Managing a Successful HERA Project: The ENTRANS Experience

Managing a successful HERA project: The ENTRANS experience

After a packed three years, the ENTRANS (Encounters and Transformations in Iron Age Europe) Project came to an end last November. HERA-funding had given us the chance to develop a major collaborative project on European Iron Age archaeology that fed directly into the themes of the ‘Cultural Encounters’ Joint Research programme. At the JRP Closing Conference in Prague last October, I was asked to share some of our experiences on a panel on ‘Managing a Successful HERA Project’. This was good opportunity to reflect on how we had brought such a large and diverse group of researchers together and to share some of what we’d learned.

ENTRANS was a collaboration between the Universities of Bradford (UK), Zagreb (Croatia) and Ljubljana (Slovenia), and the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia. Our aim was to examine the impacts of cultural encounters between communities at the interface between the urbanising civilisations of the Mediterranean and their ‘barbarian’ neighbours to the north. Unlike traditional studies that saw Iron Age cultural identities as essentially monolithic (Romans, Greeks, Celts, Illyrians etc), we were interested in exploring identity as a more dynamic, layered construct. To do this we employed new theoretical approaches as well as making the most of emerging technologies (especially digital data capture at various scales).

Team-building is critical to a successful collaborative project and one of our great advantages was that we had already been building a team for a number of years. Indeed the origins of ENTRANS go back to a conversation I had with Dr Philip Mason of the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia at conference back in 2006. Phil had been presenting on the extraordinarily rich Iron Age landscapes of SE Europe and I was interested in collaborative opportunities. So, when the call for the first HERA JRP (Cultural Dynamics) was issued in 2008, we started looking for partners. First, Dr Matija Črešnar of the University of Ljubljana joined as our Slovenian academic lead. Then, at a HERA-sponsored ‘match-making’ event in Paris, I spoke to Professor Hrvoje Potrebica from the University of Zagreb and we decided to collaborate. As we were successful in winning a £3000 HERA networking grant, the whole team took part in a series of meeting and field-trips to flesh out our project ideas. Sadly our first HERA bid was unsuccessful, but the team was now in place. By the time of the second HERA JRP call, in 2012, we were well-placed for a successful bid with ENTRANS.

Having a well-established team and great communication was really important for us, as ENTRANS was very much a joint project rather than an umbrella for a series of connected national projects. Each PI spent time at the others’ institutions, experiencing different research cultures and exchanging ideas. Regular face-to-face meetings, joint fieldwork and general socialising, were hugely beneficial in consolidating a team that could cope with tight deadlines and ambitious targets. We also drew in a number of Affiliate Partners, mostly museums and heritage organisations, and found that giving a formal status to these partnerships really helped to facilitate our collaborations.

Three years is not long for a major research project, so robust project management was critical. In fact I would advise anyone thinking about designing a HERA project to consider employing a dedicated Project Manager to manage communications, run project meetings, monitor action points, co-ordinate field and lab activities etc. Dr Lindsey Büster took on this role, combining it with her own research on the project. All of our activities were structured around defined work packages and 25 Project Milestones, enabling us to track progress and meet HERA’s reporting requirements. That’s not to say we met every target. Although our data collection and analysis ran to schedule, it was impossible to complete our intended publications within the three years. That’s not an unfamiliar situation for academics, but it does create problems when resources must be spent up before the final products are completed.

Ongoing dissemination was achieved by running three full-day ENTRANS sessions at the European Association of Archaeologists Annual Conferences in Istanbul (2014), Glasgow (2015) and Vilnius (2016). These included speakers from the project team and colleagues from across Europe. Selected papers were published as an edited volume. These sessions also brought all the national teams together for face-to-face project meetings and networking.

Although the project is now over, we plan to continue working together and already have new research plans, some involving new partners from our ENTRANS networking activities. Working with HERA has been hugely beneficial, helping our PhD students and Early Career Researchers build their research profiles and contacts, and helping more established researchers consolidate and develop their research ambitions. We wish all those starting out on the new JRP the best of luck!

Ian Armit, Professor of Archaeology, University of Bradford (PL of the ENTRANS Project) 

The ENTRANS team at the 2014 EAA Conference in Istanbul. Left to right, Dr Matija Črešnar, Dr Lindsey Büster, Professor Ian Armit, Dr Philip Mason and Professor Hrvoje Potrebica.