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Iron Age & Roman Heritages: Exploring ancient identities in modern Britain

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.



This brief document summarises the objectives, research context and outputs for this major project, which will run from July 2016 to the end of September 2019. The funding is provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the project involves research teams in Durham University and University College London.

 The Principal Investigator (PI) is Richard Hingley (Archaeology, Durham) and the Co Investigators are Dr Chiara Bonacchi (CI2; Archaeology, UCL) and Dr Tom Yarrow (CI1; Anthropology, Durham). We aim to appoint a Post Doctoral Researcher (PDRA) to be based in Durham (over the summer of 2016). We will in due course also appoint a Research Assistant (RA) at UCL.


1. Public summary

We are proposing to conduct research and to exchange knowledge with stakeholders in order to understand how ideas and materials derived from the Iron Age and Roman past (c. 700 BC to AD 400) are drawn upon today in England, Scotland and Wales.

 Powerful ideas about European cultural origin stemming from the writings of classical authors who drew a distinction between 'civilization' and 'barbarism' have been used to contrast native peoples with Roman invaders. In Britain concepts of civilization and barbarism have influenced how people understand the extent and character of the territories that make up the UK, the origins of their inhabitants and how they relate to people from overseas. The Iron Age and Roman periods are highly popular in present-day Britain as demonstrated, for example, by the frequency and interest with which important archaeological discoveries are communicated via newspapers, magazines, television, films (e.g. 'Centurion' and 'The Eagle') and novels. Community projects focusing on the Iron Age are addressing themes such as housing and sustainable ways of living, while the Roman past offers opportunities for considering military identity, concepts of civilisation and multicultural origins (see the visual evidence). Ancient monuments dating to these periods and the museums that display them are popular visitor attractions. Re-enacting, metal-detecting and taking part in archaeological projects are generating new and relevant forms of knowledge.

 Academic research on the Iron Age and Roman past in the UK is widely recognised across Europe and America for its excellence, but, until now, the exploration of meaning in the past has often been distanced from the interests and concerns of the broader public (Hingley 2015). This project offers the new perspective of studying the living meaning of Iron Age and Roman materials and ideas by examining the creative and variable ways in which stakeholders incorporate the past into their researches, performances and actions. We will also unpick the values of heritage that are specific to the Iron Age and Roman pasts from those that are not. Our methodologies will allow access to significant new bodies of information both online and offline.

 We will seek to communicate our findings in order to challenge the divisions that currently separate the interests of stakeholders, including (but not limited to) academic archaeologists, heritage managers, re-enactors, visitors to ancient monuments and teachers. We intend to promote our work by developing existing contacts with researchers and practitioners in archaeology, heritage and museums nationally and internationally. Drawing upon the project team's connections, we will exchange knowledge of our results through digital means, conferences, and publications.


2. Objectives

We aim to develop and communicate a coherent and transformative understanding of the complex and contrasting ways that the Iron Age and Roman pasts are drawn upon by stakeholders today across England, Wales and Scotland, and to set this in an international context. Much of the attention of archaeologists to date has focused on criticizing imperial and nationalistic uses of concepts of Romanization and Celtic identity (cf. Mattingly 2011; Morse 2005). This project will adopt a more open approach to address the wide variety of manifestations of Iron Age and Roman Heritage (IA&RH), documenting both how materials and ideas from the past are received, interpreted, performed and cited and also the role of 'expert practice' (Jones and Yarrow 2013, 7).

