DigVentures – Social Archaeology

After a Facebook/Twitter teaser trailer campaign, DigVentures revealed its intentions to the world with the announcement that it was intending to run an excavation at the internationally important Bronze Age site of Flag Fen, where the archaeology is under threat from development and climate change.
And all it needed to do this was £25,000 of your money, and a small but manageable portion of your blood, sweat, and tears. We catch up with Project Director Brendon Wilkins to see how it’s going. . .

HR: Appealing to a cash-strapped industry (archaeology) was always going to be a risk – how long did you kick the idea of crowdsourced archaeology around before it became worth the gamble?


Bronze Age Boat

"We're going to need a bigger boat." (Photocredit - Vivacity)

BW: There’s a scene in Jaws when Chief Brody first catches sight of the mother of all Great White Sharks. ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’ he tells old sea dog Quint, staggering backwards at the enormity of the challenge. Our ‘bigger boat’ moment left us feeling exactly the same. We’d been working on the crowdsourcing/crowdfunding model for about a year and had a number of other great sites lined up – but when the opportunity came at Flag Fen to pitch our idea to Vivacity (the charitable trust who look after the Archaeology Park) everything just fell into place.

From the outside, I have no doubt that this looked like an audacious – even rookie move. But the reality is that we’d spent months debating the pros and cons of crowdfunding. We’d done our homework: taken legal advice, business advice, and had long discussions with our archaeological mentors. We were equally confident to take on the challenge archaeologically – our Assistant Directors Mike Bamforth and Dave Britchfield both started their careers supervising trenches at Flag Fen, and I have spent several years in wet trenches in Ireland. As our team grew in number, new ideas came to the fore, and any potential issues were worked out well in advance of going public. By the 29th February, we were raring to go!

HR: You’ve managed to involve some well-known names from the world of archaeology – did they take much convincing before they signed up?

BW: Pretty much everyone in our team has worked together in some form before, which is such a great feeling. Because we fall outside of the traditional academic/commercial structure, we’ve been free to cherry-pick the best possible archaeologists and specialists for the site. Everyone has been incredibly enthusiastic about the opportunity – bottom line, there is still so much to learn from this site, and a potentially limited time to do the work. Flag Fen is an iconic, even talismanic site. Every inch of the place is inscribed with the hard graft of Francis Pryor, Maisie Taylor and all the other great people who have worked there before us. We’re humbled to be taking the baton forward, and blown away to be working with such a great team. And did you check out the evening lecture line-up of our DVIPS? Roll on July!

HR: After launch there were some fairly hostile reactions to the idea – did these take you by surprise? And have attitudes hardened or softened?

BW: Sadly, we weren’t at all surprised, and both the questions and the direction they came from were exactly what we expected. Have a look on the forums or twitter feeds for the first few days after we launched, and you’ll see people openly question our credentials, abilities, morals, hold our website up to ridicule, accuse us of profiteering and even go as far question whether or not we’re real archaeologists. One of archaeology’s biggest problems is that we are a fractious, inward-looking profession; not exactly an environment conducive to innovation or true collaboration. Personal agendas rule. Our strategy to deal with this was to lead with our values front and centre. We are a social enterprise dedicated to building new audiences whilst raising seed capital for sustainable archaeology projects. The bottom line is: how can that be a bad thing?

By holding the right values, social enterprises have the resiliency to withstand criticism and the innovation necessary to thrive in the long term. And given that one of our core values is to connect and collaborate with our stakeholders, that also meant listening and engaging with the same people who were calling us out. And guess what? The nay-sayers started to come round. The tone of the conversation shifted and we were given the benefit of the doubt. That’s vitally important to us, because crowdfunding is based on trust. Negative comments can be googled forever. It was emotionally exhausting, but if we were ever to convince the public to dig with us in future, it was absolutely necessary to confront this stuff head on.

HR: You’ve managed to raise over a quarter of the funding in the first ten days – has the success of the launch taken you by surprise?

