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Archaeology as Therapy and why archaeologists should connect with mental health proff - Arthus - 25th April 2010

My question is, is anyone formally using archaeology as a Therapy and are there any formal links between archaeologists, communities and mental health proffessionals?

If there are could they contact me at

Because I think there should be such links. But an exhaustive search of the net suggests that at present there are not any formal links and Dr Faye A Simpson a Post-Graduate Research Fellow in Community Archaeology from Exeter, who has in her writing mentioned such possibilities also in an email says she hasn't come across any formal links.

And the time is right for making such links as health services want activities which are preventative and stop people getting ill and involve exercise and archaeologists want archaeology to be useful in much more immaginative and varied ways than hiding bones in boxes in museums.

Working in Australia there is also the whole buisness of how archaeologists working alongside Indigenous Elders can help empower young people and help connect them with their own culture.

As well as being an archaeologist (trained in Australia at University of Western Australia and having worked in Yorkshire with On-site-Archaeology and for Patna Museum in Bihar, India) I am also a Psychiatric Nurse and I am currently working as a community Clinical Nurse Specialist in the Pilbara region of Western Australia based in Port Hedland.

Many of my Aboriginal clients often take part in archaeological/anthropological surveys and some of my young clients return fit and healthy and with money, which is much better than their usual unoccupied and poverty stricken state which often see's these victims of my racist society simply lying around smoking bongs and developing various types of physical and mental illness.

Appart from the surveys already happening as a result of mining I would like to see the health authorities linking with Indigenous communities and archaeology companies so that the communities could conduct their own archaeological surveys for therapeutic reasons. And of course the communities would control what was and wasn't published.

And I surely don't need to emphasise how useful such different kinds of projects would be for archaeologists and their employer's

So I think this is a really good idea and I know for a fact that there seems to be quite a few individuals around the world who work as archaeologists but have a background in mental health.

So anyone is welcome to take these ideas and use them, and of the only thing slightly original here is that archaeologists need to make formal links with organisations connected with mental health - client groups, communities of clients, Doctors, Nurses and all manner of therapists


Steve Arthur

And below is a draft letter I have been trying to send to various Indigenous, Psychiatric and Archaeological people here in Australia.

[INDENT]A Proposal to Build on Indigenous Practice and Formally Link Psychiatry and Archaeology/Anthropology for the Benefit of Local Indigenous Communities and Industry.
The arguments below are not new and I take no credit for them. I simply wish to suggest that Professionals in partnership with Indigenous People and others might wish to develop them. I include no references, although there are plenty to be found, as currently all my time and energy is occupied working as a community mental health nurse, guided in my work by an Indigenous Mental Health Worker co-worker.

I argued similar ideas and presented papers on this subject a few years ago when I was the archaeological advisor to the State Government of Bihar in India.

I believe that mental health professionals in partnership with archaeologists and anthropologists should more formally catch up and give assistance to practices already common when Indigenous Communities take part in archaeological surveys. What is more, Indigenous communities in areas where no industry exists may also want to develop such practices with the assistance of social scientists and mental health professionals. For example, they might decide to employ archaeologists, anthropologists and mental health staff to help map their cultural landscape whilst maintaining complete control of that process.

I first noticed the therapeutic benefit of community archaeology whilst working with Aboriginal Elders and Youth in an archaeological survey conducted by the University of Western Australia during my honours year at UWA. I believe that the same would be true of Anthropological surveys.

During the survey I worked on, Elders worked with archaeologists to connect Aboriginal teenagers with their culture. Archaeologists working under the guidance of the Elders (who controlled what knowledge could be shared) taught youth how to recognise stone tools, archaeological sites and how to use camera?s, GPS and computers to record these artefacts and places without disturbing them.

