You could say that archaeology was in Andy Wigley’s blood. Growing up in the village of Pontesbury in Shropshire, he says, meant that he spent a lot of his time ‘scrambling up the Iron Age hill fort nearby.’
Then, supported by the AHRC’s predecessor, the Arts and Humanities Research Board, Andy had the chance to take his interest further. Between 1998 and 2001 he studied for a PhD at the University of Sheffield, on the prehistoric landscape of the Central Welsh Marches. That meant putting the Iron Age hill forts that he loves (and that abound along the England/ Wales border) into a wider context.
In particular, Andy’s work involved tapping in to the vast body of archaeological information that is built up through the UK’s planning process. When planning applications are made, detailed assessments are made of the importance of any archaeological sites that may be affected by new building: sometimes, too, new discoveries are made during construction work. When all of these snapshots are put together, a bigger picture emerges. ‘Planning information is a great resource for archaeologists,’ says Andy, ‘and using it helps us to understand the pattern of Iron Age settlement, in particular. Otherwise this material would just sit on a shelf, with only planners looking at it.’
Working for his PhD also enabled Andy to make an important discovery about himself. ‘At that time I thought I was going to stay in academia, and so I was studying for a Higher Education teaching qualification. Some of the students in my teaching group approached me, and said that they were dyslexic. That led me to research dyslexia, to find out how I might adapt my teaching methods to help people who were affected by it. But as I read up about it, I began to think “this sounds very familiar”: it turned out that I, too, had been living with dyslexia, without realising it. The AHRB were fantastic, though – they helped to get me additional IT support. That might not have been the case with a different funding body.’
Andy didn’t become an academic after all. Instead, since completing his doctorate he has worked in a range of archaeological roles for Shropshire County Council, including advising farmers and landowners on how to manage and protect the historical features that they might have in their fields. Now as the Council’s Historic Environment Manager he deals with all of the archaeological issues that arise through the Council’s work and has responsibility for a combined team of thirteen archaeologists and Conservation Officers. That means working on the same planning and development proposals that he used in his PhD, applying his knowledge of archaeology to identify sites of importance, while at the same time taking into account the other kinds of interest — especially economic — that there might be in those sites.
Andy’s work also involves helping to provide public access to historical locations, and providing the interpretation materials that enable people to understand what they’re looking at. A major recent project that he has been involved with is part of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Landscape Partnership scheme, helping to improve the conservation and interpretation of the Stiperstones and Corndon Hill sites, both of them rich in archaeological features, in the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. All of this means that people in Shropshire can have a deeper connection to the county.
Though he’s not an academic, in other words, Andy still makes use of the grounding in the historic environment that his PhD gave him. ‘It helps me to set priorities for our work, and deal with our case load. It enables me to analyse disparate information, and make evidence-based decisions. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the AHRB’s support.’
As Andy Wigley says himself, he is a good example of how support for arts and humanities research, and for the people who carry it out, can bring unexpected benefits. ‘At the point that the AHRC supports PhD students, it doesn’t know exactly how its funding will pay off, but there are many different ways that it can do so. Now with the AHRC’s tenth anniversary, I hope that more people will appreciate its crucial role in supporting the development of researchers.’
‘I see my work as a way of giving something back for the public support that I’ve received,’ says Andy. ‘And my career shows how arts and humanities research can make a valuable contribution to the public good, in the widest sense.’
Banner image: Caer Caradoc Hillfort. Image copyright Shropshire Council