WRoCAH CDA Series: Christopher Wakefield and the Council for British Archaeology

2019 saw the start of ten AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Awards – PhD projects in which students and partner organisations work together on a piece of applied research that will have immediate impact. The PhD experience these projects offer is very different from normal, bringing their own opportunities and challenges. In this series we hope to celebrate the early experiences of the students undertaking this collaborative and dynamic research.

This blog series will be regularly updated throughout the spring of 2020.

Lucy Brownson


Christopher Wakefield


Louise Calf


Katie Crowther


Elliot Holmes



Christopher Wakefield

Department of Archaeology, University of York

2019 Cohort

I’ve always been fascinated by archaeology. From finding a medieval coin while digging in my garden as a child to endlessly pestering my parents to take me to visit excavations, I’ve been obsessed with the past for as long as I can remember. My interest in archaeology never stopped and led from volunteering on digs as a teenager to becoming a senior field archaeologist.

As a nerdy child I was constantly pestering my parents to take me to any historical site

While working across the UK, digging everything from Roman settlements to prehistoric flint scatters, I developed a passion for public engagement. Sharing the findings of excavations, running activities in schools and speaking to hundreds of people about the past reminded me of my own childhood love of archaeology and how important communicating our work is.

Engaging the public with archaeology across Britain, however, is not always easy. Most archaeology in the UK is “development-led”. Excavations and evaluations take place before, or during, construction, from housing estates to national infrastructure projects. The archaeologists carrying out excavations are usually part of commercial companies. These companies tender for jobs and must work quickly to complete projects on time and under budget. This environment, of competitive work within the construction industry, can make finding money and time to share the archaeological findings with the public difficult.

Visiting my first excavation near Whitby Abbey

Where outreach does take place it is often small in scale, taking the form of talks and open days. Once sites are finished, they are written up in technical reports, a process which can take months or even years. These reports can be difficult to read, even for archaeologists, and are deposited in digital archives where it may be hard to find them without prior knowledge.

I began working on the Must Farm project in 2015, an excavation exploring a Late Bronze Age settlement of pile-dwellings. During the development-led dig I was able to use digital platforms, particularly social media, to share the progress of the project every day. Posting about the artefacts that were discovered, the techniques that were being used and the scientific analyses taking place helped people connect with the project. Working at Must Farm helped me realise the power and potential of digital media within public archaeology and I was keen to see how these tools could be used more widely across the UK’s commercial archaeological sector.


Excavating at Must Farm in 2015 and showing local schools finds during the excavations. Images Dave Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit


In 2019 I was lucky enough to partner with the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) on a WRoCAH-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) programme at the Department of Archaeology, University of York, exploring the impact of online engagement. The CBA are an independent charity that has been at the forefront of promoting archaeology for 75 years. One of the central aims of the Council for British Archaeology is to deliver “Archaeology for All”, through participation, discovery, advocacy and sustainability. When we first began discussing the project, the CBA were keen to explore how digital tools and social media could benefit public engagement in archaeology. How could these technologies be used to improve the dissemination of research and improve non-specialist involvement in the discipline?

The CBA aim to deliver “Archaeology for All”, through participation, discovery, advocacy and sustainability. Image CBA


My research involves examining how widespread digital and social media use is within commercial archaeology, characterising how it is being employed and exploring how audiences respond. The project will conduct detailed analyses of social media use by all major commercial archaeological companies. The research involves a quantitative-qualitative methodology examining a dataset comprised of both social networking site metrics combined with content analyses and case studies to create a detailed picture of development-led digital engagement.

From the beginning my supervisor Dr Colleen Morgan, an experienced practitioner and lecturer in digital heritage, and Dr Mike Heyworth, Executive Director of the CBA, have both helped to shape my research design. Having the combination of academic knowledge from my supervisor and the wider industry experience and connections from the Council for British Archaeology has helped create strong foundations for my project from its earliest stages.

Getting ready to film a series of social media videos covering Must Farm’s post-excavation work. Image Dave Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit

I’m currently developing data collection strategies. Receiving feedback on the specifics of my research design from within the industry is essential in both refining and improving my project. The CBA has helped to arrange meetings with other important archaeological organisations in the UK including the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA).

The CBA has a history of investigating access to archaeological research, including surveys and reports exploring the requirements that users of publications have. One strand of my PhD is to conduct complementary research to explore the current and emerging needs of everyday, non-archaeological audiences. Particularly, if digital content matches the requirements of users, whether social networking sites can help enhance the dissemination of excavation findings and reach people beyond the typically self-selecting audiences associated with archaeology.

I feel passionately that development-led archaeology can do more to exploit digital tools and platforms to improve the communication of not only individual projects but the role of the wider discipline. However, the pressures commercial archaeology faces, including lack of time, money and training, will necessitate practical solutions to help create opportunities for these technologies to work.

Setting up an ad hoc filming space to create content for social media to keep audiences up-to-date with new discoveries and developments

My research into digital content is designed to identify what engagement is working, what material audiences respond to and where improvements can be made. The project will hopefully lead to the creation of pragmatic guidelines and training opportunities to help upskill practitioners and create new working practices.

One of the benefits of working with the Council for British Archaeology in a CDA is that the organisation is supporting the research and it is well placed to help communicate its results more widely. With the CBA’s connections to other organisations, including the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists and the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group, hopefully it will have the potential to impact the profession and encourage the wider adoption of regular online updates on development-led projects. The CBA can also help to bring the results of the research to other sectors within archaeology especially the community archaeology groups which are active across the UK.

Working in all weathers in commercial archaeology. Image Katie-morag Buchanan Hutton

When I was burrowing around in a muddy hole behind my first house, I never imagined that I would end up researching a PhD alongside leading academics and an organisation at the forefront of promoting archaeology. Working on a CDA project combines the innovative research and critical, theoretical context from academia with the seasoned experience and practical knowledge of a non-academic partner. This connection results in a unique and positive relationship that creates a supportive research environment that harnesses the enthusiasm of two different organisations.

Hopefully, over the next three years the project will not only better understand digital outreach within commercial archaeology but also provide a dataset, guidance and recommendations to encourage new and innovative forms of sharing archaeological research with wider audiences. 


To find out more about Christopher and his PhD project, ‘Digital Public Archaeology in a Time of Crisis: investigating and improving the real world impact of online engagement in the UK‘, visit the WRoCAH Research pages.