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Wheelbarrows full of mud: Improvising a learning programme on a community archaeology project


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What happens when you are asked to run a learning programme for young people on a community archaeology project, at the very last minute and with minimal resources? This paper is an overview and critical review of the programme that we and some of our students coordinated for a group of local children in the village of Villanueva de Santo Adriano, Asturias, Spain. It describes the planning and delivery of the five-day programme of activities, some of them standard fare for archaeological education and others improvised or designed for this specific site and excavation project. The paper looks at the feedback and aftermath of the project, including a shocking episode of vandalism, and reflects on the lessons and outcomes of the project.
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Wheelbarrows full of mud: Improvising a learning programme on
a community archaeology project
Gabriel Moshenska
, Sirio Canós-Donnay
and Jesús Fernández Fernández
UCL Institute of Archaeology, London, UK;
La PonteEcomuséu, Villanueva de Santo Adriano, Asturias, Spain
What happens when you are asked to run a learning programme for young
people on a community archaeology project, at the very last minute and
with minimal resources? This paper is an overview and critical review of
the programme that we and some of our students coordinated for a
group of local children in the village of Villanueva de Santo Adriano,
Asturias, Spain. It describes the planning and delivery of the ve-day
programme of activities, some of them standard fare for archaeological
education and others improvised or designed for this specic site and
excavation project. The paper looks at the feedback and aftermath of
the project, including a shocking episode of vandalism, and reects on
the lessons and outcomes of the project.
Archaeological education;
community archaeology;
ecomuseum; public
archaeology; vandalism
This article describes an improvised learning programme for young people that we ran at the last
minute, without a budget or a xed plan, as part of a wider community archaeology project. It
also reects on a close and ultimately problematic relationship that emerged between the excavation
team and some local young people. Our aim in sharing these experiences is to communicate honestly
some of the challenges, ambiguities and varied outcomes of programmes of this kind, and to outline
some lessons learned, both negative and positive. As such, we intend this as a modest contribution to
the research literature on involving young people in archaeological projects (e.g. Corbishley 2011;
Moe 2016; Smardz and Smith 2000; and for specically Spanish examples, see Moreno Torres and
Márquez-Grant 2011). We believe that there is a tendency for archaeological learning programmes,
particularly those aimed at young people, to be viewed through somewhat rose-tinted lenses, and to
gloss over negative outcomes and failures: a more honest approach to reection and reporting has
value for a developing discipline.
Background to the project
The programme in question took place under the auspices of the Community Archaeology of the
Commons in Asturias project, a collaboration between the La Ponte Ecomuseum in Villanueva de
Santo Adriano and the University College London (UCL) Institute of Archaeology (for further
details of this project and its archaeological ndings, see Moshenska and Fernández Fernández
2017; Fernández Fernández et al. 2018). Since 2015 the Ecomuseum team have worked with sta
and students from UCL to excavate part of a medieval settlement and its associated common agri-
cultural land. This community archaeology project is itself part of a larger project on the medieval
agrarian landscapes of Asturias (Fernández Mier et al. 2014).
© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Gabriel Moshenska UCL Institute of Archaeology, London, UK
Villanueva de Santo Adriano sits in a valley in central Asturias, some 15 kilometres south-west of
the regional capital Oviedo. The valley itself is a remarkable multi-period landscape featuring a ninth-
century church, medieval and post-medieval industrial remains, and two caves containing Palaeo-
lithic rock art. Through the eorts of the La Ponte Ecomuseum, a community-owned and led heritage
resource centre, many of the small and dwindling local population have an understanding and
appreciation of the archaeological heritage of the area. Aside from its archaeological work, the Eco-
museum runs heritage tours, maintains historic buildings and sites, and promotes the tangible and
intangible cultural heritage of the region (Alonso González and Fernández Fernández 2013; Fernán-
dez Fernández, Alonso González, and Navajas Corral 2015).
