COLAS: meeting the needs of community archaeology in London for over 50 years

David Wellings, member of the COLAS committee, talks about the challenges facing community archaeology and societies such as COLAS.

In 2018 the Council for British Archaeology conducted a survey to assess the state of community archaeology: Supporting Community Archaeology in the UK: Results of a 2018 Survey.  It questioned volunteers from across the country about the extent to which community archaeology groups, such as COLAS, encouraged learning and met their needs and aspirations.  The main finding was that ‘Community Archaeology continues to be a vibrant activity involving volunteers from a range of backgrounds and with differing levels of expertise’.  The findings also show that COLAS is already providing the full range of activities for members and is in a strong position to respond to the proposed reforms.  

From the evidence revealed by the CBA report, COLAS is a normal archaeological society in some respects.  The age profile of our society resembles majority of others in that the over 60s are the largest group.  We offer the same mix of visits and lectures as most community groups, and through our CRaFT project we are like nearly half of the societies in offering opportunities for fieldwork and research.  Around two fifths of similar groups offer members the experience of excavations, finds processing and recording.  COLAS members have been at the forefront of excavations at Fulham Palace and RAF Kenley in recent years, and further projects are planned.  

We are not normal in that we were founded much earlier than most societies and have triple the average membership.  Only a third of archaeological societies have their findings published, something that COLAS members can do by contributing through the journal Context, the CRaFT website and this online blog.  More surprisingly, only 22% of societies offer ‘non themed’ social events for members.  That will make this year’s COLAS Christmas Social even more special!

When volunteers were asked in the survey about the factors that limited their participation, many of those of working age or in education cited lack of time and the weekday timing of many of the events.  There was an age difference in the types of activities that members wanted to do, with younger members wanting to get more involved with excavations and fieldwork.   The findings also showed that there was a lack of communication and co-ordination in first informing, and then supporting, members wanting to engage in archaeology.  In responding to the question ‘Why take part?’ the most popular, answers were to learn new skills and to take part in community activities, but the report lists lack of training and opportunities for fieldwork as the main causes of dissatisfaction among members.  In short, many societies were not responding to their members’ needs. 

In its recommendations the report suggested that firstly, community archaeological societies should address the lack of diversity and encourage younger people to join.  Secondly, local societies should have closer links with academic institutions and professional archaeologists.  Thirdly, that the different community groups should share information in order to publicise opportunities in training and excavation, and to provide a forum for publishing reports.  COLAS has had close links with MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), UCL Archaeology and PCA Archaeology in arranging visits, lectures, research and fieldwork activities throughout the year.  It also has close links with other organisations and can publicise opportunities for training and excavation through Context.  Also, before the virus lockdown, members of COLAS were involved in the early stages of two major projects to integrate the activities of community archaeology groups from across the country.  

Community archaeology, and the professional sector that underpins it, are in a period of profound change.  COLAS needs to meet these challenges without losing the support of its core membership, whilst also attracting a new generation of supporters. 

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