Can they dig it?

My guest post this month is from archaeologist and researcher, Dr Tess Machling. Tess has not only worked on many excavations, but has done some inspiring work with young children bringing the past to life through archaeology.

In this wonderful article she shows us how to bring archaeology to life in the primary classroom.

Finding Their Voice

Ask any archaeologist when they first got interested in archaeology and most will immediately become misty eyed and regale you with a tale of their first garden find, the place they visited that made them say ‘wow’ or that odd museum artefact that they returned to time and time again as a youngster. We all have a favourite memory – mine is poking about in the veggie patch at the bottom of our garden for bits of pottery and old glass. Mostly we will tell you about how our favourite find felt in our hands, what it looked like, where our favourite place was. Not many will immediately mention books.

Archaeology (as well as being harder to spell) is unlike its sister discipline history and is all about stuff and things. Dirt and toil. Forget tiny paintbrushes and painstaking care: it is much more hands on than that. It is not about words, the written page, the beauty of language, etc, although of course, like any discipline, its means of conveying itself to the world is often via the written word.

However, for me, the beauty of archaeology is that the whole discipline begins with what we find below our feet: the weightiest archaeological thesis and the most impenetrable work of archaeological theory all started life as things in the ground. And the long and the short of it is that anyone can find something: anyone can dig a hole.

I think this is why the interest of so many archaeologists starts in their youth: when you are young it is natural to scrabble around in the dirt. Children have unjaded magpie eyes which see the world as brand new, constantly seeking out anything shiny, smooth, patterned, or just plain ordinary, as a keepsake. If it can be discovered in a muddy patch of ground, then so much the better. This, in microcosm, is the world of the archaeologist!

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Also, at this stage in their lives children are untroubled by the correct terminology for something, they can just like how it feels, what it looks like or how heavy it is. They will collect things according to what fascinates them, with no reference to adult values of worth or importance. They don’t need to quantify it, describe it or validate it. But I can guarantee they will want to know more about it. What it is and where it came from. How old it is and how it got where it is now. And this love of things dug up is in itself a way into literacy and the spoken word.

In 2014, Prehistory was added to the English National Curriculum and, to help with the topic, I carried out a week long archaeological dig with sixty 7 to 9 year olds at my daughter’s primary school in Hertfordshire.  After all, with a mind boggling one million years of human history to cover in just 11 weeks, we thought it might be an idea to give them a taster of the basics first!

To understand archaeological time you really have to understand -our second long word of the day –  ‘stratigraphy’, which is the order and position of layers in  the ground. The best way for very small children to grasp this concept is to go and dig: generally, the lower you go, the older the things you find are. At our school, we started on the surface with 21st century Lego bricks and plastic pen lids and as we got lower came up with early 20th century marbles and pen nibs. Within a day or so they had got the idea to the point that, when someone said they might find dinosaur bones, one 7 year old girl piped up with the blistering retort ‘No, you won’t! They will be much, MUCH, further down as they are very old’.

Although the concept of almost one million years was never going to be easy for a young child (let’s face it, how many adults can actually relate to time periods on that scale…I’m not sure I can) they had the idea of depth equals old.

They also then grasped the idea that each period of ‘old’ had a different name: if ‘archaeologist’ and ‘stratigraphy’ were  big enough words, then ‘Palaeolithic’, ‘Mesolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’ were going to take a bit of doing. But, by relating them to technology – these were all ‘lithic’ or ‘stone’ ages which were followed by the ‘Bronze’ age and then the ‘Iron’ age – they all started to use the terms frequently and, what was more amazing, accurately!

In addition, they desperately wanted to know about what they had found with each child identifying strongly with whichever artefact they had discovered. They all wanted to know what their find was made of and how old it was. They got online and typed in search terms and they looked things up in –specialist, I should add- archaeology books I had brought in. All this from children who had often shown no interest in the written word. The children added written labels and descriptions to these finds as they created their class museum: not once did a child have to be told twice what their find was and each eagerly showed their peers and parents which find was ‘theirs’.

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Some of our “finds”

The aspect that stood out most strongly to me (I am a volunteer reader at the school and know the children well) was how much the children who were not traditionally ‘academic’ related to the topic. The disengagement so often seen in children with little cultural capital was replaced by a newly unleashed knowledge and a feeling of empowerment: an ability to tell their peers exactly what they had found and a pride in their achievement. Words that would baffle the average adult tripped lightly off the tongues of children who struggled with CVC words on the page. Some four months on, little bags of finds, sometimes also contained in home-made and labelled egg-box museums, still arrive at school for me to examine.

Their aspirations also changed: several now decided that they would like to be archaeologists when they grew up with a few deciding that they wanted to be a Dr of Archaeology, ‘…like Dr Tess’. During a visit to Stonehenge, one little lad stood gazing absentmindedly at the stones and recited his new title over and over in a whisper ‘Dr. Hussein, Dr Hussein, Dr Hussein. I’m going to be Dr Hussein’.

For that one moment alone it was all worthwhile…..

Article written by Dr Tess Machling

Archaeologist and researcher

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3 thoughts on “Can they dig it?

  1. ritaroberts says:

    If you would like more info there is lots on Pottery in Archaeology on my blog http://www.ritaroberts.wordpress.com

    • Tess says:

      Hi Rita,

      Thanks so much for your comments… I was also in pottery, of the prehistoric kind, before I ended up in the post-med, looking at Caribbean forts! I also work for the Prehistoric Society and volunteer for YAC and, in my own daft way, am really trying to make some links between the professionals and children. I remember people taking the time with me when I was little and that really fired my enthusiasm so I want to pass it on! 🙂

      Tess

  2. ritaroberts says:

    Hello Tess, I am an archaeologist too. Love this post because it brings back many memories of when I travelled around many schools lecturing about ancient pottery. The Roman period was in the curriculum then so the Roman pottery was my subject . After my talk I gave them questions for which the children had to give answers as well as drawing the specific pot. That was about 20 years ago when the Roman domestic life was not in the curriculum it was mostly the Roman Legions. The response from children of ages 8-12 is very rewarding.

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