The focus of our eldwork project is the remains of the medieval settlement San Romano, which a
catastrophic ash-ood destroyed around the time of the onset of the Little Ice Age in the region
(c.1400), the remains buried under a thick layer of rock and debris carried down the steep hillside
by the fast-moving water (Fernández Fernández, Moshenska, and Iriarte 2017). Following a series
of test pits aimed at tracing the depth and extent of the alluvial material, we began a series of
larger trenches aimed at uncovering structural remains and retrieving bulk soil samples. The lower
levels of ood-borne material contained extensive structural remains including building stone and
roof tiles, and in 2017 and 2018 we found lines of postholes in the underlying layers. Future work
will focus on the search for further structural remains, although the deep layers of alluvial material
make geophysical survey impractical (Fernández Fernández, Moshenska, and Iriarte 2017).
The community archaeology element of the project is fundamental to our working philosophy and
is based on the involvement of the La Ponte Ecomuseum. Ecomuseums are community- owned and
-managed heritage hubs, often in rural areas, that provide a focus for a range of activities including
guided walks, community events, traditional music and crafts, and recording and preserving oral his-
tories and intangible cultural heritage (Davis 1999). A consortium of local people run La Ponte Eco-
museum, with a panel of advisors and supporters. The Ecomuseum works to record the culture and
lifeways of this small and rapidly depopulating rural community (Navajas Corral and Fernández Fer-
nández 2017). Through the eorts of the Ecomuseum, a number of local people have been involved
in various aspects of the archaeology project. Some have participated in our workshops on identify-
ing and replicating medieval ceramics, others have attended our lecture programmes, and a few have
got involved in the excavations themselves.
The learning programme
Summer 2018 saw the fourth season of the UCL-La Ponte eld project, focusing on the excavation of
two parallel trenches and the processing of environmental samples collected in previous years.
Before the excavation began, we ran a three-day heritage workshop, exploring the archaeological
heritage of the village and valley and learning about traditional pottery making and bread baking
through practical workshops. At this early point, just before excavation began, we were asked if
we could incorporate a public archaeology programme for local young people who were taking
part in an educational course during the summer holidays. The proposal came from the Development
Agent at the ayuntamiento (local council): all of us involved in running the project are ideologically
and institutionally committed to collaborative public archaeology, so we agreed to put together a
Several things are worth noting at this point. Firstly, the woman running the education pro-
gramme was part of the La Ponte Ecomuseum team, and she maintained overall responsibility for
the young people throughout. No activities with the young people took place on the site in her
absence, and we strongly discouraged them from getting too close to our working areas (although
as public spaces we could not exclude them from the site altogether). Secondly, we were being asked
to commit a considerable amount of our time: ve hour-long sessions over ve days, out of a ten-day
excavation. Thirdly, we had relatively meagre resources to run this session: the Ecomuseum provided
plastic buckets and spades for the young people, and the ayuntamiento contributed as well. The
makeup of the audience was also unusual, consisting of three distinct groups (ages are all
.Three girls who were staying close to the site, aged from 8 to 10. They were intelligent, focused,
articulate, and had some English
.Three boys aged 812, from a single socially and economically marginalized local family. They
were exuberant, very enthusiastic and often highly focused
.The two children of the programme leader, aged around four and six.
The varied ages, along with the other demands and restrictions, presented us with a considerable
challenge in designing and running successful sessions.
The programme we designed, in collaboration with a self-selected volunteer group of the UCL stu-
dents, was partly pre-planned and partly improvised on a day-to-day basis as we tracked the weather,
monitored the attention span and enthusiasms of the young people, and scrambled around for
materials and resources to run the activities. We ultimately delivered the programme as follows:
(1) Introduction to the site, discussion about the tools and methods of archaeology, and a site tour;
(2) Building a model of the medieval village and then ooding it with an avalanche of mud and
stones to replicate the fourteenth-century catastrophe and to see what, if anything, survived;
(3) Excavation on a raked-out section of the spoil heap with pre-planted nds(modern coins,
broken ceramics and tiles);
(4) Building outlines of their own houses from stones (including interior walls, ttings, furniture) to
see how they would appear to future archaeologists;
(5) Pottery-making (coil pots and pinch pots). We saved this until last as an activity that could be
brought forward if we had a rainy day.
