HistFood meets YAC: the recipe for a successful outreach event

sandal castle

Location: 53°39’32.2″N 1°29’26.6″W Sandal Castle, Wakefield, United Kingdom

Coordinators: Iona McCleery and Jane Howroyd

Participants on the day: a large group of Young Archaeologists’ Club leaders from all over the country

Mission of the day: Talking about Food, health and diet in the past while proposing some activities that the leaders could take home and deliver to their clubs.

The location and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect and on the 17th of April, Iona, Jane and myself greeted a large group of Young archaeologists’ club leaders.

The Young Archaeologists’ Club is, as stated in their website, “the only club for young people interested in archaeology. We have a network of local clubs across the UK where 8–16 year olds can get their hands mucky doing real archaeology. Each club is run by a team of adult volunteers.”

Iona and Jane were brought to the attention of YAC because of another very innovative project called “You are what you ate”, bringing together the expertise of historians, scientists and archaeologists to deliver the latest research on food science, archaeology and medical history to a wider audience. The project participated from 2010 to 2014 in a number of festival, street markets, schools and museums events running activities and workshops for children and grown-ups (www.leeds.ac.uk/youarewhatyouate).

I was lucky enough to participate in one of these activities, and specifically was asked to contribute to a two days event with the YAC leaders who travelled from all over the country to take part in a series of workshops, talks and activities on food and health in the past from the historical and bioarchaeological point of view. While the activities on the first day were run by Iona and Jane, I took part in the second part of the event on the Sunday morning. The aim of the day was to talk about paleopathology and paleodiet while delivering a series of activities specifically designed to give the children a deeper understanding of these two areas of research.

The challenge was real! The topics were quite broad and covered mostly:

  1. The difference between a healthy and an unhealthy skeleton
  2. Introduction of diet-related pathologies for excess of food or malnutrition such as gout, DISH, rickets or scurvy.
  3. Introduction of stable isotopes techniques and how they are used in archaeology
  4. How to explain all of the above to 8-16 year old Archaeology lovers

After an introductory speech about my work and my PhD we went straight to the point of how stable isotopes works and how they are used in archaeology to investigate paleodiet.


Although this part was supposed to be short and introductory we stayed for a while talking in the sun and I got pretty direct questions! People wanted to know exactly what we do to the bones in order to extract the collagen which preserves the information on the past diet of a specific individual.

TIP! Although using metaphors is in some instances adequate and make the topic easier to understand, your audience may have previous and specific knowledge and you might get questions like “yeah but what do you do to the acid and the bone? Do you soak the bone in it or what?”

After this first introduction, the leaders were split in two groups and while some people were having a tour of the castle, we started the activities indoor with the other group and then switched over.

TIP! Unless you are expert in giving speeches make sure you prepare and rehearse the main points and make sure to have plenty of synonyms in your head in case you blank. I couldn’t think of any word to describe the residual mineral and contaminant that we get rid of during the demineralisation of the bone, and the only word I could think of was “crap”. Although you will probably get some cheeky smiles and laughter it is better to have other options in mind.

The two groups were incredibly different and while one was very interested in the sciency bits of the stable isotope techniques, the other group was curious about the paleopathology. It is your job, as a good facilitator, to answer the questions but also to make sure you are giving the same kind of information to both groups and get back on track. I did lost myself a couple of time but Iona helped to keep me on track and not forgetting any of the important points in both groups. It was hard to have a speech plan because the questions were arising while I was explaining the activities and as far as preparation can go, you never know which aspects your audience might be curious about.

TIP! How do you know if the event was successful? You can usually feel if the amount of information and attention you are giving is appropriate; however feedback forms are a good way to test your performance and incorporate the comments into your future work. If the project is a big one you can also consider the idea of creating a Facebook page or event. People do like to share their impressions and social networks are increasingly one of the preferred channels of communication.

Feedback forms were handed out onto the YAC leaders and I am looking forward to have a look at the comments. A flattering blog post has been already published on the YAC website and the first general impression looks good! While I keep my fingers crossed for positive feedback, I am well aware that dealing with the general public is not easy and this project and I are definitely on a learning curve! Every event is different but a good dose of flexibility and preparation should do the trick for a successful outreach activity!





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s