York Archaeological Trust | Archaeology on Prescription

Ian Milsted

Head, Community Engagement, York Archaeological Trust

York Archaeological Trust

47 Aldwark, York, YO1 7BX, UK


Museums + Heritage Awards / Community Engagement Programme of the Year 2022






York Archaeological Trust is a self-funded educational charity and a leading professional archaeological organisation operating across the UK and abroad. Founded in 1972, we provide fieldwork, conservation and curatorial services, and operate five successful visitor attractions, including the Jorvik Viking Centre. Our strategic objectives include the delivery of public benefit through our core values of sustainability, collaboration, and commitment to making a positive difference to people’s lives through open access to the past. Our Archaeology on Prescription (AoP) project is a key component of this objective.

AoP is a Social Prescribing project based in York that uses archaeology to improve wellbeing for those who are struggling with their mental health.

Social Prescribing is a well-established model of providing non-medical support within participants’ own communities. The UK National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP) describe it as “connecting people to activities, groups and support that improve health and wellbeing”.

AoP participants may be lonely, isolated, and have long term-conditions or complex social needs. The project seeks to foster meaningful social connections, build self-esteem and confidence by undertaking a broad range of archaeological activities designed to maximize accessibility. The most important consideration is providing a safe and inclusive environment where participants can choose what they want to do.

The main AoP project aims are:

→ to have a positive, meaningful impact on the well-being of all participants by providing new pathways to learn, access training and find opportunities for employment

→ to increase the diversity of participants in archaeology by working directly with new audiences, encouraging those who may not have engaged with heritage before to take part

→ to work in partnership with organisations across York to act as a bridge between arts, culture, heritage and health

→ to put accessibility at the core of all engagement work to minimise barriers to participation



Finds washing, with a local friend


On 11th May 2022, Archaeology on Prescription was named ‘Community Engagement Project of the Year’ in the Museum Heritage Awards. The judges were impressed by its “simple, strong, confident concept, one which is not limited in ambition or scope. Intelligent thinking lies behind the long-term, strategic approach to the design of this impressive programme. It is both impactful and scalable and is actively changing lives”.

The idea to adopt a social prescribing model was instigated by the then YAT Community Engagement Manager, Jennifer Jackson, prior to the covid-19 pandemic. Covid highlighted community mental health needs, and after the lifting of restrictions, the project was developed and launched by the then Community Engagement Officer, Katrina Gargett. Also involved were the Director of Attractions, Sarah Maltby, and Arran Johnson and Ian Milsted from the fieldwork department, who subsequently joined the Community Engagement team. Combining staff with engagement, attractions and fieldwork skills has created a uniquely creative team.

AoP was initially supported by a range of local funders, and in 2021 was allocated funding through the UK Community Renewal Fund, a governmental initiative to aid national post-Covid recovery. In summer 2022 YAT successfully applied for support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, securing core funding until February 2025.

An important partner was the York Centre for Voluntary Service. This charity coordinates the Ways to Wellbeing team, a dedicated body of Social Prescribing Link Workers who work with the UK National Health System (NHS) and local charities to provide opportunities for people with mental health needs. Through this route, we recruited 10 individuals directly from the NHS in 2022, and have a further 5 so far in 2023. This is an important achievement, representing a significant level of engagement with professional health services beyond that attained by the majority of UK Heritage organisations.

Additionally, we partnered with local non-statutory wellbeing organisations supporting access to learning resources, people recovering from addiction and young adults with learning difficulties. In 2022, 59 participants were recruited in this way, and we will increase this in 2023.

The City of York Council kindly granted us free access to Willow House, a former care home located just within the medieval city walls at Walmgate. Willow House provides the venue for AoP activities, exploring the remains of nineteenth and twentieth century housing that was demolished in the 1950s.

Following the successful 2021 pilot, which formed the basis of our Museum Heritage award nomination, we delivered 24 weeks of sessions in three blocks between April and October 2022. Sessions ran twice daily for 2 hours Monday-Thursday, with up to 6 participants per session, plus support workers if required. Staffing ratios were high to ensure a safe, supportive environment. All staff received Mental Health First Aid training.

Several participants have additional mobility and learning needs. To improve accessibility we ensured that a broad range of activities was always available, including excavation, sieving, finds processing, recording, and creative activities. Participants were free to take part in as many or as few activities as they wished.



In 2021 we commissioned an evaluation from CERT (Converge Evaluation and Research Team) at the York St John University. For the 2022 season, we undertook internal evaluation using the UCL Wellbeing Umbrellas alongside two participants’ focus groups.

→ Participants reported a positive change in their mental health.

→ Supportive and knowledgeable staff were crucial to making participants feel welcome and confident. Participants expressed the importance of feeling immediately part of the archaeological team.

→ The variety of activities was appreciated, from digging and recording to finds processing and creative artistic work

→ Participants felt they had learned a great deal and that information was made freely available.

→ Participants spoke about a sense of discovery and increased self-confidence.


This supports anecdotal participant testimony, which was often very open and profound. However, during analysis, it was clear that the potential for confirmation bias was high; to mitigate this we have commissioned CERT to chair one of this year’s focus groups as an objective third-party. Additionally, we are trialing more immediate ways to obtain qualitative data by facilitating on-site reflective evaluation, including the use of comment books, artistic materials and conversational testimony during sessions. All this is clearly explained to participants to determine consent.

Additional changes to our practice in 2023 focus on training and support for our staff, to improve their wellbeing and capacity to support participants. We have restructured the programme to slightly reduce the number of weeks, increase the gap between blocks, and create time in the working day to facilitate debriefing and reflective practice. We have also commissioned monthly, externally-led supervision sessions for staff which provide a safe forum to discuss their opinions and support needs. We invested in additional training to cover enhanced safeguarding, professional boundaries and disability awareness, all of which we strongly recommend to any organisation wishing to emulate this type of engagement activity with vulnerable people.

We intend to embed Archaeology on Prescription as a long-term, sustained social prescribing offer in York, supporting the NHS to refer individuals who might benefit from taking part in archaeology. Key to this is developing new follow-on opportunities for participants, opening pathways into volunteering. We will continue to engage with social prescribers to explore new opportunities and we are researching the social prescribing landscape in other UK regions with a view to building new partnerships and opportunities beyond York.


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