One of the positive outcomes of The Restoration Trust’s participation in the Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project’s Arminghall Henge and Warham Camp excavations, has been the invitation to speak about how these experiences contribute to mental wellbeing. It’s encouraging that the community welfare aspect of archaeology is now being taken seriously.

The 44th Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference ran for three days, between the 18th and 20th December at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk, on the theme of climate archaeology.

Restoration Trust representatives attended on 19th December for a session called Place, Climate and Health: Archaeology, Therapy and Wellbeing, organised by Andy Hutcheson, leader of the Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project along with Chris Elmer and Harriet Sams.  My day began at the Sainsbury Centre with Chris and Harriet’s intriguing exercise: explain to a fellow conference attendee what interested you about one of the exhibits. I spoke to The Restoration Trust’s Christopher Smith about how I was drawn to Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer sculpture. The girl was apparently 14, but what’s inspiring about the study is the poise, confidence and slight suggestion of arrogance in the small, quirky figure. Degas didn’t idealise his subject in the slightest. Perhaps how he captured the personality of Little Dancer is why I find the sculpture so fascinating.

The next step was to go out into the grounds of the UEA and apply the same criteria to the landscape (this was optional, as it was pouring with rain). With a few other people, I decided to brave the elements.

I was fascinated by an installation which reflected the aesthetics that the architect Denys Lasdun (1914-2001) designed for the UEA’s halls of student residence. The buildings have a regimented, utilitarian quality which I’ve always associated with Russian Constructivism – the desire to present architecture as a uniform ideal, a principle you can also see applied in Lasdun’s work on the Southbank Centre in London.

The difference with the halls of residence is that they step down level by level, almost in deference to the lush, green beauty of the university grounds. My conclusion: human ingenuity and nature in harmony. For me, that summed up the theme of this year’s conference, an inspiring thought that I carried with me for the rest of the day. I have been consistently complimented for my pen and wax crayon drawings of both Arminghall and Warham Camp – indeed, it was one of the reasons I was asked to speak. With that in mind, I decided that it would be appropriate to record the various presentations in sketch form. Again, everyone was delighted with the results.

Speakers included the Sainsbury Institute’s Andy Hutcheson, who succinctly outlined the logistics of setting up community archaeological digs, and The Restoration Trust’s Ian Brownlie, who highlighted the creative possibilities in archaeology. After a break for lunch and the chance to talk to other attendees and the various organisations who hosted tables in the dining area, it was my turn at the lectern and laptop.

In consultation with director Laura Drysdale, three of us had been put forward – myself, talking about the media aspects of covering digs and the concurrent positive effect on my mental health; Phil Wells, discussing his role as a photographer, and Christopher Smith, speaking about how he’d been inspired creatively by visits to Arminghall and Warham.

I’ve often spoken publicly before, but the difference at the Climate Archaeology conference was that I was being emotionally honest in front of an audience, perhaps for the first time. Preparing my talk, I’d had the chance to reflect on how my five years – and I was surprised it was that long: it’s flown by – have changed me. Somone once said that life depends on change and renewal, and that’s something that certainly applies to me.

Born in Suffolk but living in London for thirty plus years had some very positive outcomes for me – mostly career wise – but it didn’t do a lot for my mental wellbeing. In fact, it was during one of my breakdowns, in 2009, that I was diagnosed as bipolar. That was the first real step on the road to stability, and to this day I take medication for the condition. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s changed my life, though I know not everyone would agree that taking drugs is part of the long-term solution.

Moreover, joining The Restoration Trust has made me a better person – more empathic, more caring, more community focused and certain of who I am (partly evidenced by an increasingly flamboyant taste in mod haute couture). I said all this during my presentation and concluded by referencing an alternative rock song: “Radiohead once sang ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar.’  I believe that anyone can draw, anyone can sing, anyone can dance, and anyone can realise their full potential. I’m living proof that, culture therapy works.” Rewardingly, Laura told me afterwards that she was very moved by what I’d said.

Phil and Chris’s talks were no less inspiring (that word crops up a lot here, but I can’t think of a better one, and to be honest I love using it). Phil spoke movingly about how dyslexia has affected his life, photography had given him back a lot of his confidence and concluded with the punch-the-air statement that this was the first time he’d ever stood up and spoken in front of an audience. Chris talked about how he’d been in a dark place mentally during the Arminghall dig, but the refreshing ambience of the site had inspired him to write, draw and paint. It was the first step on his journey out from under the dark clouds of mental anguish.

One of the conference delegates, a mental health practitioner, made my day even more worthwhile when she commented, “Hearing about your experiences at the end of the year gives me hope that the work I do makes a difference.”

My personal highlight of the talks was the presentation by local teacher, Mike Pittaccio, about the Synergy Multi-Academy Trust. Mike’s a lovely man – the sort of teacher his ex-pupils will eulogise about later in life – and encouraged a group of his students to take part in the Warham Camp dig. The stand-out example of how positive the experience could be was the case of one pupil of his who didn’t speak. The staff at her school had tried everything to get her to talk, with no response. After one day in a test pit with a trowel in her hand, she was enthusiastically asking the archaeologists and other volunteers about their work on the site. That’s magical.

The Restoration Trust came, saw, and made our case for culture therapy. As facilitator Darren France drove our contented minibus home, I was reminded of a song that’s been instrumental in my personal strategy of wellbeing:

We could be heroes
Just for one day.

And many more days to come.

Photographs © Robert Fairclough 2023
Photo of Rob Fairclough © Phil Wells 2023