Catterina Seia 29 March 2022 12 min read

Nature, symbols and relation. Public archaeology as a therapeutic practice.

Community Archaeology o Action Archaeology sono termini che stanno entrando nel lessico dell’Archeologia contemporanea, che si ridisegna nella dimensione pubblica coinvolgendo un ampio campo d’intervento.

Cultural resource and landscape management is gradually including methods and practices for community engagement, public awareness policies and (although currently to a lesser extent) developing experiences with well-being aims and outcomes internationally.

By rearranging its practices and fields of research, public archaeology shows it has the potential to impact not only memory and cultural identity, but also to address problems, conflicts, stereotypes and crises in today’s world.

The elements of the experience are contact with the surrounding nature, encountering symbols and material culture (objects, places and landscapes) and intangible heritage (stories, experiences and memories) from the past, present and future. There are also elements of social inclusion, creativity and re-signification, which create references and echoes.


Excellent scientific evidence
Scientific literature has reported the initial results of the impact of involvement in archaeological activities, from workshops on handling materials, to digs and reconnaissance in individuals suffering from PTSD, people with mental illness who are socially fragile, the differently-abled and elderly people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The most innovative experiences of inclusive archaeology involve interdisciplinary teams, in which archaeologists, special education experts, associations and volunteers join researchers who specialise in assessing psychological and physical impact, in partnership with treatment centres.

Since 2011 in Great Britain, public archaeology has been a tool to support mental health, in programmes prescribed as part of the NHS Long Term Plan 2019.

The plan enables health professionals to take a holistic approach to care, offering patients a network of local services outside clinics, with an increasing focus on arts programmes organised by museums, archaeological sites and other institutions. Underlying this is the awareness that participating in the arts plays a key role in a range of social and environmental factors to determine a person’s health and well-being. These aspects are becoming increasingly important, as the pandemic has aggravated mental illnesses and social inequality, creating a crisis in the health system.


Well-being is an indicator of health in a society.

The Heritage Alliance UK annual report 2020, which presents the results of action taken to support public health through the arts, clearly states that well-being is a driving force for social progress, as regards the situation during COVID –19.


During the summer of 2020, 1 in 6 adults in the UK experienced depression, compared to 1 in 10 in 2019. The report highlights that over the next 3-5 years 8.5 million children and adults in the U.K. will need mental health support as a direct consequence of the pandemic. When faced with this, the NHS prescribed system is seen as a very important 'recovery strategy'.

As part of the programme supported by the Heritage Alliance, the Breaking Ground Heritage (BGH) project has produced over 35 Rehabilitation Archaeology initiatives aimed at veterans with PTSD since 2015, in partnership with the universities of Glasgow, Leicester and Wessex.

Tools for evaluating impact used by the researchers offer a psychological approach to well-being. The Generalised Anxiety Disorder Scale (GAD7), is used to assess anxiety levels. The Personal Health Questionnaire 8 (PHQ-8) is used to measure depression and the Werwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) to assess overall well-being. The BGH also has a sliding scale for levels of self-esteem and isolation as important factors in suicide prevention.


A study on the project, published in 2020 by the journal Antiquity (vol. 94, 373) by Paul Everill, Richard Bennett and Karen Burnell, highlights how taking part in archaeological activities decreased the severity of symptoms of depression, anxiety and isolation in veterans and increased mental health, self-esteem and sense of belonging.


Over the last decade (2008-2013), in the U.K. an important public archaeology project by the University of York involved and centred on the homeless. Together, homeless people and students mapped the urban boundaries of Bristol and York and excavated some areas used as places to sleep by socially fragile people.

In her book “Homeless Heritage. Collaborative Social Archaeology as Therapeutic Practice, researcher Rachel Kiddey recounted the impact of the experience in terms of greater social connection, prospects for independent living and employment for participants.

Future Developments
It is hoped that in line with EU directives – especially the 2030 Agenda – there will soon be programmes and projects aimed at reconnecting the practice of interpreting the past with the social, health and cultural needs of today’s citizens, including feedback on impacts and shared assessment methods.

A cura di Catterina Seia e Sara Uboldi
Sara Uboldi Dottore di Ricerca in Scienze Umanistiche, Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia


Catterina Seia

Co-Founder and President of CCW-Cultural Welfare Center; Co-Founder and Vice President of the Fitzcarraldo Foundation; Vice President of the Fondazione Medicina a Misura di Donna