Living History

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Getting up close and personal with ancient history was easier in the 70s (that’s me on the far left)

The new national curriculum expects children as young as six to successfully tackle prehistory, but if you ask them what life was like in prehistoric Britain you’d think they gained most of their knowledge from cartoons. Ask a small child to tell you about prehistory and they will mainly tell of a world that is part roaming dinosaur, and part club-wielding caveman. If you ask a child to draw their idea of what life was like in prehistoric Britain, the picture is generally of something along the lines of a sabre-toothed cat eating a woolly mammoth with Fred Flintstone wandering around in the background. I quickly realised that when I was visiting schools with my books I needed to challenge that perception and show them what life was really like.

I went back to the drawing board as talking about prehistory was simply not going to be enough. I thought back to what made me a history addict – how did I become the kind of person who values the place the ancient past has in my life? My love of history started in childhood and remained with me and my first job as a historical researcher allowed me to wade into even deeper waters of the past. I have contributed to, and supported historical research for decades, and last year my own book on the Neolithic site of Skara Brae was published and is now a bestseller. But what inspired that love of history in the first place?

History has always played a big part in my life. For me and my sister every holiday was another adventure of clambering over ancient ruins or running around stone circles. We didn’t have a lot of money, and travel in the 1970s never involved planes, and so that meant visiting historical sites in the UK. My family valued history, but that was only part of it. My school was not blessed with endless funds, and it had very limited resources, leaking roofs, cold classrooms and huge class sizes – but we were close enough to the Roman museums and sites of Verulamium to have school trips there. When I was eight we visited the museum and I was allowed to hold a Roman lamp. I can remember that moment as clear as if it were yesterday. I’d seen pictures of Roman lamps, and hadn’t really given it much thought, but here it was in my hand, a real lamp, and suddenly everything made sense. I could see exactly how it worked. I could almost smell the oil burning and picture the puddle of flickering light that it would cast as I walked the corridors of my villa. That tiny moment holding a real object gave me a physical link to the past.

I’ve worked in primary schools for over decade and, since the publication of my book, I’ve been invited into schools to talk about prehistory. I talk about the creativity and imagination of prehistoric people and how they used that creativity to add to their lives beyond the basic need to survive. I do this by using my Neolithic hamper. In the hamper I have things that would have been familiar objects to the people living in Skara Brae. I expected that most children would not have stroked deer hide, or handled antlers, but what surprised me was how few children knew what limpets were, or driftwood. The objects in my hamper have inspired some wonderful drawings, stories and poems about life in the Neolithic and it demonstrated just how important handling objects is to embedding higher levels of understanding.

There is something in the human psyche that craves physical contact with historical objects to fully understand them, and to forge a stronger link with them. You have only to stand in the British Museum for a few minutes to see how people can’t resist reaching out to touch the exhibits. It is not enough to look at something on a screen. No matter how glorious the 3D rendering is, it can’t possibly compete with the experience of seeing something come to life in the real world.

GET REAL!

How can we make it real in the classroom? Not every child is going to be lucky enough to visit ancient sites, or attend activity workshops, so what can we do in schools? Dr. Tess Machling of the Prehistoric Society has written on my blog before about using archaeology in the classroom. In her post she talked about the importance of being hands-on, and how being able to have physical contact with the processes of archaeology is important to understanding. We are incredibly lucky in the UK in that we have people all over the country working in the field of archaeological reconstruction, and many of these work within schools. It is eminently affordable for schools to find enthusiastic experts who can visit and show how objects were made, and how they were used.

Thanks to the many wonderful makers of replica items in the UK it is possible to create a learning resource box for the school that can be used for many years and adapted to suit different themes, however nothing beats having the expert there with you. I believe that it is not enough to buy the object – to fully engage with the subject you need the skills of the expert too. You need a knowledgeable and passionate expert who can breathe life into the subject.

The extraordinary knowledge and experience of people like Roland Williamson (historian, re-enactor and museum quality replica creator) is worth every penny. Sessions held either in schools or local museums form an essential part of embedding that higher-level understanding of history that all teachers are looking for. Sally Pointer and Gareth Riseborough spend their lives exploring aspects of early technology and then they bring this to life. Their craft demonstrations allow people to see first-hand how people did everything from metalworking to sock making!