In particular I found my psychiatric nursing skills very useful in carrying out risk assessments and giving informal counselling to the young Aboriginal people taking part in the survey. This was because we were all learning and working with Aboriginal Culture and the power structures normally associated when the young people were involved with non-Indigenous professionals were not present, as quite often they were teaching me and not the other way around. What is more, we were exercising and connecting with ideas about life as their Elders explained how their hunter-gatherer ancestors used to live. Because just about every healthy way of living from nutrition to exercise for all humans can be modelled on our hunter-gatherer ancestry it is obviously a great way of beginning a discussion about peoples health today
Many of the Aboriginal Youth had psychological, substance and conduct problems and had been failed by the education system, and were not very literate. However, because of their love of computer games they grasped the technical side more quickly than highly qualified older professionals. The benefits were obvious since the youth became more connected with their elders, they engaged in much needed exercise ? relieved their boredom and learnt skills which not only made them future candidates for such surveys, but developed IT skills transferable into other area?s of work.

As a community psychiatric nurse and archaeologist, I would like to see the practice of community archaeology developed as a therapeutic process to maintain and improve the mental health of local Indigenous Peoples. This process is already happening informally but I believe formal partnerships between Indigenous Elders and local community leaders, Mental Health Professionals, Archaeologists and Anthropologists and when appropriate, Mining and Petroleum companies would benefit everyone.

Current evidence based practice in Psychiatry recognises that prevention is better than cure and that holistic health promotion should encompass a whole communities physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing. In addition, community archaeology would benefit many individuals who take medication for their mental health but develop metabolic problems that can increase their chances of developing obesity and diabetes. What is more, the lack of employment for Indigenous youth leads to boredom and this can add to the possibility of these young people developing conduct, substance abuse and psychological problems.

Moreover, within health the current aim of mental health services in order to improve the health of everyone is to engage in partnerships with all manner of Non Government Organisations, community groups and Industry.

Already Indigenous groups involve all members of their communities in land surveys. However, I would suggest that some of the money and skills from the Mental Health sector could be usefully channelled into archaeological and anthropological surveys, in order to have mental health professionals working alongside Indigenous Elders, Archaeologists and Anthropologists and when appropriate Industry.
Archaeologists want archaeology to be popular but they also want it to be, non-invasive and professionally conducted. Community Archaeology where communities not only participate but set their own research questions and collectively plan and implement surveys is now generally accepted as best practice within archaeology. I do not think many archaeologists would object to working alongside sensitive mental health professionals as they help conduct such surveys and monitor the health of their clients.

Industry has often led the way in ensuring that Indigenous communities are consulted and involved in survey work when new industries are developed and these companies would surely want to become involved in having professional mental health involvement in such surveys.

Finally, there is much debate as to how capital can be invested to raise the health outcomes of Indigenous populations and a more formal link between social scientists and the mental health sector could be one small step in the right direction.

Stephen Arthur
Mental Health Nurse & Archaeologist.


Archaeology as Therapy and why archaeologists should connect with mental health proff - Kel - 25th April 2010

Hi Arthus. These are very laudable aims and I can see where you're coming from.

However, I wonder if you've read other recent threads on this board? Archaeology in the UK is going through a period of crisis. Many people find it a stressful occupation and a fair number seem to leave. Working conditions are not ideal for a lot of people; this seems mainly due to financial constraints, but a further trawl of this board will reveal a range of concerns in commercial, academic and voluntary/community fields.

I can imagine that properly mentored and managed, limited exposure to a "not-real-world" version of UK archaeology could be very useful as a form of therapy in the ways that you describe. However, that would require a radical sea-change in an environment where decent archaeological practice sometimes appears to be fighting for survival and competition for any kind of work (paid or unpaid) is very fierce amongst a large pool of experienced and qualified people. Your idea would need some sort of funding - I'm pretty sure this wouldn't be available from the archaeology side and the British health system is already cracking financially.

In short, as a bit of an outsider (I'm just a student at present) archaeology in the UK feels more like it's going to cause mental health problems, rather than relieve them. It certainly isn't an environment where a complete beginner can expect to get paid.

