and the winner is……….

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And the winner is……..

I’ve spent the last few days taking stock. Last year I set up as a freelance heritage and archaeological education specialist (there’s a mouthful!) and, amongst other things, I run handling sessions in schools. The new curriculum should be a gift to archaeologists as at last it is acknowledged that the Romans didn’t come to an empty Island and schools are now looking for way to teach ‘From the Stone Age to the Iron Age’. The emphasis on chronology and the ‘long arc of development and complexity’ means we can suggest all sorts of interesting approaches to teachers- if they have the time in a very crowded curriculum!

In a half-day session I try to give children an idea of the time-scales involved in ‘The Stone Age to the Iron Age’, equip them with some understanding of the differences between the different ‘stone ages’ along with the terminology of Paleo, Meso and Neo lithic (which they love learning), introduce the idea of a Bronze Age, talk about how archaeologists work and how we look at evidence but most importantly I give them stuff to look at, pick up, hold, sniff, argue about, sort, draw and wonder at.

I’ve been going through notes I’ve taken and letters and drawings by children to try and work out which object fascinated them the most.

And the winner is………………

Cattle mandible

A cattle mandible! It is ‘cool’, the teeth wiggle and one comes out. This worries some children as they think they’ve broke it but it starts a really useful conversation about what holds teeth in place and what has happened to the gums after thousands of years in the ground. Some children get fascinated by pottery as they can imagine the people who made it. A piece of an antler pick is popular as is some worked bone. Flint is described as ‘beautiful’ and ‘clever’ and a replica hand axe admired but when it comes down to it- a cattle mandible with wobbly teeth does it every time.

Washing Lines, Balls of String & Bits of Pottery

This is a very different Day of Archaeology for me as it is my first as a self-employed person. I trained at Sheffield University some years ago (ahem) and for a while worked as an archaeozoologist identifying animal and fish bones from excavations. I had always been interested in teaching and communicating about archaeology so after a while I made a move across to one of the big archaeological units and became their education and outreach specialist. A later move took me to English Heritage where I was part of the education team for 11 years. Now though I have decided I want to be back working more directly, face to face with people and so am in the process of setting up my own small business ‘Handling the Past’. I’m really hoping to work with schools on the new National Curriculum- at last Prehistory is in there!

So what have I been doing today? Mostly experimenting with balls of string and washing lines. I’m trying to come up with ways of helping children to understand the timescales of Prehistory and my old fashioned method of rolls of paper thrown across a school hall will only get me so far back (it works well with Romans but it’s not great trying to get back much further- too much paper doesn’t handle well). I’m working on a game using string/rope with knots every 100 years to create a fun and kinaesthetic way of moving children back through time. Measuring and working out the distance between the knots has been interesting- not helped by the fact that now I work from home I have the undivided attention of three cats.

Cat playing with a ball of string

Tolly offering his help with a timeline activity

I’ve also been lucky enough to be given un-stratified finds (they have been moved from their original location maybe by ploughing or animal burrowing) and am putting together trays of  prehistoric finds so children will be able to handle ‘real old stuff’. I’ve found that it doesn’t matter how unprepossessing the scrap of pottery looks (and I have to say that most prehistoric pottery is pretty unprepossessing) if you can hand on heart tell a youngster that what they are looking at really IS 4000 years old and yes they CAN pick it up then the look on their face is just great. I’m looking forward to seeing more of that expression and that’s what will make taking the self-employment risk worth it. Here’s hoping that I’m still working at it next year!

Tray of pottery and animal bones

A mix of finds ready for handling


You can find out a bit more about me here