Posted on 3 October 2013
The Department of Archaeology are advertising a PhD to identify and implement best practice for improving public understanding of the Mesolithic period using Star Carr as a case study. This PhD will be supervised by Professor Nicky Milner in partnership with York Archaeological Trust.
Fees and stipend:
To identify and implement best practice for improving public understanding of the Mesolithic period using Star Carr as a case study
1. To critically evaluate the ways in which the Mesolithic is presented to the public
2. To identify and implement effective ways of disseminating Mesolithic research to the public
3. To measure the impact of activities on public value
The title of this project (or variations on the theme) is a frequent response by non-archaeologists who have visited Star Carr, come to talks, or been involved in questionnaires. There are two reasons for this: 1. within British archaeology it is often considered a dull and impoverished period; 2. probably as a consequence of this, it barely features in museums, popular media and school education. Little wonder, few people have heard of it!
However, despite the bad press the Mesolithic has a lot to offer. The Mesolithic period falls between the end of the Ice Age, c. 9,500 BC and the introduction of farming, c. 4000 BC. There are important environmental events and changes during this period, including a rapid rise in temperature at the start and a significant cold period at 6500BC, breaching of the land bridge cutting Britain off from the continent, as well as a dramatic tsunami in the North Sea. Mesolithic hunter gatherers had very different lifeways and yet there were also many resonances with modern life: they built houses, wore jewellery, domesticated dogs, and buried their dead.
Evidence that the Mesolithic can appeal to a wide public audience comes from excavations at Star Carr which attracted local, national and international media attention for “Britain’s Oldest House”: over 120 newspapers worldwide (e.g. Washington Post, The Guardian, Toronto news, Brisbane news), worldwide TV and radio coverage (BBC, Sky, ITV, Channel 4) (Fig. 1).
The Mesolithic is also better presented in other parts of Europe, notably Denmark. Here it is described as their “Golden Age”; school children are taught about the period and play at being hunter-gatherers, and it usually takes pride of place in museums, often through reconstructions: there is much to learn here for Britain.
This partnership came about following discussions between Milner and York Archaeological Trust regarding possible visitor attractions for Star Carr. Whereas the Vikings and Romans are easier to “sell” to the public because they are taught in schools and frequently appear in the media, the Mesolithic presents a much greater challenge which both partners are extremely keen to take up. The partners wish to collaborate in order to find sustainable ways of bringing the Mesolithic period to public attention through Star Carr, and with a particular emphasis on working with school children.
Research Questions and methodology
1. In what ways is the Mesolithic presented to the public in Britain?
The student will assess the ways in which the Mesolithic is currently being presented and how sustainable it is, through visits to museums, identifying popular literature (like the new cartoon book “Mezolith” and other recent novels), and media such as TV and radio.
2. In what ways is the Mesolithic presented to the public in other European countries, particularly Denmark?
A similar exercise will be undertaken in Europe making use of Milner’s contacts in Denmark, Norway, Spain, and Germany where a variety of different media and museum displays are used, in some cases with a great deal of success (visitor numbers, books sales, school curricula).
3. Which methods of presenting the past are best applicable to the Mesolithic?
The student will spend time in YAT’s visitor attractions in order to consider the many different ways the past can be presented to the public and how these might translate to the Mesolithic period. Different types of activity will be planned and implemented for Star Carr with a focus on working with schools.
4. Which aspects of Mesolithic lifeways are more likely to engage a public audience?
This will be assessed through studying other periods (particularly the Vikings and Romans through the YAT attractions), and the Mesolithic in other countries: e.g. are issues such as climate change, which is at the forefront of current media, of interest when considered in the past.
5. How effective are different types of outreach activities?
Detailed monitoring of activities will take place using data such as visitor numbers and questionnaires in order to assess the impact of the different types of activity undertaken. Surveys will continue to be undertaken in Scarborough in order to identify whether the site acquires a higher profile over the period of the PhD.
Benefit of the Collaboration
The PhD student: the student will benefit from working in collaboration between a University department and YAT (the local market leader in educational activities and visitor attractions), as well as working with other local bodies and agencies (local societies, museums, English Heritage). The student will also be exposed to practices in other countries and will build up those networks further through visits and conference presentations.