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Identifying and communicating the ‘wows’ of archaeology outdoors

A research project of the Department of Archaeology


This work forms part of a collaborative research project between the National Trust (NT) and Durham University’s Department of Archaeology into what archaeological experiences outdoors make people say ‘wow!’ and into how such exceptional experiences can be delivered most effectively by the NT to different audiences.

This research builds upon innovative archaeological heritage studies in the North East of England recently undertaken by staff in Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, at Wearmouth and Jarrow (by Professor Sarah Semple) and at Hadrian’s Wall (by Profesor Richard Hingley and Dr Rob Witcher). It is also informed by global-scale developments in public archaeology written about by Profesor Robin Skeates.

It aligns closely with the needs of the NT, but is also of relevance to related major cultural organisations such as the UNESCO, English Heritage, the National Parks and the National Trails. The NT is dedicated to ‘growing the nation’s love of special places’ – of which archaeological sites comprise a significant proportion. More specifically, this research is embedded within the NT’s 9-year Getting Outdoors and Closer to Nature Programme (GOACN - which began in 2010).

Long-term goals

This research will ultimately bring about beneficial and cumulative change on three levels:

  1. NT policy – on the conservation and public presentation of archaeological sites in the landscape;
  2. NT practice across England, Wales and Northern Ireland – informing and training NT staff and volunteers about what dimensions of archaeological sites in the landscape can reach and engage a range of audiences and about what communication approaches can be developed to connect more people with these sites;
  3. Visitor experiences of NT archaeological sites in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – connecting a range of people with the historic environment by enabling emotional and inspiring experiences of archaeological sites.

Phase 1 of the project (2014)

A pilot-study was undertaken in July 2014 at two contrasting, archaeologically-rich, NT properties in Yorkshire and the North East – Hardcastle Crags on the urban-fringe of Halifax, and the iconic Hadrian’s Wall in Northumbria’s rural uplands. Here, Skeates and two Durham University students obtained qualitative data using a range of research methods:

  1. structured interviews
  2. grounded observations
  3. visual analysis
  4. textual and e-research

Phase 2 of the project

This pilot-study provided a basis for more extensive research and experimentation at NT archaeological sites in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which in turn led to the design and evaluation of a set of guidelines on ‘Discovering Archaeology Outdoors’, for use by staff and volunteers at NT properties with archaeological features and/or collectionsHighlights have included: visitor studies undertaken at two ‘Woodland Archaeology Festival’ events run by rural regeneration company, Pennine Prospects’, at Hardcastle Crags in June 2017; production and evaluation of a Woodland Archaeology photographic exhibition (using photographs produced during Phase 1 of our project) at Hardcastle Crags Visitor Centre, installed between October 2017 and March 2018; and visitor, volunteer and staff studies undertaken at Clumber Park in the Midlands between 25 and 29 July 2018, during a public archaeology excavation event and related ‘Lost Treasures’ exhibition.

Stone nineteenth century stone cotton mill buildings and bridge

 Photograph of Hadrian's Wall and countryside

Staff from the Department of Archaeology

  • Professor Robin Skeates