There seems to be something special about places and things from the past — something that could even help us with our mental health.
Have you ever, for example, experienced feelings of wonder and calmness when wandering about in a historic environment? Perhaps through an old part of town or amongst some imposing prehistoric mounds that you have found in a field? Or maybe you have momentarily forgotten the stressors of modern life when enjoying museum objects made by humans, like yourself, who lived long ago?
As a newly graduated archaeologist, I have experienced this mysterious but hugely inspiring effect often — and I am convinced that heritage and wellbeing are closely linked. In this blog, I want to introduce you to the mental magic of heritage.
Engaging with the unfathomably rich and diverse cultural heritage across our planet has helped me face personal challenges and continuously keeps me in appreciation of the changing nature of our world. For example, arriving from abroad as an international student, learning the history of my new city helped me befriend it and set me on track to make it my home. My experiences with archaeology and history have me swearing up and down that engaging with heritage can be a soulfully nourishing experience that profoundly inspires and, rather ironically, can ground the mind in the present.
Spending time with heritage has stereotypically been considered an intellectual pursuit for enthusiasts with white beards and monocles, but this may be about to change as the role of heritage as being something important to the wellbeing of all is increasingly being explored by researchers and heritage organisations.
The studies I will go on to discuss give strong indications that the past can do much more than simply teach us about people from very long ago — it can also help us live better lives in the present. Like being in nature, tapping into the past can help us heal, protect ourselves against mental ill-health in the future, and feel that we are part of something bigger.
So, is it time to receive heritage on prescription? It certainly looks like it! Here is how heritage can help us cultivate better mental health.
What is cultural heritage?
Cultural heritage is defined by UNESCO as physical and abstract legacies left behind by past generations. Across the globe, heritage is incredibly diverse and comprises things like monuments, statues, archaeological sites, oral traditions, rituals, and so on. Though the public generally agrees that cultural heritage should be protected, fewer appear to think of it as important because it actively enhances our psychological and emotional wellbeing and helps us manage stress.
Heritage as healing
One of the most encouraging rewards of heritage engagement appears to be how it can support recovery in groups facing mental health challenges.
Operation Nightingale is one of the first initiatives in the world to provide military veterans suffering from debilitating trauma with the opportunity to try “rehabilitation archaeology.”
Since 2011, veterans have arrived on Salisbury Plain — one of the richest historical landscapes in Britain — to participate in several weeks’ worth of archaeological fieldwork whilst being supported psychologically. This involves surveying for buried structures and artefacts and potentially digging on locations that hint at hidden remains.
Though you may occasionally find yourself trowelling through the mud in the rain when you dig for archaeological remains, archaeological fieldwork is somewhat of an unrecognised goldmine for improving wellbeing as several key mood boosters are part and parcel of the experience — gentle physical exercise, learning new skills, and building community. Collaborating with others is essential on-site and provides ground for new and supportive relationships to be formed. In addition, excavation is not unlike gardening in that you are mindfully engaging with soil and breathing in the fresh air; most archaeological sites are located in the midst of nature spaces from which you automatically receive the calming effects of forest bathing, too — so you get two in one!
A study conducted with support from partner organisation Breaking Ground Heritage concluded that veterans joining their fieldwork projects reported reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD at the end of their participation. They also stated that they were feeling less isolated and more valued, reflecting the supportive aspect of communities coming together to work towards shared goals. The experience, one veteran said, helped them to “switch off from [their] own head,” hinting at the transformative effect several good days on-site can have upon individuals coping with trauma.
Getting muddy is not for everyone, though, and luckily the benefits of heritage extend to the indoors.
Spending the night in historic buildings has been proven to lower feelings of anxiety and offer respite from stressors associated with the modern world. Studies have also shown that merely observing and handling old museum objects can offer mental respite for hospital and care home patients who are unable to visit museum spaces themselves.
The Heritage in Hospitals project found that participants were often stimulated upon being introduced to museum objects, with some engaged to levels of wonder — being absorbed into the specialness of objects, some around 9,500 years old, that they encounter. Another study focused on mental health patients specifically observed that intriguing pieces like Roman tile and Neolithic axe heads distracted participants from their immediate personal troubles and supported them in developing new perspectives, with participants stating that “dealing with something that’s [very] old […] puts your life into perspective […]” and that it was difficult to be “depressed by looking at a piece of Egyptian pottery.”
Heritage does seem to heal — but the general public can also make significant wellbeing gains from engaging with local pasts.
A local German museum reconstructed a 7000-year-old Neolithic longhouse to scale and offered visitors the chance of handling stone tool replicas and engage in Neolithic baking activities, offering tantalising glimpses into the prehistoric past of the area. When visitors were surveyed about their experiences, most reported enhanced moods, and feelings of good health. This could become valuable preventative healthcare in the long term: it has been estimated that promoting heritage as another recreational activity to boost wellbeing could save the NHS almost £300 million by reducing medical appointments.
Shaping your present — with the past.
If this sounds intriguing to you but you are not sure whether there is anything interesting nearby, I would like to put your mind at ease.
There is no need to be neighbours with Stonehenge to engage with the past — 99.3 % of people in England live within one mere mile of a heritage site. Remember that strange pile of stones you played by when you were little? Or walked past on your last country walk? That could be your buried local past! No matter how Podunk you believe your town to be, there may well be buried stories that can surprise you and help you connect with your home and fellow residents. Only last summer, I discovered that there were more than forty Viking graves located less than five minutes’ away from where I grew up — and I thought I knew that place like the back of my hand.
The link between heritage and wellbeing shows that heritage is much more than dead weight of the past. It matters to us in the present, and the trend is catching on. Encouraging results from heritage wellbeing projects like Operation Nightingale have inspired somewhat of a movement as new projects are appearing across Britain and the world. However, before you venture out into the wildly diverse world that is heritage, it is worth mentioning that confronting certain parts of the past may not always be easy — especially for ethnic minority groups who live in societies with imperial legacies, like Britain. As with anything you implement for your wellbeing, be mindful.
If you would like to learn more, have a look at the wellbeing report by the Heritage Alliance or get in contact with your local heritage organisation for opportunities to become involved. Whether you are looking to cope in times of stress or want something different to shake up your wellness routine, this could be the time to don your sports equipment for a trowel.