Group at Kirkstall Abbey

The WEA Inclusive Archaeology Project ran for two terms in the Spring / Summer of 2012. The students were from two centres in Leeds – Mariners and Osmondthorpe Resource Centre. All the 10 learners had severe mobility problems, some being wheelchair users, others using walking frames.The first term was spent indoors looking at the theory. We attempted to answer such common questions as How do you know where to dig? Do you ever find any dead bodies? and How deep do you have to dig?  Much of the second term was spent on more practical activities outside the classroom. Here are some of the things we did.

A volunteer corpse!

This is a subject that students always want to know about. And it’s one of those which it’s difficult to discuss without a dead body. In the photograph, you can see one of the carers from the Osmondthorpe Resource Centre pretending to be ad dead body so that we can discuss what an archaeologist might expect to find. It’s a great way to hold students’ attention.

Interpreting Kirkstall Abbey

Kirkstall Abbey

Kirkstall Abbey is one of the most well-preserved Cistercian Abbeys in England. Despite the fact that it is now surrounded by the sprawl of urban Leeds it still has a ‘Wow factor’ which is hard to beat. Here we talked about interpretation and what images of the abbey you would present if you were writing a book about it. This is one of the students’ mages looking very gothic. And why not? It’s only a few months ago that Kirkstall was used as the set for a production of Frankenstein.

Displaying the past: Leeds City Museum

Learners tried on Wigs.

Again the focus here was on interpretation. What sort of thing should the museum display? How can the museum best help us to understand the past? Do the exhibits do this successfully?

It’s not certain that any conclusions were reached except perhaps that everyone likes to dress up. Here the students are wearing copies of 18th century wigs.

Understanding the development of Dewsbury Road

Two sessions were spent on work on the development of Dewsbury Road, Leeds. This was a natural choice for the project team as it runs past one of the Centres being used for the project. It’s also important for the students to understand that

Learners looking at buildings on Dewsbury Road

archaeology is not just about medieval buildings such as Kirkstall Abbey. Even the built environment of Leeds has its own story to tell. For one session Laura Taggart, a local historian talked about documentary sources for the first session. This was then contrasted with an archaeological viewpoint in the second.

Bringing the dead to life: Osteology at Leeds Discovery Centre

Examining a skelton

Using material from the Discovery Centre collections Janet Fletcher took the students through some of the basics of human anatomy and what can be learned from human bone from archaeological sources. One of the skeletons to be seen in the picture was that of a young girl who had died a horrible death sometime during the Bronze Age. Her remains present a vivid picture of how she met her death and made students much more aware of the realities of life in the past.


The students also took part in a small-scale excavation in the ground of the Mariners Centre. Those who were able to do so ‘got down and dirty’ to do some trowelling’ while others used swan-neck hoes to work the site from their wheelchairs. Students also learned about using a dumpy level and washed their finds. All the material recovered dated to the 19th and 20th centuries which fitted very well with what we knew was on the site before the construction of the Mariners Centre – row upon row of densely packed terraced houses.

Learners Excavate at the Mariners Centre

A short film of the excavation has been made by Russell Wall and James Guy.  It is now available on YouTube – click here to see it!

A learner getting to grips witha dumpy level.

A memorable experience

The two terms of archaeology have provided a worthwhile and memorable experience for the learners. It perhaps initially took some of them out of their comfort zone, but now they’ve had their first taste of practical archaeology, most of them would sign up of for it again.


The Project Team would like to thank all those people and organizations who helped us to realize the aims of the project. Staff from the two Resource Centres were invaluable in helping the students carry out their tasks. Leeds City Museums’ personnel were helpful when discussing matters of access and availability of facilities. Thanks are also due to Laura Taggart for providing and insight into the development of Dewsbury Road and to Janet Fletcher, Elizabeth Knight and Katherine Baxter for providing the osteology session at Leeds Discovery Centre. The surveying equipment used in the excavation was borrowed from South Leeds Archaeology, two of whose members, Carole Bloom and Martin Bartholomew, also worked with the students.

Dave Weldrake

Course Tutor

July 2012


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