We will:
 1. Develop the concept of IA&RH by examining how materials and ideas are called upon by stakeholders comprising: (a) those in academia, local and national museums, open-air museums, archaeological and heritage practice, and school education; (b) other individuals and groups who draw on these pasts, including independent researchers, community archaeology groups, metal-detector users, re-enactors, living-historians, gamers, online communities and pagan religious groups.
 2. Detail the ways in which the Iron Age and Roman pasts are not simply 'imagined' but rather are materially enacted through particular places, artefacts, landscapes, digital media and platforms. This builds upon the work of the PI (Hingley) in exploring the significance of particular ancient 'places', to study how materials and agency are constantly made to transform the past in articulation with sense of place.
 3. Build on the research of CI2 (Bonacchi) on public experience of the past, and devise a methodology that integrates quantitative and qualitative methods of analysing offline and online data. New information about the contemporary meaning of the past is available today as result of digital infrastructures and practices that have recently emerged (e.g. social networking sites, crowd-sourcing, etc.), and is characterized not just by its potentially 'large' size, but also by a greater granularity. We will pursue the idea that such a mixed methodology can open up unprecedented opportunities for research both within and about cultural heritage.
 4. Define the variety of performances of IA&RH to identify the micro-politics of different positions, including the extent to which 'subaltern' perspectives internalize elements of expert practices (based on the research of CI1 [Yarrow]). An ethical focus will explore how particular understandings do or do not gain wider traction; within what contexts and parameters they are afforded 'truth'; and to what extent these intersect with, draw or depart from authorized (e.g. scientific) 'truths'. This will enable our open and flexible methodology to retain a critical edge for potentially divisive uses (e.g. Wilson. 2013, 4-5).
 5. Map the wider values that frame cultural heritage by engaging with the variable ways that the past is generated by individuals, groups and institutions in Britain. These values are not specific to IA&RH, but will be documented by looking intensively at this case study.
 6. Communicate the insights derived from this research to academics and organizations in Britain and other parts of the world, and particularly across Europe and America, building upon the project team's international contacts. We aim to promote the significance of IA&RH and encourage a dynamic new field of research with a global reach.


3. Research context
The project is firmly grounded in earlier AHRC-funded research undertaken on Hadrian’s Wall by PI Hingley, digital heritage and public archaeology by CI Bonacchi, and professional practices by CI Yarrow. It seeks to develop the outcomes of the ‘Tales of the Frontier’ project, funded between 2007 and 2012, and identified by the AHRC (Annual Report, 2013) as ‘agenda-defining work’ ( A pilot study of IA&RH undertaken by the PI (12/2013-05/2014) has provided an initial assessment and has indicated little sustained research, despite the considerable public interest and substantial financial outlay from government, public and private sources. The context for the proposed project can be summarized under the four headings (below).

 Heritage values. Most archaeological research aims to establish the meaning of the past as a subject of study distanced from the present. Smith & Waterton's (2012, 2) concept of ‘authorized heritage discourse’ (AHD) defines the tangible monuments and ancient objects kept and displayed, addressing the actions of archaeologists and heritage practitioners when they identify the resources to prioritize their own self-interests. They argue that archaeologists succeed in protecting their positions by creating practices that work to ‘legitimise their privileged access to, and control of, that database’. Heritage can, however, have far wider meanings: the ‘uses, values and associations’ carried by the historic environment for stakeholders (ibid, 1). Challenges to the idea that the past is distant from the present have emerged through conflicts between archaeologists and indigenous groups in the Americas and Australasia, leading to projects that draw communities into interpreting their own pasts (Atalay 2012; Hayes & Cipolla 2015). The claims made by pagans in Britain to ancient places and to burials have drawn upon these debates, resulting in a variety of archaeological responses from opposition to conciliatory (Blain & Wallis 2007; Jenkins 2011).

 Works in museums and web environments is also shifting away from the notion of a single privileged tangible past to consider a ‘diversity of heritages’ each with its own context of reception (Kidd 2013, 23-25; cf. Giaccardi 2012). A growing interest in engaging the public is contributing to a more sustained development of ‘community archaeology’ (Simpson & Williams 2008), including projects funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). This requires archaeologists to find creative ways to help local groups, individuals and online communities to become more actively involved in re-discovering their pasts (Hale 2013; Thomas 2010). In this context, the definition of AHD may homogenize the considerable differences of approaches and perspectives of stakeholders. The research of CI1 (Yarrow) has defined a field of ‘expert practices’ to explore the subtlety and reflexivity of these actions and ideas, enabling attention to the micro-politics of different positions while contemplating the extent to which ‘subaltern’ perspectives often internalize elements of ‘expert practices’ for authorization (Jones & Yarrow 2013, 22).

