, the topic explored – how public archaeology operates to explore and engage communities in past and present frontiers and borderlands – was a pressing one. The conference was particularly timely in that it coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Offa’s Dyke Association and reflected my ongoing role as co-convenor of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory and co-editor for the Offa’s Dyke Journal.

The publication followed the formula of the Digging into the Dark Ages book in combining student contributions, interviews and peer-reviewed chapters. Pauline Clarke, generously offered her editorial services again, and we were joined by Kieran Gleave, one of the student presenters. Kieran took the lead for this book and his efforts merited first-editorship.

The Public Archaeology of Treasure – 5th UoC Archaeology Student Conference – 31st January–1st February 2020

Yet another topic requiring critical attention by public archaeologists, the conference involved two guest speakers, Adam Daubney and Gail Boyle, addressing contrasting experiences and perspectives on the handling of ‘treasure’ and portable antiquities. There were a series of distinctive student talks, and a critical discussant in the form of Peter Reavill. Furthermore, this 5th conference was enhanced by the largest-ever number of experts in the audience as well as members of the public.

For the first time, the conference combined a real-world event at the Grosvenor Museum’s lecture theatre with a subsequent morning of Twitter presentations.

The publication of the select proceedings of this fifth conference is ‘forthcoming’ for 2022 at the time of writing. Initially it involved the work of students James Raine and Natasha Carr, but other commitments have prevented them staying with the project as editors. Recently, we recruited the editorial help of former undergraduate and just-completing MA student, Sammy Clague, together with the conference discussant Peter Reavill. Here is the draft front cover:

DigiDeath: Public Archaeologies of Digital Mortality – 6th UoC Archaeology Student Conference – 27th–28th January 2021

The pandemic hit and only a digital-only conference was on the cards for 2021. Yet the students worked hard, as on previous occasions, to create a distinctive event on yet another original theme. We reverted to an aspect of the first conference’s theme, tackling the ethics and practice of engagement publics with mortuary archaeology via digital media. In terms of organisation, the principal differences to earlier conference was three distinctive sections:

  • A Twitter conference on the evening of January 27 and morning of January 28;
  • A live Teams conference of student presentations and keynote speakers, with a triad of keynotes by Aoife Sutton, Dr Lindsey Buster and Dr Karina Croucher.
  • Pre-recorded video presentations in the early evening, culminating in a conference keynote by Dr Liv Nilsson Stutz.

In short, if the 5th UoC Archaeology Student Conference was a duet of events – one digital, one real-world – this 6th UoC Archaeology Student Conference was three conferences wrapped into one theme! The emphasis was specifically on evaluating the digital dimensions and engagement with public mortuary archaeology: in other words ‘digital public mortuary archaeology’. Presentations explored colonial gravestones to haunted heritage. Meanwhile, the keynotes and other external speakers provided perspective and insights regarding the sensitive topics under consideration.

Evaluation

For each year, students were given introductory and themed lectures on public archaeology but also specific themes to be covered. They were then given 4 workshops about conference organisation and implementation (including best inclusive practice) as well as how to plan, pitch, research and present at a conference. Each of these sessions involved a staff member and a teaching assistant. Rehearsal sessions were dedicated to help build conference and provide feedback to the students and, after each event, there was a debrief session. Individual tutorials and dialogue via email supported individual students in the process. We decided to retain the formative status of each evidence, rather than evaluating presentation skills, in order to allow students to receive feedback from the audience, guest speakers and each other, and refine their presentations in creating assignments for submission. This didn’t work for everyone, with some demanding credit for their organisational and presentation work. However, it is important to bear in mind that these requests usually came after the events had taken place and each event had gone well. If we had done that, some students who face stress, anxiety and other challenges with public speaking, whatever the medium on offer (and options were always provided) would have been unfairly excluded and penalised.

Each event was distinctive in its theme, structure and content. As well as their academic and public outreach components, they each served to enhance the student experience, knowledge and confidence with potential benefits for their careers, it is clear that this initiative hits points 2, 3, 4 and 6 of our University of Chester’s Teaching and Learning Strategy for 2017-2022 head-on:

  • Promoting innovation, imagination and creativity in the design, content and delivery of inclusive Teaching, Learning and Assessment;
  • Developing and enhancing of Partnership activity, with students, academia, industry and the community;
  • Embedding of Academic and Employability skills in the curriculum;
  • Delivering appropriate Learning Environments – both the enhancement of physical accommodation for extant and new provision, and support for the development of individual digital capabilities.

Yet the events themselves, 4 face-to-face, one hybrid and one fully digital, were enhanced the by opportunity afforded to students to participate in not only an event, the digital dissemination of their work but also in 5 instances an academic publication.

I aim to write a more critical evaluation of the conferences and their respective research outputs in another venue, but for now, wrapping up 6 years of public-facing student-driven events, I would contend these comprise an innovative approach to synergising archaeological teaching and research in UK higher education that I hope encourages others to replicate and adapt for different institutions and subject areas.