How did this work in practice? By the programmes beginning, we had already encountered most
of the participants: the village is small, and the arrival of a large group of foreigners was notable
to them, even in a high-tourist-trafc area at the peak of tourist season. The boys and at least two
of the girls lived close to the excavation site located on the edge of the village, and we encoun-
tered them daily in travelling to and from the dig. The boys also zoomed around the village on
bicycles nearly constantly, and we had already met them when they cycled around our dig house
shouting English language obscenities at us that they had learned from a passing scout troop. The
boys did this in a cheeky rather than an aggressive spirit, and we experienced a change to a
much friendlier relationship once their involvement in the excavation began. In preparation for
the learning programme, we briefed the student participants in basic guidelines around
working with young people. Given the setup of the excavation, there was no way that they
could be alone with a young person at any point but we emphasized obvious points such as
not touching in any circumstances, caution in the use of language, and reporting anything of
The programme in practice
In a more ideal situation with a longer lead-in time we would have run sessions with the young
people away from the excitement and distraction of the excavation in a classroom or similar
to discuss the principles of archaeology, explain the history of the area and of the site itself, and
to begin to gauge their levels of knowledge and interest (compare Moshenska, Dhanjal, and
Cooper 2011). This helps, as Connolly and Heath (1999) note, to encourage the young people to
move away from the persistent view that archaeology is synonymous with excavation: this is particu-
larly important for participants who are less able or inclined to take part in the excavation itself. In the
event, we incorporated as much of this background as possible into the start of the programme.
Day 1. On the rst day of the programme, we welcomed the group to the excavation. Before taking
them to see the trenches we introduced ourselves, learned their names, briefed them on health and
safety, and talked to them about archaeology. The programme leader communicated much of this as
a translator. We tried to ascertain their prior knowledge of archaeology: two of the girls had visited
the excavation in previous years and were extremely knowledgeable and articulate about the con-
cepts, tools, aims and even the English and Spanish terminologies of excavation. We gave them a
guided tour of the two trenches pointing out features, stratigraphy and working practices, and intro-
ducing them to members of the team (Figure 1). Overall we were impressed and encouraged by their
interest, attention spans and ability to retain information.
Day 2. We worked with the children to construct a model village from clay, earth, stones, twigs and
other materials. They took to this very enthusiastically, working on an old spoil-heap, in a hollow that
roughly approximated to a valley with steep, mountainous sides. Both the girls and the boys demon-
strated considerable imagination and initiative in this task, building specic structures like a church
(the only stone-walled building), a bridge, and a water trough for animals.
Figure 1. Introducing the children to the site. (Photo by Jesús Fernández Fernández).
The aim of this activity was to introduce the children to one of the most signicant events in the
history of their village: the avalanche of water, mud and rocks that destroyed the medieval village and
buried its remains. In the tour of the trenches the previous day we had shown them the very clearly
dened layers of pale grey stone and rubble, mixed in with building stone and tiles from buildings
caught in the ow. The highlight of the session was the inundation of the model village: we lled
a wheelbarrow with water, soil and stones and tipped it over the side of the spoil-heap to run
down on to the model, to loud cries of avalancha!from the children (Figure 2). Following the
destruction, we examined the remains of the village and the children noted that only the stone-
walled building, the church, had survived the avalanche in any reasonable state: the other buildings
were swept away, broken or buried.
Day 3. We held a mock-excavation for the children, working at a distance from the actual trenches
on a raked-out area of the spoil heap about two metres square, seeded with a variety of artefacts. We
put in modern Euro cent coins, broken pieces of modern ceramics, and an assortment of oddments
collected from around the site including chocolate wrappers, apples, feathers, and a carved wooden
We introduced the excavation activity with another health and safety brieng emphasizing situa-
tional awareness, safe tool use, not using hands to dig, and the general importance of working slowly,
carefully, and gently. This activity was extremely successful in that the children worked methodically
to cover the whole digsite, expressed excitement at every nd, and remained focused and engaged
in the task for the full 45 minutes we allocated to the activity. Monitoring attention is an important
part of activities like this: when a participant becomes bored they can become careless of their own
and otherssafety, display dgety or destructive behaviour, and distract others. We were alert to this
and prepared to oer alternative activities if necessary, but these were not needed on this occasion or
at any other point in the programme.
