Day of Archaeology 2016

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The 29th July 2016 was the international Day of Archaeology which is a blogging festival for archaeologists across the world. There are hundreds of contributors writing about underwater archaeology to space archaeology and everything in between, and they’re still being added to.

On the website you can also look back to previous years’ posts and search for keywords you’re interested in, like prehistory. Take a look and find out what archaeologists really do.

Long Meg and her Daughters, Cumbria

Long Meg and her Daughters as seen from the air. Simon Ledingham [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg and her Daughters as seen from the air. Simon Ledingham [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg and her daughters is a Neolithic stone circle in Cumbria about seven miles north-east of Penrith. It may have had many more stones, but now has 68, and 27 of these are still standing. The ‘daughters’ are the grey stones set in a circle and Long Meg is a 12 foot (3.65m) tall red sandstone monolith that stands just outside the circle to the south-west. She is decorated with pecked spirals and arcs on her eastern face. Long Meg was probably transported a couple of miles from the River Eden or the Lazonby Fells and was erected first, whereas her ‘daughters’ were glacial erratics and put up later. According to local tradition, Long Meg and her daughters were witches who were turned to stone for dancing wildly on the moors on the sabbath. There are many local legends about the stones, including that if Long Meg were ever broken, she would bleed (Burl 1994, 3-6; Soffe & Clare 1988, 552).

Long Meg and her daughters form the sixth largest stone circle in Britain, Ireland and Britanny, 25 times larger than the average stone circle (Burl 1994, 1). It is part of a European megalithic tradition of building large stone monuments that starts in the Neolithic and continues into the earlier Bronze Age. There are several stone circles in Cumbria apart from Long Meg, including Castlerigg, Little Meg, and Swinside. Not many of these stone circles have had a history of excavation, and so it is difficult to pinpoint with much greater accuracy exactly when in the Neolithic or Bronze Age they were constructed and whether they have been rearranged at any point. The eighteenth century antiquarian William Stukeley suggested that Long Meg had been extensively modified within his lifetime, and stones were also moved later in the nineteenth century, so it is possible that the stones are not in their exact original positions (Burl 1994, 4).

Long Meg. PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg. PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite this, for many years it has been noted that Long Meg aligns with the midwinter sunset. The two more northerly ‘portal’ stones of the southern entrance align exactly on Long Meg and the midwinter sunset. The spiral motifs carved on Long Meg are thought to reflect the spiral shadow that the sun makes as it passes through the midwinter day (Burl 1994, 8). It is likely that there were two burial cairns in the centre of the circle, possibly built in the Bronze Age and later than the stone circle itself, that were removed by the landowners over the centuries. There are other stone circles known in Cumbria with stone cairns inside, at Gunnerkeld and Burnmoor, for instance (Burl 1994, 4-5; Clare 1975, 6, 10).

Although not visible on the ground, there was an enclosure to the north of the stone circle and a cursus monument (a long processional route flanked by parallel banks and ditches) to the west that leads to (or from) the River Eden. These were found in the 1980s through aerial photography. The enclosure bank and ditch may have been round a settlement that was lived in at the same time as the stone circle was built (Burl 1994, 6; Soffe & Clare 1988, 552). People from the settlement and surrounding areas may have processed along the cursus to from the River Eden to Long Meg and her Daughters at midwinter to “supplicate for the return of summer, light and warmth” (Burl 1994, 10).

Wordsworth was certainly inspired by the stones, writing in his 1822 poem, The monument commonly called Long Meg:

A weight of Awe not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that family forlorn;

If you are a teacher in Cumbria, you have your own stone circle to teach about and even visit, and don’t have to focus on Stonehenge. There are plenty of other stone circles, rows, single stones or dolmens around the country, too, like the monolith in Rudston churchyard in the East Riding of Yorkshire, stone rows on Dartmoor, and Kit’s Coty in Kent.

References and further information
Burl, A. 2005. A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Burl, H.A.W. 1994. The stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld. Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2nd Series Volume 94, 1-11.
Clare, T. 1975. Some Cumbrian stone circles in perspective. Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2nd Series Volume 75, 1-16.
Clare, T. 2007. Prehistoric monuments of the Lake District. Stroud: Tempus.
Soffe, G. & Clare, T. 1988. New evidence of ritual monuments at Long Meg and her Daughters, Cumbria. Antiquity Volume 62 Issue 236, 552-557.

