Archaeology at Home
In early March 2020, the world went into lockdown. Like many other cultural heritage organisations, DigVentures realised the arc of the COVID-19 pandemic was a watershed moment for our organisational survival as well as the global future of the sector. Our project, ‘Archaeology at Home’ was launched as an instant response to the conditions imposed on the practice of public archaeology by COVID-19 lockdown. With field activities almost impossible, we remodeled ourselves, using a digital platform as a means of expansion when most others were confined to working on screens in isolation. The questions of this time were huge: can we transcend physical visitation and drive enough deep touch engagement to sustain our organisation? Is there enough public appetite for virtual archaeology experiences and digital content? Can we replace or significantly augment sharp decreases in funding due to the pandemic? And if so, how do we move past existing success metrics to embrace and understand what participation and impact look like in the post-COVID world, and what does this mean for the recovery of the global cultural heritage sector? DigVentures is a not-for-profit social business and UK Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) Registered Organisation, pioneering a collaborative, tech-enabled model of participation in archaeology. Founded in 2012, DV’s mission is to deliver top-quality, research-driven archaeological work in collaboration with citizens, businesses, organisations and government, ultimately enabling places to thrive, prosper and sustain distinct local identities. In addition to benefits for participants, our projects demonstrably increase the awareness and amenity of heritage sites and visitor attractions, expanding visitation across both physical and digital tourism experiences. What Happened? On the 28th of March 2020, as a direct response to the pandemic, we released the ‘Archaeology at Home’ project, comprising three distinct streams: light-hearted videos including virtual site tours and workshops; an online Virtual Fieldschool; and finally, the two-day DigNation festival. We provided this content for free amidst the global crisis to ensure that that even when most archaeologists were working alone and in isolation, we could still come together and bring top-quality research to the attention of the world. In total, we welcomed over 11,000 people from 90 countries across the three streams of the project [distribution maps included in photos attached]. We watched as our international colleagues and community made personal connections through the medium of a shared passion for archaeology, across language barriers and time zones, celebrating achievement, expressing fear, and helping each other cope with circumstances. ‘Archaeology at Home’ attracted a substantial number of European participants, comprising over 7,100 people from 19 countries across the Virtual Field School and DigNation festival. The international dimension was particularly apparent in the festival open call, resulting in 34 presentations from archaeological teams in 26 countries. Positioned as an experiment in technology-enabled participation, it was vital that ‘Archaeology at Home’ could be comprehensively evaluated to understand potential positive and negative impacts, and this too required a step change in DV’s processes. We scaled pre-existing methodology to evaluate 11,242 overall participants; this evaluation framework is structured through a Theory of Change, detailing outputs, outcomes and impacts, linked to a Standards of Evidence framework designed to articulate and highlight the causal links between activity and change. As a result, we have been able to pinpoint impact: where results were directly linked to our activities, and to further track these results through to changes in perceptions and behaviours. ‘Archaeology at Home’ was a major impact success, and is potentially the largest and most comprehensively evaluated digital archaeology initiative so far undertaken in Europe. The inclusive design of our project attracted a diverse audience which extended far past the traditional demographics normally associated with community/public archaeology activities, resulting in a range of routine, supervisory, intermediate and managerial occupations (63%), a much smaller number of retirees (15%). The remaining participants were students (14%), or long-term unemployed (8%). Not only was this an entirely new audience for DigVentures, but a high percentage of participants were new to archaeology in general (29%) [Figures and Data Visualisations can be supplied]. Not only was this an entirely new audience for DigVentures, but a high percentage of participants were new to archaeology in general. We implemented an opt-in funding model (Subscriptions plus a ‘Tip Jar’); due to the high volume of take up, this new revenue stream now exceeds the total amount of our retail offer income in 2019. There was no pre-planned budget for ‘Archaeology at Home,’ given that it was a response to sudden world events. Incremental spending was directed to external developers, with all other contributions in the form of donated time, including DV internal staff hours. The Numbers In total, our project attracted 11,242 participants. The Virtual Field School accounted for 7,942 from 80 countries, including one cohort for children (NB: 1,844 children and their parents/guardians from 11 countries). This represented a 3,107% year on year audience increase on pre-lockdown participation, comprising 503,059 page views over 18 weeks with an average dwell time of 2.21 minutes on each page, indicating a high degree of engagement. The DV Learning Management System is designed to encourage social connection in each cohort, which took on a highly significant dimension in the context of COVID-19. This resulted in a highly engaged Facebook Study Group culminating in 54,400 user interactions (1,800 user generated posts, 11,500 comments and 41,100 post reactions) The DigNation Festival was also a major engagement success, attracting an audience of 3,300 from 61 countries, resulting in 42,471 page views over the course of the weekend, and 550 audience comments. The Project Model The post-COVID ‘new’ normal is leading to a different type of cultural tourism; in many European countries, people are looking for leisure activities in rural areas rather than traditional urban centres. Not everyone is able to access these areas, and that is where the ‘Archaeology at Home’ project model takes centre stage. The role of archaeology in place-making and sense of identity is of recognised importance, and a project like ours that harnesses the potential of digital content, virtual experiences and social communications to encourage such large numbers of people to continue to find and actively engage with archaeology and history creates a positive effect that will endure for years to come. ‘Archaeology at Home’ has united individual citizens across the world alongside professional archaeologists and researchers, creating one of the biggest and most inclusive convocations of people participating in archaeological study and conversation together that has ever occurred. As a global public archaeology experiment, it is an unparalleled benchmark for what can be accomplished with a scalable initiative, smart design, and professional commitment to innovation. There are many positive, powerful lessons that we have learned from this project, and we are eager to share them with our colleagues around the world. The project model is demonstrably highly resilient in the face of crisis, taking advantage of modern technology and creative community building. ‘Archaeology at Home’ demonstrates a way forward for others willing to make similar commitments to their audiences and communities, adopting people-powered creative and inventive strategies to keep citizens at the very heart of cultural activities. The COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to be the only sudden and dramatic emergency that we face in the coming years, and certainly there are other threats on the horizon that will challenge cultural heritage even more specifically such as climate change, population redistribution, and global political uncertainty. Resilience is essential to the cultural sector's survival, and our project has shown one route forward. We believe that ‘Archaeology at Home’ has changed forever what is possible for archaeologists in communicating their work and involving citizens in funding, participating and caring for cultural heritage. We would love to win the Europeana/Heritage in Motion Award to bring further profile and acceptance of these new ways of working, in the hopes of inspiring museums, heritage destinations and practitioners across Europe to adopt some of these techniques to help stimulate the interest and revenues required for future survival.