BW: We had no idea what to expect, but even still it’s been crazy. It just proves our point completely, that the public appetite is there, and we as archaeologists need to find a way to tap into it and connect people with the experience they want to have.  Look at Vindolanda, and how quickly their field school sells out – it’s the same principle.

And we’re still not there yet! We have a long way to go, and really need people to spread the word far and wide. All in all we need about 500 people to fund us in total – across the full range of ‘Venturer’ levels. That sounds like a massive amount, but assuming that there are about 100 people reading this now, and let’s say for arguments sake that all have 250 facebook and twitter friends – that’s a reach of 50,000 people. We only need to convince 1% of those to financially back us. It sounds much simpler that way round – but it means that everyone has to do their bit to spread the word. The future of Flag Fen is in your hands!

HR: Why Flag Fen? The Roman period is more usually viewed as a crowd pleaser – what made you think a prehistoric wetland site was going to pique people’s interest?

Flag Fen

Flag Fen (Photocredit - Vivacity)

BW: What have the Romans ever done for us? Flag Fen is an ideal site to trial our model – the archaeology is amazing, it already has a grip on public consciousness, and it’s drying out. Development is encroaching on the very borders of the site, and Vivacity (the caretaker of the site, and out partner) needed to do research to scope the degradation and dewatering. In 30 to 50 years, the kind of fine-grained archaeological information which eludes us on dryland sites will have degraded completely. There was a real need and an imperative for this work to be done which appealed to us – we didn’t just decide to open some holes on a sensitive site for a jolly.

Our project is set within Flag Fen Archaeology Park – a visitor attraction managed on behalf of Peterborough City Council by Vivacity. Everyone is doing a sterling job up there – but, like any other public facility, it needs continuous investment – and that will only be forthcoming if we can demonstrate beyond doubt that people want it. We are hoping that having the archaeologists around will convince 10 times the usual number of people to visit Flag Fen. A big ask: but we think it’s achievable.

HR: Are you intending to become an umbrella organisation for smaller projects? Will archaeological societies be able to tie in with DigVentures to use your platform for their own projects?

This is our proof of concept of year. Crowdfunding depends on trust to succeed, and we are 100% focussed on getting things right at Flag Fen. We’ve commissioned UCL to undertake a detailed analysis of the public impact of our work, addressing issues of cultural economy, and we intend to present the preliminary results of this at the EAA in Helsinki just two weeks after we finish digging. If we can demonstrate to all our stakeholders and funders that the model is suitably robust, then we will definitely consider scaling or becoming a fully-fledged platform.

In a highly connected, social world, technological innovation lasts for a matter of weeks rather than months or years. I fully anticipate there will be other crowdfunders hot on our heels this year – and good luck to them. It’s not what you do that’s important, but how you do it: the quality of your research, your equal commitment to the archaeology and your community, and how meaningful the experience is for the funders who become part of our team. We’re dedicated to getting this right, and that means walking before we run.

HR: The Flag Fen choice has proven popular, and you seem well on the way to achieving your goal – what’s next?

BW: To dig it! If our funding is successful, this is the first year of what we are hoping will be a six year research project. We have so many exciting ideas that we’re keen to try out, from live streaming to daily entertainment-based films professionally filmed and edited. We’re hoping the website funding levels (£10-£60) will increase in popularity as people realise just how much information will be in the Site Hut and how much they will be able to participate in the project through the internet – we want to take the experience of watching Digging for Britain or Time Team and turn it up to 11 – that’s the plan, anyway! And if you like our social media integration now, you ain’t seen nothing yet!
So sign up and be part of our community (go on, what are you waiting for?!).


The main Digventures website can be found here, their Facebook page can be found here, and their Twitter feed here
DD wishes them all the luck in the world with this venture, and will be keeping a close eye on how it unfolds. 
Thanks to Brendon Wilkins for taking time out of his schedule to answer our questions.

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