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Graham Taylor’s stunning grooved ware pots

Seeing how ostensibly familiar objects are made is a wonderful way to show how creative people in prehistoric societies were. Potter Graham Taylor not only brings the  art of making of ancient pottery to life, but in the process the children themselves are able to create something that is a tangible link to the past. A fragment of a pot, or an illustration of a reconstruction does not even come close to watching a pot emerge from a ruddy lump of clay.

Historian and archaeologist, Kim Biddulph, has the most wonderful website that gathers together the details of a huge number of experienced and qualified people who are able to develop and deliver living history sessions in your area.

The UK is full of people who will bring history to life, from prehistory to the Cold War. If living history in your school means little more than wearing an old bedsheet for the day and calling it Greek Day, maybe it’s time to encourage subject leaders to think again. To really bring history to life, you need an expert.
Dawn Finch is the author of the educational book series Prehistoric Britain, and book one in the series is Skara Brae. Dawn is also President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and a member of the national committee of the Children’s Writer and Illustrators Group and writer of fiction for older children.

For more information about school visits and talks, contact me on author@dawnfinch.com

Shakespeare Week and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

This week I’m celebrating the work of Pupil Library Assistants, and also Shakespeare Week.

I am a member of the judging panel for the Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award. The competition for the prize was very fierce and, sadly, not everyone could make it to the final seven. However, these pupils clearly all had a great passion for books and reading and took this beyond the walls of their schools. Almost all of the pupils not only worked in their school libraries, but they had also had the opportunity to take part in other schemes connected to books and literacy. One of the longlist nominees, Miranda, described a little about her volunteer work at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

I was so intrigued by this that I invited her to write a blog post in more detail so that she could explain what Shakespeare and the Birthplace Trust means to her and other pupils.  This is published here to take a closer look at the Birthplace Trust, and to encourage schools to sign up for Shakespeare Week. This runs from 16 -22 March 2015 and encourages everyone to take another look at the world’s most famous writer. So from a writer of the past…to a writer of the future!

My guest blogger is…..Miranda K. Gleaves – Alcester Grammar School

Shakespeare Week: the wonderful world of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

I’m lucky that I’m at a school where being a Pupil Librarian isn’t regarded as a bit bizarre.  Everyone accepts my love of books (I was the first ever Year 7 to get the school’s Gold Reading Challenge Award) and, definitely, my admiration of the playwright, William Shakespeare.

I was seven when I saw my first Shakespeare play (The Comedy of Errors) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. My mum explained that I wouldn’t understand every word of it, but that it wouldn’t matter.  She was right – and had to shush me as I was laughing so loudly at the almost-pantomime on stage. No-one should think Shakespeare is incomprehensible, scary or “not for them”.

Thanks to our School Librarian, Mrs Beeson, I was invited, with the other Pupil Library Assistants, on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Shakespeare Birthplace archives and instantly felt that it was the most amazing place.

Since then, I have completed a week of formal Work Experience with the SBT and two weeks with them as a volunteer.  I’ve already arranged to go back!

I’ve helped with conservation work in the archives and at the Shakespeare Houses (having also volunteered with the National Trust for four years, my conservation cleaning experience came in very handy).  I learned how to use the SBT’s unique library system to carry out research, and this enabled me to create a display for the Public Reading Room.  I should also say that the SBT archives are vast – and aren’t just about Shakespeare.  They have masses of information on the local area and my display was on the arrival of Belgian refugees in Stratford at the start of WWI.

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My display.

I’m looking very carefully at the Wolf Hall adaptation on television at the moment, having spent time as a costumed interpreter at Mary Arden’s Farm, one of the Shakespeare Houses. Here, I dressed and behaved as a Tudor, helping to prepare authentic meals to eat in front of the public and discovering the customs of the time (for example, napkins are draped over the left shoulder, those wearing red are ranked more highly than those in blue, and all meals are eaten only with your personal spoon). So far, it looks as though Mark Rylance and his colleagues have got it about right.

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While immersed in Tudor life and language it was fascinating to see at first hand just how engaged visiting school children – also in SBT Tudor costumes – were by the whole experience and how much they learned from it.

I think that Shakespeare Week is a fantastic initiative, and I only wish that I could have participated back when I was at primary school. If I could say one thing to all the pupils and teachers involved, it would have to be “don’t be scared of Shakespeare – he tells great stories”!