Some archaeological educators have questioned the use of simulated sandpitexcavations such
as this: Connolly and Heath (1999, 12) argue cautiously that they should be used only as a means of
Figure 2. Avalancha!Preparing to bury the model village in mud. (Photo by Gabriel Moshenska).
explaining the signicance of context, and even then only as part of a larger programme of archae-
ological activities such as ours. This is based in part on the supposed risk that over-enthusiastic young
diggers will go on to dig other sites unsupervised. For excellent resources on running simulated exca-
vations in archaeological learning see Brown (n.d.).
Day 4. Based on the age range of our group we decided to run an activity that could be both
straightforwardly creative and also, if required, more analytically complex. We asked the children
to collect buckets full of small pebbles from the spoil-heap and showed them using a previously
constructed example how to make the outline plan of a building by laying out the pebbles as
walls and interior ttings (Figure 3). We asked them to build the ground oors of their own homes
in this way and to include features and ttings such as beds, furniture, ovens and doors. The aim
of this activity was to build on the village ooding on day two, reecting on how an archaeologist
would understand and interpret your house if only the ruins were left.
In practice, as is common in activities with young children, we learned more than we expected
about their family lives from the models they build and their explanations of the interiors of their
homes. The levels of detail were impressive in most cases and included explanations of important
features like microwaves, televisions, and individualsbedrooms and beds. We toured the whole
group around so everybody got a chance to exhibit and explain their model. Following this,
several of the children buried their houses under a bucket of soil as a mini-avalanche, leaving a
slightly sinister eld of tiny tumuli behind our spoil-heap.
Day 5. The nal day activity, pottery-making, was by far our most successful in terms of impact and
participant response and feedback. We used a bag of clay left over from our medieval pottery work-
shop the previous week, mixed with clay-rich soil from our spoil-heap to make it easier to model and
to create a larger amount. We taught the children two distinct techniques: coil-building a pot up from
aat circular base; and pinch-pots worked from the inside out from a solid ball of well-worked clay.
The children took to these in particular the pinch-pots very enthusiastically, and repeatedly asked
for more clay to make more pots. Pretty soon there were rows of pots, some of them decorated. When
Figure 3. Creating the outlines of houses in pebbles, prior to burying them. (Photo by Gabriel Moshenska).
they left at the end of the session we agreed that they could take the leftover clay home with them.
As they left one of the boys presented us with decorated pots as gifts. An hour later as we walked
back to our dig house for lunch we passed him, sat outside his house with a bag of clay and a
long line of pots he had made and decorated. These moments were amongst the highlights of
the entire programme for us.
We had asked the programme leader to gather feedback from the children and pass it on to us. We
asked them specically to tell us what they most enjoyed and why any more would, we judged,
have tested their attention spans. The letters, all of them utterly adorable, included thanks to
some of the staand students by name, and attempts at writing in English. They mentioned
dierent activities, and between the seven letters all four of the practical activities were mentioned.
The most popular (and also, not coincidentally, the last) was the pottery-making, followed by the
model-village-destroying. It is worth noting the value and impact of any activity where you get to
make something and take it home.
Aside from the written feedback, the children expressed their gratitude and enjoyment in various
ways and at dierent points throughout the programme. We were impressed with their commitment
the whole group completed the ve-day programme and with their enthusiasm and concen-
tration. We had anticipated and planned for short attention spans, particularly amongst the boys,
and were proved wrong. Our interactions with the children othe site changed over the course of
the programme: after a few days they greeted us when we met them in the village, and the boys
no longer shouted obscenities at us. At other times of day outside of the learning programme, the
boys returned to the excavation to talk to us, to show us their pets a puppy and a kitten and
to ask if they could keep helping us dig. When their puppy disappeared we were enlisted in their
search party.