 Some of the values of cultural heritage are specific to certain ancient identities, periods and places, but some are not. The research of CI2 (Bonacchi) has dealt with how individuals and groups engage with the past for a number of reasons. These range widely from altruistic motivations of ‘sharing and generosity’ linked to online volunteering (e.g. Oomen & Arovo 2011) through to the desire to spend time with one’s own family when visiting a museum or heritage site (e.g. Moussouri & Roussos 2013). A body of literature has assessed heritage values, variously theorized and subdivided into typologies and value arguments encompassing intrinsic and extrinsic values, social and economic values, etc. (e.g. de la Torre 2002; Dümcke & Gnedovsky 2011). This literature is currently lacking a coordinated study, however, to research the value of public interactions with the past occurring in different contexts, via various media and platforms and looking intensely at one case study and at different stakeholders. The few works that have examined the values deriving from contemporary encounters with places, materials and ideas connected to past periods have mainly focused upon one kind of engagement, often taking a prime interest in interactions with the discipline of archaeology, ‘its’ practice, resources and outcomes (e.g. Bonacchi 2014; Bonacchi 2013 and Burtenshaw 2013). This project aims to bridge a significant gap in our understanding of why and how (moving across online and offline spaces) people create heritage.

 IA&RH: This project builds on the PI’s research (Hingley 2015) to create a coordinated agenda that addresses materials and ideas deriving from the Iron Age and Roman past (the inclusion of heritage derived from earlier and later periods would stretch research too far, but will be included where it overlaps with IA&RH). This period is highly topical in Britain, as indicated by: films (The Eagle and Centurion), popular books and novels (Higgins 2013), museum galleries (including the current ‘Celtic Art’ exhibition at the British Museum & the National Museum of Scotland), monuments and open-air museums displayed for the public, and living-history events.

 Pilot research identified stakeholders including: academics, archaeologists in central and local government, commercial units, heritage practitioners, museum officers, educationalists, school teachers, visitors to monuments & museums, re-enactors, story-tellers, community archaeology groups, local and regional communities, groups of interest established online and religious groups (e.g. pagans & Christians). Some contemporary manifestations seek a rather creative (or less self- reflective) re-living of the past than much of the output of ‘expert practices’, while others internalize elements of such practices for authorization. Research into IA&RH remains rare since archaeologists have mostly concentrated on perfecting ‘expert practices’ to document the materials for two (semi)distinct periods (Haselgrove et al 2001; James & Millett 2001). Little research has been undertaken on broader public values, although a few studies include: museums & open-air museums (Clarke and Hunter 2001; Ballard 2007; Mills 2013), ancient monuments in state ownership (Lloyd Brown & Patrick 2011), community responses to archaeological sites (Davis et al. 2013), re- enactment & living-history (Bishop 2012), pagan use of ancient places (Hingley 2015) and school education (Alexander et al. 2012).


IA&RH themes: The pilot study defined several themes & contexts upon which the project will build. Celtic IA: This idea has been directly critiqued since the 1990s (cf. Morse 2005, 11-2), but has survived in various kinds of unofficial heritage. Coordinated research has yet to be undertaken and an assessment of less divisive forms of Celtic identities (e.g. Hale 2002) may help to contextualize this information and provide insight into potential ethical problems arising from exclusivity.

 Spiritual IA: One high-quality project has undertaken an ethnographic exploration of contemporary worship at megaliths (Blain & Wallis 2007), but little work has examined such claims when they draw on IA and Roman monuments and human remains (Hingley 2015).