With thanks to Miranda Gleaves and her librarian – Louise Beeson – from Alcester Grammar School

You can find out a lot more about the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust using this link.

Take part in Shakespeare Week too! Follow the link for more information and how to join in.

The winner of the 2015 Pupil Library Assistant Award will be announced by 4pm on Thursday 12th March.

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

Tardis Destinations – Part Three. A party, London, 1774

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Our destination today is a London party somewhere around 1774 hosted by the genius John Joseph Merlin. This extraordinary man was talented at creating clockwork devices from a very early age and was plucked from the Academie des Science in Paris aged twenty five by the Spanish Ambassador who decided that the young man’s gift […]

Tardis Destinations – Part Two

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Andre Beauchant – 1873-1958 – The Funerary Procession Of Alexander the Great. Tate Britain

In the second of my Tardis stops I’d like to take you to summer 321BC, but let’s not quibble over exact dates, she’ll find it. We are heading to Memphis to witness the funeral procession of Alexander the Great.

Alexander died, in failing breath and fever, in the ancient palace of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon sometime in the night between June 10th and 11th 323 BC. The Macedonians wept publicly en masse, and it is reported that the Achaemenid people shaved their heads in grief.

As is befitting when a God passes, plans were set in place to fulfil his desire to be carried to a resting place suited to his status. Alexander wanted to go home to Macedonia – but this required preparation.
First his body needed to be prepared for the long journey and Plutarch wrote that the finest Egyptian embalmers were brought in to preserve the physical form of the Godly figure. After this Chaldean embalmers were summoned to “make the body sweet-smelling and incorruptible.” The body was dressed in golden armour and draped in jewels before being placed in a sarcophagus.

To transport Alexander the 3000 km home to Macedonia a vast catafalque, or funeral cart, was constructed. It took almost two years to build and was covered in beaten gold, silver and jewels. The cart rested on axles made from huge tree trunks carrying massive wheels. The whole cart carried carvings of great beasts and around the sides were carvings representing the most heroic moments of Alexander’s short life. The cart was almost ten metres high and was topped with winged Victories. It was pulled by a team of sixty-four mules, each one bred to be the strongest of its kind and dressed in splendour with golden harnesses.

The funeral cortège travelled along the banks of the Euphrates and then headed east. All along the route the road was prepared, and thousands of people came to witness the passing of the golden carriage. Behind it trailed thousands more – Alexander’s most devoted warriors and followers.

The procession continued to a point near the coast at Alexandria ad Issum (now Iskenderun in Turkey) and here is where we meet it. At this point there is a hinge moment in the story. It is unclear why the decision was made to wait, to delay the journey whilst they decided to travel on by sea or take the longer route by land.

Waiting was fatal to the progress to Macedonia. Ptolemy arrived with a vast army and met the funeral procession and seized the cart. He may have believed that it was Alexander’s wish to be buried at Siwa, and so he took over the funeral procession steering it south – overland to Egypt. He wanted to create his own Alexandria, the final resting place of the God amongst the Gods of his own kingdom.

A glorious ceremony was given as the cart arrived in Memphis where it remained for some years. A worshipped golden monument to the warrior’s past. The tomb was visited by many kings, and became a place of pilgrimage and a solid representation of Ptolemaic power. Eventually the reverence faded with the passage of time and, with the rise of Christianity, the tomb became more of a curiosity than a place of devotion. With Alexandria becoming a key Christian city, the old pagan temples in the city were sacked, and the body of Alexander lost. The golden jewelled carriage, and the body of the warrior king of Macedonia were lost, and has never been found. The resting place of Alexander remains lost.

But the moment that we travel to is that fateful day on the coast. The see the brilliant blue of the sea and sky against the dazzling opulence of the glittering golden carriage as it slowly rolled into Alexandria ad Issum. Surrounded by crowds eager to catch a glimpse of the already fabled procession of the body of Alexander. To see the funeral procession at its most swollen and the cart hauled slowly by jewelled mules harnessed in gold and red. The noise and music of the crowd as the procession set up camp on the shore, resting to allow the people to witness the glory of Alexander’s travelling tomb. To be there to see the arrival of the armies of Ptolemy as they marched from the desert to surround the carriage and lead it on, south to the great cities of Egypt and to Memphis.

That’s our moment.