The boys showed a consistent interest in the excavation, asking us what we were nding, and
giving their own interpretations of the ndings. We were particularly impressed with the logical,
thoughtful and carefully-argued nature of these interpretations, and by the time and consideration
that had clearly gone into them. None of the rest of the group showed so much interest in the
interpretation of the site.
A few days after the learning programme ended we closed down the excavation for the year, com-
pleted the photograph and documentation, and began to deconstruct the wood and tarpaulin cover
over the trenches. The next day, as the students prepared to leave, we lined the trenches with geo-
textile in preparation for back-lling. Returning to the site in the afternoon we found it in disarray: the
wooden framework for the covers had been broken apart, some pieces snapped, and the larger parts
pushed into the trenches. The geotextile that had been carefully laid and weighted with stones had
been pulled apart and partially dragged out of the trench (Figure 4). The only likely or even feasible
suspects for this were the boys.
We reported the damage to the police, who inspected the site. The parents of the boys came to
the excavation to acknowledge that the boys were responsible for the damage and to apologize: we
accepted their apology and, after checking that the damage to the site was supercial, we withdrew
the police report. Reporting criminal damage to an archaeological site is a legal requirement in Spain,
but we did not want to pursue it further.
After a week in which we felt that we had made a positive connection with these boys, empow-
ered them to learn about the history of their village, and at the very least provided an entertaining
distraction, this felt like a betrayal on their part, and a profound failure on ours. For the student vol-
unteers who had helped to conceive and run the programme through the week this sense of sadness
was particularly strong and it very much took the shine owhat had, until that point, felt like a suc-
cessful exercise in public archaeology. That said, it is worth considering the possibility that they did
not intend it as vandalism, but rather as destructive play in what was, to all appearances, an aban-
doned and closed site.
Speaking only from our personal experiences it is not uncommon for people to attach themselves
to a public archaeology project in ways that might become complicated and problematic from prac-
tical, ethical and safeguarding perspectives. For bored young people, socially marginalized adults or
lonely older people an archaeology project can attract by its novelty and perceived excitement, and
through the arrival of outsiders in small or remote communities who are often keen to make con-
nections in the community. These attempts at connection can take the form of hanging around the
excavation for long periods or visiting repeatedly; socializing with the archaeologists outside of work
hours; and inviting archaeologists into their homes. It is sometimes dicult for archaeologists, who
are rarely trained in safeguarding, to dierentiate between friendly and appropriate connections with
the local community and potentially more harmful or inappropriate relationships.
Figure 4. Damage to the site during closing down. (Photo by Jesús Fernández Fernández).
It is possible that the boys had become overly attached to the excavation. They dropped by the
excavation on their bikes, they brought their pets to show us, they cycled past our dig house to shout
obscenities and, later, friendly greetings. When their puppy was missing we agonized with them and
helped to search for it. All this is aside from the education programme where we gave them our time,
attention, and genuine heartfelt praise for their skills, dedication and hard work. And, having estab-
lished this relationship, we said goodbye and left. Perhaps we should not have been surprised, then,
that they vandalized our site if that is what they intended.
As we reect on this programme and begin to plan for future seasons, it is important to consider our
work within the wider context of learning in community archaeology. Community archaeology and
archaeological outreach are increasingly, and justly, regarded as distinctive specialist skillsets within
the discipline: this is demonstrated for example by the work of the Voluntary and Community Archae-
ology Special Interest Group within the UKs Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (Brown, Miles, and
Partridge 2018).
As experienced community archaeologists, we were condent in our ability to design and deliver a
valuable learning experience for the young people, even within the limitations detailed above. Fur-
thermore, we recognized the value to our undergraduate students of taking part in the planning and
operation stages, and this was reected in the enthusiasm and dedication of those who chose to take
part. Even in more ideal circumstances, archaeological learning activities aimed at young people
present a range of distinctive challenges and requirements, and it is worth reecting on these in
light of our project and its outcomes.