 Sustainable IA: The theme of sustainable agriculture during the IA is used in school teaching and forms the key of a number of HLF-funded projects. There is also an interest in the introduction of new plants and species in the Roman period, but this is rarely linked to sustainability. Re-enactors and living-history projects call upon these themes to educate the public.

 Civilized Romano-Britons: The core idea that Roman conquest brought civilization to those living south of Hadrian’s Wall has been critiqued by archaeologists since the 1980s, but lives on in the media and may remain core to community archaeology and living-history projects (Hingley 2015).

 Militarized Romans: Roman re-enactment is a popular hobby south of Hadrian’s Wall, while IA/Celtic re-enactors are rather less common. Such groups help to draw visitors to heritage venues and perhaps to provide a conception of the IA as unsettled and the Roman as militaristic (Appleby 2005; Bishop 2013). Pilot research suggests that some groups seek to critique these stereotypes.

 Multicultural Romans: Materials addressing migration into Britain in the Roman period have been recently leveraged to communicate the interconnected nature of people in the ancient past and also the ideas of the imposition of physical frontiers (Alexander et al. 2012; Hingley 2015).


IA&RH contexts: These include:

 Formal education: Recent debate about the English National Curriculum led to a successful campaign to introduce teaching of prehistory to match the situation in Wales and Scotland. Ideas about multicultural Roman pasts are also impacting on school education policy and museum display. Many education packs that address IA and Roman sites are freely available for particular monuments, themes and regions, but little synthetic or analytical work has been undertaken.

 Community projects: Pilot work identified around 40 HLF-funded projects about the IA period. Many involve archaeologists in active roles and span the reconstruction of roundhouses, living- history, environmental work and occasional excavations, but they have never been assessed in a coordinated way. Projects based on Roman themes are yet to be explored.

 Groups of interest established online: Many people engage with IA&RH as part of online groups. Some of these partly overlap with offline community archaeology groups, or bring together people who have visited specific heritage sites or museums and have maintained a connection with them (e.g. through social media). These groups include, for example, those of players and ‘modders’ (players who are also involved in producing additional material for the games) of online games (e.g. Gardner 2007, 2012), crowd-sourcing volunteer societies (e.g. collaborating via the Portable Antiquities Scheme [PAS], or MicroPasts), ‘fans’ of IA&RH-themed or IA&RH-related Facebook pages.

 Institutional media: Representations of the IA and Roman periods are frequently provided by media institutions. IA and Roman pasts become part of the lives of a number of people in Britain via newspaper and magazine articles, radio and television broadcasting. An assessment of these representation and their rehashing is yet to be conducted; yet, such research is significant not only to understand these kinds of participation, but also to contextualize other ways of interpreting, performing and creating that might have been influenced by an exposure to such media discourses.

 Ancient objects and places: IA&RH is also explored through visiting museums, monuments and (re)constructions, while archaeological excavation uncovers new sites enabling novel engagements. Re-enactors are used to draw people to places and to provide images of the past. The state archaeology services (English Heritage/Historic England, Historic Scotland, Cadw) and the National Trust display many of the most impressive ancient monuments, while local authorities and Trusts own and manage additional sites. Many of these convey a defensive vision of the IA (hillforts, brochs) and an elite-focused view of the Roman period (cities, villas, forts), yet research on their contrasting heritage values is extremely rare (Lloyd Brown & Patrick 2011).


4. Methodologies include:

 1. Ethnographic and date-intensive approaches: In recent years, ‘ethnography’ has come to serve as an umbrella term to represent a range of qualitative methods (e.g. Hine 2015, 31). ‘Archaeological ethnography’, however, has usually focused upon the contemporary social context of material culture or aimed to ‘de-colonize’ archaeology (Gonzales-Ruibal 2014, 1-3). In this project, ethnography will be combined with data-intensive approaches to establish the diversity of heritages that are created across a number of media, platforms and spaces. We will draw on CI1’s experience to develop ethnographic methodologies, while CI2 will focus on the analysis of ‘larger’ textual data online. This joined-up approach will allow us to elicit the variability of stakeholders’ attitudes and behaviour towards IA&RH as well as to identify the wider values of interacting with the past in contemporary Britain, creating a comprehensive understanding and with high levels of detail. It has already been underlined (e.g. Kitchin 2014) how, if integrated with ethnographic work of the kind we propose, larger quantities of online data can open unprecedented opportunities for research, thanks to its greater spatial and temporal granularity.