Sorry that all sounds so negative - I obviously need a breakfast cereal with a higher sugar content! Your aims are fantastic and I wish you well, but you may have picked quite a bad moment economically to take this forward. If you can come up with a business plan with ideas of funding sources, you might well be onto something.

Archaeology as Therapy and why archaeologists should connect with mental health proff - GnomeKing - 25th April 2010

I have worked with land councils in Oz, and i found the aboriginal community aspect very inspiring and rewarding, and i think that practical archaeology can have a great role as a spring board for creative life enrichments - however i doubt that many (any?) UK commercial units existing at present could pull that off...(as Kel suggests)...i would hope that we can aspire to this though...

for balance, i should point out that Australian context is not by any means perfect...for example the uncomfortable sight of overpaid, vastly under-skilled graduates with clip boards 'supervising' aboriginal excavators doing nearly all the physical work...(in the case I am thinking of 2 of the excavators were of pensionable ages, and I seriously have never yet seen test pits dug as quickly or precisely, or done with such grace and charm...)...on the other hand, occasional land council members really were fully unhinged and very difficult to manage over a long period!

Then there is the bickering and personal issues amongst Consultants/Contractors that always follows a small profession (and even smaller in Australia), especially in 'high-pressure' places like Sydney....I love it

Going a bit off topic:

I did not meet a single aboriginal archaeologist who regularly worked on European sites, though there were many non-aboriginal archs who worked on both 'historic' and 'prehistoric' sites. Of these, some of the best were clearly those with significant field work experience outside of Australia (i.e. working on wider ranges of archaeological remains and using other methods - eg noticeable numbers of 'site managers' who had worked commercially for some time in UK or were UK commercially trained)...
I had a thought; wouldn't it be great to bring aboriginal/land council archaeologists over to the UK (or Europe) so they too could benefit from the intense experience of commercial archaeology over here ... and also learn about European prehistory/pre-modern history (likely to be as enlightening about their own past, as knowledge of 'the aboriginal past' has been inspiring to European conceptions of their own origins) ... valuable cross cultural comparisons etc. etc....
It would be great if aboriginal archaeologists could compete on the same footing as other contract archaeologists, perhaps working on European sites in the under similar terms to the way non-aboriginal contract archs work on aboriginal archaeology....
I think there are real methodological benefits to be gained for Aboriginal Archaeology by close contact and involvement with eg European neolithic excavations -

if anybody has any ideas in this regard, i would (in my limited way) be only too pleased to help

Archaeology as Therapy and why archaeologists should connect with mental health proff - Arthus - 26th April 2010

Thanks for the response, its good to see. In advance-If any of my posts appear sharp its because I refuse to use the silly faces and prefer the difficulty in analysing the written word which is a little like archaeology or psychiatry......

This idea (of using archaeology as a therapy) will work all over the World, and athough this is not my main aim it can be an alternative source of funding for Archaeology and perhaps a new way of making links with others.

But my aim is simply to suggest to archaeologists and archaeology companies they should talk to any friends who might be involved in the mental health industry - and they to archaeologists.

And a long time ago when I used to post on this site I was almost alone in predicting the Crash which came (and of course in Aus it was short but can you be so sure of China Comrades?).......

....... but Complex societies come and go and surely a million years into the future some comsmic archaeologist might discover these words on a buried PC!!! (I will stop now, that kind of thing; as well as slight suggestions that WA might be a Racist State [ironic] used cause a lot of ink to be spilled).

I really put this post up to put the idea out to all (anyone in the World not just UK) but in particular Australian archaeologists because I'm not sure if our discussion site is still running?

My friend is an Aboriginal archaeologist and he has just returned from working on what could be called a 'European site' (although of course Indigenous People have always since invasion been around and surviving) but he is a raritry.

But becoming less rare which is a great thing and a fare bit due to the conscious effort of archaeologists and anthropologists in Australia who have done well to overcome the Racist habits of some of the activities of past 'social scientists'.

So, thats why the principle of this idea is not new, but its just the idea of making formal links that is.