The primary responsibility in creating an archaeological learning programme is to give as accurate
as possible a representation of the archaeological process and the human past, within the bounds of
age-appropriate teaching and learning methods and available resources. While there are risks (to
both parties) involved in bringing young people to a working archaeological site, experienced
archaeological educators such as Don Henson (2004) and Sarah Dhanjal (2008) have argued persua-
sively that it oers a uniquely inspiring and valuable learning experience. Dhanjal notes that even in
programmes such as the UKs Young Archaeologists Club, aimed at involving young people in archae-
ology explicitly without encouraging them to dig, the opportunity to visit and take part in excavations
is by far the most popular activity (Dhanjal 2008, 53; and see Henry 2004). This chimes with our experi-
ence: at no point during the ve-day programme were the young people allowed to enter the actual
excavation, although they were encouraged to view it from a safe distance on the rst day, but the
proximity of the working excavation was a consistent source of interest, and was arguably one of the
factors in the retention of the group throughout the programme.
Another challenge for community archaeology learning programmes is consistency. Such projects
are typically short-lived, and if not one-os then usually run as recurring annual events. As such, there
will be a series of beginnings and ends, the mismanagement of which we identied as a potential
contributing factor in the vandalism. In exploring this issue of continuity previously (see Moshenska,
Dhanjal, and Cooper 2011) we noted the importance of economic sustainability and the maintenance
of individual and organizational partnerships. However, while this earlier project in a school worked
with a new cohort each year (as is common in such projects), the recurrent project in Villanueva is
likely to engage with many of the same young people each year. For this reason, for future years
we need to explore ways to build a programme that develops and evolves alongside our audiences
educational needs and interests (See also Dhanjal 2005). As part of this, we will look at tting future
programmes as closely as possible to the young peoples formal (and, as appropriate, their informal)
The age of the participants is an important factor and one that we will take more careful account of
in future. In previous work, we have found the 711 age range corresponding to Key Stage 2in
England and Wales to be the most receptive to learning about and participating in archaeology
(Dhanjal 2005; Moshenska 2009). Most of the participants in our programme were within this age
range. However, projects working with older children in the 1218 range have been notably success-
ful as well (e.g. Knowles 2012; Lewis 2014). In developing future programmes, we will take the age of
participants into account, along with the feedback outlined above.
It was clear that the popular activities involved making (or making and breaking), and that the
exibility and open-endedness of these activities corresponded to an extent with the constructivist
approach to archaeology learning that Dhanjal (2005) amongst others has outlined and practiced
(see also Henson 2017). In our experience hands-on learning in an archaeological environment is a
source of encouragement and condence-building for young people who struggle in more tra-
ditional sit still and listenclassroom-based learning environments. Overall, we are happy that the
activities we used and designed constituted an appropriately diverse programme of activities that
introduced the participants to some of the most important concepts and practices of archaeology
at a level commensurate to their abilities and needs. This is the foundation that we will build on
in the future.
This project could not have taken place without the enthusiasm and commitment of our student volunteers from UCL
Institute of Archaeology who helped to devise and run the learning programme and endured mud-ghts and youthful
exuberance in the name of public archaeology. The authors are grateful to UCL Institute of Archaeology for a Fieldwork
Grant that enabled this project to take place, and to Agencia de Desarrollo Local de Santo Adriano for their support of the
learning programme. This paper has benetted immeasurably from the input of the editors of this journal and from the
generous comments and suggestions of two anonymous referees. Finally, our warmest thanks to the young people who
took part in the programme and gave it their time, energy and attention.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributors
Gabriel Moshenska is Associate Professor in Public Archaeology at UCL Institute of Archaeology. He is the author of
Material Cultures of Childhood in Second World War Britain (Routledge, 2019) and editor of Key Concepts in Public Archae-
ology (UCL Press, 2017), both open access.
Sirio Canós-Donnay is Teaching Fellow in African Archaeology at the UCL Institute of Archaeology.
Jesús Fernández Fernández is a postdoctoral researcher in the Marie Curie-Cofund Clarínprogramme of the Principality
of Asturias at the University of Oviedo. He is also an Honorary Research Associate at UCL Institute of Archaeology and
director of La Ponte-Ecomuséu (Asturias, Spain). His work focuses on medieval landscapes and societies and critical heri-
tage studies.
Gabriel Moshenska
Sirio Canós-Donnay
Jesús Fernández Fernández
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