 We aim not just to look at ‘meaning’ and what people say about the past but also to address how pasts are made and remade through interactions in practice; and through what people do as much as what they report. We will pursue the idea that the past literally matters to individuals and groups in differing ways; that there is no simple opposition between objective material and subjective meaning, only different situated entanglements between people and things. Initial research suggests that ideas about ‘stakeholders’ tend to presuppose a stable past, even as this adds a focus on the ‘subjective’ manner in which this is made meaningful. It is not simply that individuals and groups see the past in different ways but that, also with the help of new technologies, they might create the past as differing kinds of objects.

 We seek to address the diversity of heritages by drawing upon the production and re-enactment of the ancient past in the present (Harrison 2013, 4-5). Each heritage theme identified by pilot research (above) will be approached according to its own context of reception and/or context of production, but we also aim to provide insight into the potential use of IA&RH for socially divisive purposes (Wilson 2013). Two possible examples are provided by the idea of Celtic pasts and civilized Romano-Britons. IA&RH have potentially inclusive relevances as demonstrated by the idea of multicultural Roman pasts. Other IA&RH may raise no particular ethical problems, although the project will keep close attention to this possibility. We will also document new themes as they emerge.


2. Defining IA and Roman ‘places’. The pilot project focused on how IA&RH circulate around particular places including monuments, sites, findspots of artefacts, open-air museums and other locations considered by stakeholders to relate to the past (cf. Basu 2011, 149-58). In examining the creation and values of heritage, our research will address place-making (cf. Lafrenze Samuels & Totten 2011), exploring the forms of material and agency that are constantly made and remade (cf. Jones & Yarrow 2013, 23). We seek to assess the degree to which online spaces are supporting offline place-making or are instead providing a distinct dimension, working with Hine’s (2015, 15) concept of the ‘field sites’ as a source for digital ethnography.

 Ultimately, this methodology will allow understanding of how different themes emerge from various contexts of productions, online and offline (the process via which IA&RH are created), and the relations between themes and between themes and stakeholders (the values of IA&RH). It will also provide insights into the non-period specific reasons why different individuals, groups and institutions interact with the past in Britain (people-centred approach to wider heritage values).


5. Project management

The project includes: PI (Hingley), CI1 (Yarrow), CI2 (Bonacchi), PDRA and RA. It will run for 3 years. The Core Group (PI, CI1, CI2, PDRA) will meet bi-monthly in London and Durham and will keep in regular contact on Skype. An Advisory Group will gather on 3 occasions to oversee the research [membership to be confirmed].

 PI: Running project; specialist input on context of IA&RH; managing PDRA to conduct work with stakeholders offline and maintaining contacts with Advisory Group.

 CI1: Overseeing the PDRA’s work; methodological advice on qualitative interviews and participant observation.

 CI2: Undertaking the digital research component; specialist input to examine wider heritage values through the case study of IA&RH; coordinating the PDRA’s contribution to the project website; supervising the RA.

 PDRA (to be appointed in Durham): Undertaking work with stakeholders offline, and running the Advisory Group; input within Durham into the project website, helping research and write various online and published outputs. Primarily, we are looking for someone who can take forward the offline ethnography side of the project and help with writing Outputs, and the ability to work in a cooperative way as part of a team will be central.

 RA (supervised in UCL by CI2): assistance with the crowd-sourced component of the project, the selection of potentially relevant web resources, data analysis and archiving.