Why prehistory? Why not Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age?

The National Curriculum for England does not mention the term, preferring to talk about the Stone Age to the Iron Age. The trouble with this is two-fold. First, it’s a bit of a mouthful to list the ‘Ages’ as opposed to a nice neat term like prehistory. Secondly, it misleads teachers who will be looking for resources on the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, while archaeologists who have already created resources will be using the term prehistoric.

Besides this, the term Stone Age makes it seem like an equivalent period to either the Bronze or Iron Ages, a thousand years at most, and seeing very few changes within the period. It has been a while since the term Stone Age has been replaced with the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age). And let’s not get started on subdividing the Palaeolithic.

Timeline for prehistory

Timeline for prehistory

So, we are using the terms chosen by the government in the National Curriculum as much as we can, while pushing the term prehistory, which is much more useful. Prehistory is obviously to be compared to history, which in one sense can mean the past written down. Prehistory is, therefore, the time before writing. That’s a great teaching point in itself. Without writing, how do we know anything about the past?

Through archaeology, of course, which is often assumed to be about studying objects, but it is actually more accurately about studying the material remains of the past. What this means is anything that humans have done to change their environment, as well as the objects they made and used from the environment. Pits, ditches, post-holes, gullies, mounds, banks, cairns, walls. These, as well as objects found in them, are the main stuff of prehistory. How to interpret these environmental features and objects is another great idea for teaching.

Model of how archaeology works in Bordeaux Museum

Model of how archaeology works in Bordeaux Museum

Have a look at our sample History of prehistory and How archaeology works teacher’s information booklets to see if you’d like to know more.

One thought on “Why prehistory? Why not Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age?

  1. Pingback: Towards a framework for teaching Stone Age to Iron Age Britain | Schools Prehistory

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