Dig Hill 80, Wijtschate, Belgium. How mass collaboration changes everything.

Please have a look at this video from BBC Breakfast about the Dig Hill 80 an archaeology project at a World War One site in Wijtchate, near Ypres, Belgium. I visited the site two weeks ago and I’m still deeply affected (in a good way) by the experience. The video gives you a sense of what I experienced…

Dig Hill 80 is all about people. Dig Hill 80 is an archaeological excavation of a WW1 stronghold that tells the story of the whole of WW1, from the perspective of both sides. It’s all explained in the video, or you can have a look at the Dig Hill 80 website here.

The web pages talk about an “international project which is about education, peace, reconciliation. Without jingoism.” and that is so very true.  For me, the core of Dig Hill 80 was the deeply human act of recovering the remains of fallen soldiers; husbands, brothers, fathers, sons and friends. People of all nationalities. People who have been ‘lost’ for a 100 years and burying them with dignity, so that they can be properly remembered.

On top of  respecting the fallen, there were the people in the here and now. Dig Hill 80 brought together over 3000 backers online and 400 people who visited and worked at the site. With representation from about 44 countries, it truly was a global effort.

The idea that this was an international project really sank in when I visited the site at the end of June with my eldest son (it was his Christmas present). We were being briefed by the amazing Simon Verdegem, Head Archaeologist who said, “there are people speaking five languages here today, so I’d better use English is that’s OK?”.

img_0675Mass collaboration changes everything. This is the strap line from the 2006 book Wikinomics by Tapscott & Williams (link here), which has a big impact on how I think about things, in particular the power of the internet.

Ten years on from when I first read Wikinomics, Dig Hill 80 demonstrated exactly what the book had talked about; large numbers of people coming together to contribute to a common cause, mass collaboration (for good).

Phrases like ‘crowd sourcing’ and ‘crowdfunding’ are commonplace nowadays, but it is easy to forget that 10 years ago it was very much a ‘concept’. Here a few questions and observations that have surfaced with me following the Dig Hill 80 experience:

  • Is this the way to do archaeology in the future?  There’s a massive squeeze on public finances and how do you pay for important work like Dig Hill 80?  There might be a long list of possibilities following the ‘discoveries’ in Wales – link here – A Heat Wave is Revealing Centuries-Old Sites in Wales.
  • Creating deeper involvement. The crowdfunding model, which involves people in archaeology has a much bigger impact than museums and re-constructions, in my view. There is something about ‘being part’ (however small) in the actual on-site archaeology that engaged me far more deeply than looking at preserved artefacts in a museum. This has to help in the process of understanding the past and avoiding making the same mistakes in the future?  In the BBC Breakfast clip the interviewers say to Al Murray that Dig Hill 80 had “got to him…”. It certainly ‘got to me’.
  • Good enough beats perfect. Using Facebook live to share daily updates from the site was absolute genius. From the first one, where the wind was blowing and you could hardly hear Simon, through to the last day on site they were compelling viewing. It was like watching the evolution of the technology and Simon’s presenting style; it just got better day by day. The speed of sharing progress and it being very ‘real’ were all part of the process. It absolutely engaged me in the story.
  • Could the Dig Hill 80 lessons apply wider? Getting back to the point I made about the squeeze on public services I’m wondering if there are other things this approach could apply to? Could you crowdfund regeneration of a run down neighbourhood? A community energy scheme or an idea to promote physical activity and wellbeing?  Could the lessons from Dig Hill 80 be applied to some of the ideas around Participatory Budgeting (link here) being proposed? And finally, as a model of sharing knowledge and engaging people in a project with; unfiltered, realistic and real-time updates (using things like Facebook), there’s a lot I can learn.

How do I become a digger driver?  Finally, around the middle of Dig Hill 80 a call went out on the Facebook group for a qualified excavator driver to join the volunteers on site. I don’t hold a CPCS Tracked 360 Excavator Ticket, but I’m seriously thinking about getting some training. If Simon plans another project like Dig Hill 80 maybe I could get more deeply involved…

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Dig Hill 80 was an incredible experience at so many levels. It was at it’s very core about people; respecting the fallen and bringing together the living.
  2. Technology (the internet) has facilitated Dig Hill 80 in a way that would have been much more difficult 10 years ago. Mass collaboration, via the internet, has changed everything.
  3. Where and on what else could we use the lessons from Dig Hill 80?
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Simon Verdegem on the concrete slab on top of what was thought to be a command bunker
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Excavation around the Mill buildings

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Base of a trench with brickwork from the buildings used as drainage layer with remains of wooden duck boards
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From top to bottom: German, French and British bayonets and water bottles found at Dig Hill 80

About WhatsthePONT

I'm currently in the middle of a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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