Can Digging Make You Happy?


By Dr Faye Sayer

The Can Digging Make You Happy Project focused on developing and evaluating the impact that community archaeology on well-being. This project evaluated using positive and negative affect schedule (PANAS) and modified visual analogue scale (MVAS) a range of archaeological activities to measure how individual and communal participation in archaeology impacted on people’s mental health and well-being.  The ‘Can Digging Make You Happy’ project sought to provide through a range of diverse case studies evidence of how bringing people together through a participatory community activity can improve social connections and connections to place. As such, understanding how community archaeology directly impacts on individual and community mental health.

In the last decade well-being has become a central theme in political and public discussions; it has also filtered into professional dialogue pertaining to the methods and practice of archaeology.  The ‘Can Digging Make You Happy’ project evaluated six community heritage projects in the UK and US and has examined how participatory community archaeological excavations can positively (and negatively) impact on individual and community well-being. This projects research outlined how a humanistic approach to archaeological practice, and the application of public health perspectives to can enable archaeology to be used as a tool for social change. It developed an evaluation strategy for archaeological projects, that sought to provide a toolkit to demonstrate the impact of archaeology on well-being and on wider government policy and practice. The project as such offered strategies for future best practice for community archaeology projects that seek to improve individual and community well-being. It highlights that, at this critical juncture in well-being policy and practice, it is essential that the heritage sector quantitatively and qualitatively proves its value and changes its practices to support this global societal goal.


Positive and Negative Affect Schedule

PANAS measures positive and negative moods through words, which are linked to positive and negative emotions, measured by individual choice against a 1–5 Likert scale (Watson, Clark, and Tellegen 1988): the participant chooses a number from one to five for each emotive word on the list (1 = not at all, 5 = extremely).


Modified Visual Analogue Scale

MVAS utilizes modified elements of the Visual Analogue Scale (VAS), the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), the ONS well-being Survey, and the Warwick–Edinburgh mental well-being scale (EuroQol Group 1990, Evans, Macrory, and Randall 2015, Goldberg and Hillier 1979, Tennant, Hiller, Fishwick, Platt, Joseph, Weich, Parkinson, Secker, and Stewart-Brown 2007). For participant understanding and ease a simplified 1–10 Likert-type scale will be used and questions modified to incorporate the New Economic Foundation five evidence-based actions for well-being (Aked, Marks, Cordon, and Thompson 2008).

(Click here to see the Questionnaire)



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Table 1: Mean MVAS results for community archaeology projects beginning and end of project

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Table 2: Mean PANAS Negative Affect Results for Community Archaeology Projects Week 1 and Week 3

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Table 3: Mean PANAS Positive Affects Results for Community Archaeology Projects Week 1 and Week 3.

Key Findings (See Sayer 2015)

  • Physicality: Involvement in physical activity, such as archaeological excavation, can result in participants feeling stronger and more active. As a result, this can increase personal well-being and potentially result in happier people.
  • Connectivity: Incorporating community elements into projects can enable people to feel more connected to the people around them and the places, and potential result in increased well-being and personal happiness.
  • Satisfaction: Personal happiness, particularly in student training projects, is associated with satisfaction. Potentially, this is related to interest and discoveries such as “finds”.
  • Social Dynamics: Involvement in a community and volunteer activity can result in increased well-being and personal happiness, but social dynamics can cause unhappiness where there is friction between individuals.

Type of project

  • Student Training or Community: Non-marked, optional, volunteer excavation projects result in increased well-being and personal happiness for participants.
  • Residential/Non-Residential: Decreased well-being in residential courses, non- residential courses appear happier and well-being is increased.

Research suggests these characteristics should be included when designing heritage projects to support the development of community and personal well-being (Sayer 2015: 258). These are:

  • Community centered;
  • Contextually specific;
  • Demographically diverse;
  • Providing freedom and choice;
  • Encouraging ownership;
  • Providing physical activities.


 Sayer, F. 2018. Understanding Well-Being: A Mechanism for Measuring the Impact of Heritage Practice on Well-Being. In A. Labrador and N. Silberman (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Public Heritage Theory and Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sayer, F. 2015: Can Digging Make You Happy? Archaeological Excavation and Wellbeing. Arts and Health: International Journal for Research Policy and Practice.





Dig: the value of archaeology for society and the economy  (Kilkenny  5-8th November 2018)

Theoretical Archaeology Conference (Bradford, UK, 2015)

UMASS: Heritage & Healthy Societies Conference (Amhurst, USA, 2014)


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