HHA Case Study – Digging in the Graveyard

This is a case study for the Heritage Hero Awards programme.

To work with DHCP to excavate, record and research buried gravestones in a portion of Dunfermline Abbey Graveyard. The project provides YAC members with the opportunity to learn and practice a range of archaeological skills by contributing to a long-term research project that every year adds materially to our knowledge of Dunfermline’s past. Members work in small teams supervised by YAC leaders.

Cleaning with toothpicks the inscription of an excavated table gravestone.

Quotes Member:

  • “It’s good to know you’re helping people to understand about the past”
  • “It’s better than some of the other things I could be doing with my time.”
  • “I hope the project will go on for a long time into the future as it gets kids out of the house and away from the gadgets.”
  • “When do I get my award?”

Quotes Parent:

“We’re really noticing a leap in his confidence” (thanks to participation and achieving an award.)

Level(s) of award gained

Detective (12), Bronze (3)

Size of Group


Age range of group


Date(s) of project

July 2015 – present


This is an ongoing project, with site and broad research objectives already set out.  YAC members help to develop project planning over the weeks, reflecting on progress. We discuss where to probe for gravestones and to open-up new trenches. Teams of members, with guidance from leaders, are responsible for managing excavation of areas assigned to them.

Excavating a new trench in the rain.
Discussing progress in a trench where a gravestone has just been revealed.


Consists of:
• Study of standing gravestones, the results of previous years’ work and discussions with YAC leaders and DHCP members.
• Discussion and study of finds such as buried gravestone and small finds ranging from pottery to disarticulated human bone and their impact on the progress of the project.
• Visits to other graveyards for comparison.
• Independent, guided research.


Participants learn and practice how to:
• Probe for gravestones, excavate trenches, reveal and clean gravestones discovered.
• Recognise, interpret and process a range of small finds, including human remains.
• Draw plans and sections using plane table, planning frame and offsets.
• Select an aspect of the project for extended study (use of symbols on gravestones, study of human remains recovered, impact of early 20th century interventions in the graveyard).


• Discuss the project with site visitors.
• Experienced members share experience and skills with new project members.
• Contribute articles and photographs to the Dunfermline YAC and UK YAC blogs based on independent research.
• Helped to run a day visit by Edinburgh YAC in 2015.
• Helped to run a stand at the 2015 Archaeology Scotland AGM and talk to site visitors.


As a group, we reflect on how our discoveries can develop our understanding of the graveyard and how they might influence the next stages of the project. Plans, sections and photographs are included in the report submitted to HES at the end of each season. Participants have spent time reflecting on the ethical issues surrounding the archaeological disturbance and study of human remains.

Excavating a new trench in the rain.

Lessons Learned

We retrofitted the Heritage Angel Award scheme into an existing, long-term project. This proved to be a fairly simple task in the end and not too time consuming.
Our biggest problem was to make sure we put the right person forward for the right award. In the end three older members achieved the Bronze Award. We were told that they had done enough to achieve the Silver Award, but didn’t want them to progress through the awards too quickly. They will potentially be members for several years yet and we want them to have something to aim for in the future.
Record keeping proved to be essential to the project. Luckily we already keep an attendance register, so it was simple to calculate how many hours each member contributed to the project. However, we weren’t keeping a record of who had done what in the project and will need to record activities more carefully in the future. It might prove useful to give members some kind of log book to record hours and activities, perhaps with photos of things like finds, plans drawn, etc.

• Watching a group of strangers become a confident team of friends, brought together by their shared interest in the past.
• Seeing members enthusiastically and increasingly knowledgeably, explain the site and finds to their families at the end of each session.
• Uncovering 16 buried gravestones (so far) dating from the 17th to 19th centuries.
• YAC members being presented with their Heritage Hero awards at the Archaeology Scotland AGM.

The benefit of using the Heritage Hero Awards

The awards demonstrate to members that they are valued, that they are learning real skills and making progress. They have proved very motivating, with members putting in extra hours on site and at home to make sure they achieved the award they are aiming for. The awards are equally appreciated by parents for the same reasons.
The structure and emphases of the project outline helps us to:
• Make explicit desired outcomes for the participants;
• Align participant objectives with research objectives;
Having different levels of award helps us to:

  • Accommodate a range of ages, abilities and commitment levels within a project;
  • Plan and measure YAC member progress as they develop their skills, experience and interest in archaeology.

We have used Heritage Angel awards successfully in funding applications to help demonstrate value and measurable project outcomes.

Case study compiled by

Mark Seaborne, Dunfermline Young Archaeologists’ Club

With thanks to

Sue Mowat of Dunfermline Heritage Community Projects for encouraging and supporting YAC involvement in the project.

More information on this project can be found at:

http://dunfermlineheritage.org/ (Dunfermline Community Heritage Project)
http://yac-dunfermline.org (blog entries for each day of the project)
https://vimeo.com/187534025 (short video about the project made for the Scottish Heritage Angels Awards)

Using a planning frame to record an excavated gravestone.