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!

Photo 22-02-2015 17 27 28

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’.

Photo 22-02-2015 17 27 41

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

Advertisements

Not so Current Archaeology.

I normally enjoy Current Archaeology Magazine but was more than a little annoyed at a small piece in the November issue written by magazine editor Chris Cattling.  To ensure that my readers fully understand my reaction to this I felt that I should put the full piece here so that you can judge for yourselves.  This is verbatim…..

“Personality Problems In The Library

You might think that libraries and archives are the one place where you might find refuge from the kind of defiant behaviour that broke out on some of England’s streets earlier this year.  And yet, clearing out the ‘spam’ folder recently, Sherd’s eye was caught by an unsolicited email from an organisation called ‘Excellence in the Classroom’, offering workshops on ‘Coping with Challenging Behaviour in the Library’.

The circular listed some of the types of behaviour that today’s librarians have to cope with in places that should be havens of quiet study: they include ‘arrogance, pack behaviour, people who won’t put away mobile phones or vacate computers when asked or act a little more quietly and those who decide it would be good fun to take out their frustrations on library staff’.

For £275 a go, the organisation promises a ‘fast-paced and exciting one-day workshop’, conjuring comic-book visions of meek and bespectacled librarians emerging from the course transformed into Supermen and Superwomen, ready to deal firmly with all the forms of anti-social behaviour that dog our society.  Once they are trained, perhaps we can persuade some of those Superlibrarians to patrol our railway system and deal appropriately with the ill-mannered louts who choose to travel in the ‘quiet carriage’ but behave as if the rules apply to everyone but themselves.”

 

This incensed me for a number of reasons – meek and bespectacled I am not and this patronising and stereotypical view of librarians is so hackneyed that I can hardly even bring myself to challenge it. – but that is not the real issue here.

 The main problem with this cheap and dismissive little piece is that it is so monumentally ignorant of the daily difficulties faced by librarians.  Government and budgetary cuts and library closures have left librarians working largely alone in both schools and public libraries. This is a situation that is easily exploited and librarians daily face more than just the sort of people who are a little noisy in the quiet carriage.

I have worked in libraries in both the education and public sector for almost 25 years and in that time I have personally had to deal with violent threats against me and other staff I have worked with. I have cleared the shelves of needles after the methadone clinic nearby has had a drop-in session.  I have faced down drunken and aggressive teens and adults and stood up to violenty abusive grown-men twice my size. 

I know of a number of people who have been attacked or faced violent threats of physical assaults. To list just a few – a colleague who suffered broken nose and fractured cheekbone after being punched in the face, another who was stabbed in a row over fines and another who was stalked by an obsessive customer and who had to obtain a restraining order to prevent his access to the library.

Sadly is the tip of the iceberg in this type of incident connected to libraries.  I teach school librarians and am consulted a great deal about how to tackle the behaviour of abusive  and confrontational young people in school libraries – largely because School Librarians almost always work alone.

Libraries have always attracted both the right and the wrong sort of customer, but there was a time when staffing levels allowed librarians to feel more protected because they had other people do help them deal with it and the police were quicker to attend. Now they work predominantly alone in warm, free and open-access places and it is all too easy for the worst members of society to work that out and to take advantage of it.

I was stunned that an academic (such as Mr Cattling is assumed to be) should demean librarians in such a patronising fashion.  I can only guess that Mr Cattling did all of his research in a private school academic library, or maybe on the internet, and has never used a public library and witnessed the issues that librarians have to deal with.  All this piece does is show how little people understand the job that we do and the pressure that we are under.

Bespectacled some of us may be…. but none of us are meek, we can’t afford to be.