“Do not ask who I am…”

Foucault’s command was rather ignored recently, when Soldier On! invited 24 people to spend two weeks in South Yorkshire, participating in an archaeological excavation and taking part in personal development coaching, where indeed the prevailing question was, “Who am I?”

We were joined by members of the local community including young people from The Young Archaeologists’ Club as well as others from all over Britain, from America and even Australia! Our guests came from wide social backgrounds ranging in age from 8 to 75, many suffering from a variety of complex physical and social needs including addiction issues, chronic disease, pain and social afflictions including isolation, anxiety and loneliness.

The land we were working on is privately owned and we were most generously given access by the owner who was aware that somewhere under his paddock were the remains of a medieval Priory.  An excavation had been carried out in 1937, however, even by the standards of the day, professional archaeologists agree that the standard of work was relatively poor and most frustratingly, the previous project lead had never identified the precise site of his excavations.  As a result, the exact location of the Priory remained a mystery, as we were politely reminded when one dog walker told us we were in the wrong field!

We were therefore planning for two outcomes.  From an archaeological perspective, we wanted to identify the exact location of the Priory and record accurately what we found. Under the expert supervision of archaeologist, Tim Jones, MA, using modern archaeological methods, and with experienced and qualified people, we identified and located the substantial remains of the Priory.  The remains we found may be of a small religious building which, from the stone work and artefacts uncovered, would suggest that when the Priory was founded it was of a high status and not some wooden building as some had believed.

Having conducted a project scoping exercise in October last year, staff were able to arrive two days early to mark out the proposed trench sites.  After a morning in the classroom where security, conduct, welfare and other practical briefings were delivered, we set out to the site and, having split up into small teams, the digging started! Participants received training and were able to practice newly learned archaeology specific skills such as excavating, recording, washing, cataloguing and protecting finds, drawing detailed and accurate representations of the trenches and surveying.  Although these skills were learned and developed within a heritage setting, participants were able to see how transferable many of these abilities are to other areas within the world of work. 

Finds included pottery dating from the C12th to the C17th, not only from this country but also from abroad, which interestingly appeared to be the sort workmen would drink beer from and likely to be a result of loss during construction or demolition. Again, the later stoneware we found was of the sort that was imported en-masse for beer drinking in inns and taverns so not the sort used by the rich for sipping wine! We also found high-quality carved stone work and metal objects dating to the medieval period.

“…and do not ask me to remain the same:”

Our second mission, which is at the very heart of all we do, is to provide personal development activities alongside the archaeology fieldwork.  Personal development is exactly that, it’s personal, and thus success can only be defined with an understanding of why each person was there.  For some, just getting through the front door, making the journey to an unfamiliar location, to work alongside strangers, and to remain for the duration, is personal development enough.  For others, who are motivated to take the next steps towards independent and meaningful futures, on returning home, there was the opportunity to participate in a group workshop, where we developed a deeper understanding of ‘the self’, before staring to think about individual goals and aspirations and how we can best present our abilities and aims.  This training, underpinned by the Transperformance™ philosophy,  is invaluable for participants who have been unemployed for long periods of time, or are planning to return to work following an illness, injury or even as they prepare for life after further studies or changing careers.  This really is the main effort of the charity, ensuring that an individual’s happiness is a creation of their own doing.  We may be providing the platform for engagement, we may be providing the tools to make progress, but ultimately our aim is for participants to become independent agents for improved change in their lives.

In addition to our aims, the ‘what’ if you like of what we do, ‘how’ is equally important.   All of our projects are designed so that vulnerable, disadvantaged or socially-isolated people feel a warm welcome.  Together with our health expertise and policies covering safe-guarding, welfare, anti-bullying, medical in confidence, this recent project was another example of how communities can really come together for a common purpose.  As part of our community-led and fully inclusive programme, we were delighted to be working once again with The Ashworth Barracks Museum, whose volunteer staff joined the ‘dig’ and it was at their location that we stayed and stored all our equipment.  We also partnered with the local Church of England and it was an extraordinary sensation to see the Rector, Ann, standing on the ancient flagstones delivering a service one morning to the words based on the mediaeval religious services the nuns would have celebrated many, many centuries ago. 

Weather wise, Yorkshire did not deviate from the script.  We started in shirt-sleeves, half way through, we woke up to some fairly heavy frosts, and by the time we finished we were back into shirt-sleeves and sunhats!  The activities again proved themselves to be effective interventions when one recognised other factors, such as an increase in interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, team-building, the breaking down of socio-economic barriers, camaraderie, time-keeping, leadership, management, logistics, transcendence of cultures and integration within a community.  For some, being outside, breathing in fresh air, speaking daily to other humans, eating sensibly and sleeping were improvements that don’t often appear on impact assessments. 

We have many to thank.  They include, the landowner for giving us permission to work on his private land, the first excavations to take place for many, many years.  Gary Stapleton, Curator of The Ashworth Barracks Museum, who made the initial introduction to the landowner, introduced us to Hannah, whose wonderful piece on our work went out on Forces News, and provided accommodation facilities.   To Sean, one of the museum’s staff, who also lived on-site ensuring we had everything we needed and to SRP Hire Solutions, who offer full site solutions including portable toilet hire, mobile and static welfare units, site cabins, shower hire, generator hire and full event management services, who donated an on-site lavatory. 

We thank the locals whose constant enthusiasm for the project was infective and especially to one of them who arrived on the hotter afternoons with a bucket of ice-cold refreshments.  We thank Terry and his wife and Steve and Yvonne who let us keep our tools in there garden, saving us from carting them back to the museum every day.  In mentioning Terry, we must also thank him for his amazing home-made scones, jam and clotted cream! We are also hugely grateful to the Rector, Ann and her husband Father Richard, who not only provided us with drawings from the 1937 excavations but who also gave a bed to our guest from the United States who perhaps wasn’t completely prepared for Yorkshire Spring weather! Thank you also to the owner of the horses, Steve who had to find new pasture for them for two weeks. 

Special thanks go to Persimmon Homes who made a donation of £1,000 towards the costs of this project, to Row4Victory, the intrepid Yorkshiremen who rowed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to contribute towards the costs of the personal development training we deliver, to all of our participants whose efforts and engagement make the whole thing possible, to Tim our project Director and to each and every one of you reading this whose likes, retweets and individual donations all make a noticeable difference.

Overall, we helped to address social isolation and helped to create community cohesion and contributed to sharing an understanding and deeper sense of belonging not only for our members but also for the local villagers.   We achieved our objectives in categorically identifying the location of the Priory and helping a not insignificant number of people to return home with a renewed sense of confidence, achievement, and plans for the future.

“leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.”

We failed to follow Foucault’s advice to not ask who I am, however, we fervently agreed with his thoughts about not remaining the same.  It is unlikely that the majority of our members will ever go back to being who they were, will any of us ever? People change and it is up to us to support them as they adapt to a new life. Thanks to one of our participants, we won’t be leaving our admin to the police or bureaucrats either, for Peter Cooper has volunteered to become our administrator. You can read more about this in a previous post and we hope this will be the first of a few more volunteers joining us.  We are extremely grateful to these wonderful people who give up their time to support our work.

We are planning our next project now and would be most grateful to hear from any businesses who would consider sponsoring our work.  We would also like to hear from any organisations who would like to explore opportunities to collaborate with us to help many more people who are finding life a struggle.  To find out more about sponsorship opportunities, employee engagement/corporate away days and ideas for collaboration please contact nicholas@soldieron.org.uk