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.
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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org