Barnsley’s Festival of Archaeology online

The Council for British Archaeology’s annual ‘Festival of Archaeology’ went completely online for the first time in 2020 with a new, week-long, digital archaeology festival. We’re always up for a challenge, so we worked with colleagues in Barnsley Archives and Barnsley Libraries and other external partners, to plan a range of exciting online archaeology activities that we could share with people across Barnsley Borough. These included aerial archaeology webinars, a new online archaeology game, activities for families, an online archaeology book club and more. Dr Tegwen Roberts from our festival team tells us how it went.  

The Council for British Archaeology run the annual Festival of Archaeology in July every year. For the past few years Barnsley Museums has taken part by organising community digs (including the Milton Dig and the Newcomen Dig, with the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone and WE Great Place projects) and a very popular family archaeology day at Experience Barnsley. Of course, 2020 has been a bit different, and in response to Covid-19 this year’s festival had to adapt, with a new digital festival in July followed by a week of practical archaeology planned for later in the year.  

We love the festival, and we also love a challenge, so we spent the months leading up to the festival planning how to adapt some of our existing digital activities for an archaeology take-over, as well as planning some exciting new digital archaeology activities with different partners, including Barnsley Archives, Barnsley Libraries, CBA Yorkshire (our regional branch of the Council for British Archaeology) and Historic England.


During festival week we shared archaeology highlights from our museum collections using the hashtag #FantasticFind. We have some amazing archaeological objects in our collections, many found by Barnsley people, and it was great to have an excuse to share them, particularly at a time when people aren’t able to visit us in person. One of the most popular finds from the week was a decorated clay pipe with a skull and crossbones motif and the motto ‘Death or Glory’, thought to be connected to the Lancers cavalry regiment. A number of people replied with photographs of similar pipes that they had found in and around Sheffield, where the Lancers were stationed for a number of years.

We also shared a series of #ThrowbackThursday insights into past archaeological digs in Barnsley borough, including a community dig on the Silkstone Waggonway in 2013. One of the star finds from the dig was a knurr (or potty) from the Yorkshire game knurr and spell. Knurr and spell was popular across Barnsley in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was also known as nipsy, or miners golf. This sparked a lot of discussion, including from people who remembered it being played in the 1970s, and some who still have a ‘knock’ from time to time!

Barnsley from Above 

One of the most popular activities of the week was the Barnsley from Above webinars, which were delivered in partnership with Historic England and CBA Yorkshire. We had a packed audience for the first webinar on the Monday of festival week, where Matt Oakey from Historic England explained how archaeologists use aerial images in conjunction with other online tools – including digital mapping and google earth – to search for possible archaeological sites, and to explore how landscapes and historic places have changed over time.

Barnsley Archives then released a selection of archive aerial images of Barnsley borough taken in the late 1960s and early 1970s for participants to investigate. New photographs were released every day, and people shared questions and observations on twitter and facebook using the hashtag #BarnsleyFromAbove. Thanks to some hard work from CBA Yorkshire, the photographs were also made available as kmz files that could be opened as layers in Google Earth, making it easier to compare them with the current landscape and spot any changes.

A follow-up webinar was held at the end of the week to another packed audience. With experts Matt Oakey and Dave Went from Historic England, we discussed some of the things that people had spotted, including former industrial sites; bell pits, collieries, gasworks and iron foundries, 18th century garden features, a World War 1 training camp, a lost swimming pool and some early 19th century experimental sheep pens. Again, there was a great turn out, and lots of interesting discussion. The aerial images are still available on the Barnsley Museums flickr page if you fancy having a look yourself. Let us know what you spot!

Trowel and Error 

alt="hand-drawn illustration of an archaeologist's trowel"
Illustration of an archaeologist’s trowel from ‘Trowel and Error’ a new archaeology game by Barnsley Museums’ poet laureate Eloise Unerman (original drawing by Picture Window)

Friday of festival week was youth take over and archaeology gaming day! We teamed up with Barnsley Museums’ poet laureate Eloise Unerman to create an exciting new online archaeology game, with help from the Barnsley and Rotherham Young Archaeologists Club. This was a completely new adventure for us, and we had a lot of fun working on it. The game uses twine, a free online platform, and has a decisions and consequences format – where the player has different options to choose from, and the outcome of the game depends on the decisions they make. The player can choose one of three characters who are planning an archaeological dig, but there are some challenges and a bit of archaeology magic along the way.

You can still play the game on the Barnsley museums website (click on the link and then click the ‘run game’ tab). There is also an accessible text version. What ending will you get, and what will you find? Will you end up writing history, or will you leave empty handed? Have a go and see where your archaeological adventure takes you.

Archaeology book club (with Barnsley Libraries)  

We teamed up with our colleagues at Barnsley Libraries to run an online archaeology book club during festival week. We put together a curated collection of archaeology-themed e-books (for adults and children) and asked our curators and members of the Barnsley and Rotherham Young Archaeologist Club to review some of their favourite archaeology reads. We included books that feature an archaeologist, or that link to archaeology in some way, fact or fiction. They came up with some brilliant suggestions, ranging from Egyptology to Science Fiction!

We also launched a couple of new archaeology e-publications of our own during the week too, including a new e-book ‘Archaeology in Barnsley’ which is available to borrow from Barnsley Libraries via their e-book catalogue, and the final excavation report from the Newcomen Dig which took place at Elsecar in July 2019. The dig report is now available as free download from the Newcomen Dig blog page.


Issy and Megan share some tips for planning an archaeological dig in your own garden

Alongside all the digital activities, we even found time to squeeze in a bit of actual digging! We put together a series of short videos on how to look for archaeology at home in your garden, aimed at kids (and big kids). In the process we realised that lots of our team are budding archaeologists, and they came up with some fascinating finds from their flowerbeds and borders – including Victorian beer bottles, broken toys from the 1950s and 1960s, roof and floor tiles, and clay pipes, as well as a selection of crisp packets! 

The museums team had fun digging in their own gardens too

We would still love to hear about any interesting objects you’ve found in your garden or at home during lockdown. Send us a photograph on social media, using the #ShowUsYourStuff hashtag.

Family archaeology day

For the last weekend of the festival we hosted a digital ‘Do you dig it?’ family activity day, with prehistoric activities for children of all ages to try at home, including a Stone Age foraging challenge, cave art painting, stone age soap knapping and prehistoric pot making.

There were lots of other activities during the week, including an archaeology-themed Lego club with Barnsley Libraries. We also published two great new archaeology blogs, written by guest authors from the South Yorkshire Archaeology Service, on how to research archaeology online and Rotherham Museums, on the fascinating life and work of South Yorkshire archaeologist Dorothy Greene.

During the week thousands of people engaged with our social media posts, online events and activities. We’re so pleased with how it all came together and how many people got involved in different ways from across Barnsley borough, and beyond! It was a challenge, but we loved the new digital festival. Thank you to everybody who helped to make it such a special week, and to the Council for British Archaeology for bringing us all together. We can’t wait for next year! #FestivalofArchaeology

If you took part in any of our festival activities do let us know, and send us your feedback. We’d love to hear your archaeology stories too! Find out more about the Festival for British Archaeology on the Council for British Archaeology's website.

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