Boundary objects: using grave goods to link communities in the present (as well as the past)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Archaeology


This project will build on work undertaken from 2016-2020 as part of the AHRC-funded 'Prehistoric Grave Goods' project (PGGP). PGGP brought together diverse information about objects from burials to reveal fascinating details about some of the most alluring and intriguing objects found in prehistoric Britain. One key element of the original project was to build on identified public interest, raising awareness of and providing new, accessible information about prehistoric grave goods in the British Museum and - via information packs - in primary schools across the UK. Another important strand was to ensure that, having used information from existing, publicly accessible digital holdings (HERs) as a starting point for our research, detailed findings from the project were fed directly back into these repositories so that they could provide a sound platform for future investigations of prehistoric burial.

The proposed Boundary Objects project (BOP) aims to build on this work, developing it in new directions according to recognised needs. Over the course of PGGP, we became acutely aware of how difficult it can be to access information about grave goods, and the extent to which different parcels of information exist in different, unconnected silos - there is a chronic lack of joined-up thinking across the heritage sector regarding archaeological objects (finds) and their contexts of discovery (sites). We also came to realise that, despite a very clear public interest in prehistoric grave goods and the stories they have to tell, very few opportunities currently exist for volunteers to contribute meaningfully to finds research, whether in national- or regional-level institutions. In order to respond to these parallel gaps/needs, BOP aims to: (1) use grave goods to inspire a new wave of archaeological volunteers in both national and key regional institutions, and (2) enable people to access information about archaeological finds/sites, currently located in diverse and often relatively inaccessible locations, through one coherent, centralised portal: a 'finds hub'.

In order to achieve these goals, we will: hold a series of stakeholder workshops in Edinburgh, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides; engage volunteers in new and meaningful finds-related research (populating the 'finds hub', connecting museum finds back up with their sites of origin, co-creating a series of 'grave good stories' which will be published as Canmore 'long reads' and form part of our end-of-project celebration exhibition and creating new 3D digital models of finds); work with leading industry players to develop an effective and sustainable 'finds hub' that will connect disparate archaeological information in one location; and produce two best-practice documents that will concretize the project's legacy and, we hope, ensure uptake of its ideas across the UK heritage sector. Whilst PGGP covered Britain as a whole, Scotland has been selected as the pilot area for BOP because of the coherency and accessibility of its digital repositories (Canmore and NMS) and because of our project partners' enthusiasm to participate.

The core project team will include members of the original PGGP together with colleagues at Historic Environment Scotland (HES) and the National Museum of Scotland (NMS). Wider stakeholders include Historic Environment Record and museum professionals from two case study areas - Orkney and the Outer Hebrides - and volunteer groups associated with these organisations. In producing a sustainable 'finds hub' resource that, in principle, can be rolled out across the UK, inviting UK-wide heritage professionals to our end-of-project workshops and producing two widely-available best practice documents, we hope to ensure a nationwide, scalable legacy for the project.

Planned Impact

The Boundary Objects project (BOP) aims to enhance significantly the impact of the original AHRC-funded Prehistoric Grave Goods project (PGGP), ensuring that the latter has impact on new audiences and benefits the wider heritage sector in new ways. Our key aims are (1) to inspire a new wave of archaeological volunteers, and (2) to enable people to access information about archaeological finds/sites, currently located in diverse silos, using one coherent, centralised portal. In order to achieve these goals, we will hold a series of stakeholder workshops, engage volunteers in new finds-related research, co-create a series of 'grave goods stories' for public dissemination, and produce two best-practice documents that will concretize the project's legacy and, we hope, ensure uptake of its ideas across the UK heritage sector.

Several groups of people will benefit from the project:

1. Existing and potential volunteers, community groups and members of the public who have an interest in archaeology and would like to 'get involved'
Consultation with our project partner institutions and other interested stakeholders has identified a lack of opportunities for members of the public to undertake voluntary work relating to Scottish archaeological finds. In providing (a) new impetus for both national and regional heritage organisations to encourage volunteering, and (b) a specific set of meaningful and engaging tasks for volunteers to undertake in the first instance (including population of the new 'finds hub', research for our 'grave goods stories' and 3D modelling of finds), BOP will ensure multiple new opportunities for people to get involved. This will not only provide volunteers with personal satisfaction, but potentially also important transferable skills and access to a community of other like-minded people.

2. Historic Environment Record officers (HEROs), local museum curators and other heritage professionals
Heritage professionals - especially those located in our case study areas (Outer Hebrides and Orkney) - will benefit from the project's creation of a diverse range of new volunteering opportunities, both immediately (in relation to this project) and in the future. This will, we hope, lead to new ways of working with local communities in future, enhancing collections/repositories, improving heritage resources (e.g. information available in HERs) more widely and ensuring a sustainable platform on which further volunteering can be undertaken.

3. The National Museum of Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland
Our highly motivated project partners will make important gains from the project. Both organisations will benefit from the expansion and upskilling of existing volunteers, from increased usage of their currently underused (yet meticulously maintained) online resources, and from the creation of images and textual information about previously inaccessible materials for various display/outreach purposes. By developing the 'finds hub' and taking forwards volunteer opportunities for involvement in the project, both NMS and HES will become recognised across the UK heritage sector as leaders in developing a joined-up and open approach to object-centred research. This will put them in a prime position to advise upon the future enhancement of existing efforts to improve the flow of information in UK archaeology.

4. A range of other potential stakeholders across the UK
In order to ensure that this project has wide impact, we will invite practitioners from across the UK to our end-of-project workshops and create 'best practice' documents relating to volunteering and joined-up finds information. Additionally, in creating a 'finds hub' model - in collaboration with key players in the industry - that can be rolled out much more widely, the project will have potential to impact heritage practice and data creation across the UK in the long-term.


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