 

 

The Kingdom of Benin AD 900-1300

This new topic in the Key Stage 2 history curriculum is one of a selection of studies of world history that also include the Maya and Baghdad. All provide fascinating comparisons to later Anglo-Saxon England. What all of these cultures, with their many differences, have in common are the production of exquisite works of art, as well as complex social structures and religions.

The Kingdom of Benin is different to the Republic of Benin (formerly called Dahomey), which is between Nigeria and Togo on the West African coast. The old Kingdom of Benin is still a district of Nigeria around the ancient Benin City in the southern part of the country. A network of large walls, which have been estimated to be longer in extent than the Great Wall of China, enclosed the city and surrounding settlements and seem to have been built incrementally over hundreds of years.

Bronze bust of Ife. I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bronze bust of Ife. I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) via Wikimedia Commons

Not a great deal of archaeological work has been done in the Benin City region, so much of our knowledge of the early Kingdom of Benin comes from oral histories passed down from generation to generation (often quite accurately) and written down by Jacob Egharevba in the 1930s. The Edo speaking people of Benin tell of a time when their king, the Ogiso, was not to their liking and they sent for another king to another Nigerian kingdom called Ile-Ife. One eventually came and the king was from then on called the Oba.

There do seem to be connections between the two kingdoms, as people in Benin seemed to be influenced by and may have learned from the skilled craftspeople of Ile-Ife, who produced some amazing brass busts of their rulers. Brass-casting became a very respected profession in Benin, with Oba Oguola (1280-1295 AD) encouraging them to set up a guild.

 

Ivory mask of Iyoba Idia. By Wikipedia Loves Art participant "trish" [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ivory mask of Iyoba Idia. By Wikipedia Loves Art participant “trish” [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

While much of the power of the country was in the hands of men, women could be influential. Oba Esigie (1504-1550 AD) created the position of queen mother, Iyoba, for his mother Idia. Idia helped quell a rebellion against her son and generally worked behind the scenes in government from her own palace. When she died her son created the first altar to a woman, and ever since queen mothers are the only other member of the royal family to have altars after their death.

Oba Esigie is said to have spent time with the Portuguese and learned their language. The European traders turned up from the end of the fifteenth century AD and their descriptions of Benin are fulsome in its praises, and we can assume that Benin City was as well-run and spectacular a place in the period before Europeans turned up. Olfert Dapper’s Description of Africa, published in 1668, described Benin City:

The king’s palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the
courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles… [It] hath thirty very strait and broad streets, each a hundred and twenty feet wide… [and] the houses stand built in rows,
in good order close by one another, as here in Europe.

Benin City imagined by Olfert Dapper in 1668. By D. O. Dapper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Benin City imagined by Olfert Dapper in 1668. By D. O. Dapper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dapper hadn’t visited Benin, though, and got his reports second-hand from traders and travellers. Nevertheless, his description is corroborated by others.

Of course, with the coming of the Europeans came a huge growth in the slave trade as they settled in the Caribbean and the Americas. While it was a sign of wealth to own many slaves in Benin, the increasing demand for slaves lead to a ban on selling male citizens of Benin proclaimed by the Oba. Instead Benin became much more aggressive with its neighbours, aided by European firearms, and took prisoners of war that they sold to the Europeans. The Europeans were also known to kidnap people for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In total it is estimated 12 million people were taken from West Africa, many of whom died on the voyage to the Americas.

Bronze plaque from Benin City depitcing part of the Oba's Palace, now in the British Museum. By Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bronze plaque from Benin City depitcing part of the Oba’s Palace, now in the British Museum. By Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As Britain’s power grew as an Empire the government took control, or thought they did, of many other European countries colonies. Benin was never colonised, but trading posts were set up on the coast and the British government thought (or assumed) that the Oba would agree to their demands to trade. While Oba Ovonramwen and the entire Kingdom of Benin were celebrating the Igue festival, which was closed to foreigners, in 1897, Captain James Phillips, after having written to the Foreign Office warning them, attempted to depose the Oba by posing as a trading party and went inland. Whether the Oba was involved in the decision to kill the invading party, seeing through their guise, is disputed, but it gave the British an excuse to launch a full-scale attack.

Benin City was burned to the ground but not before the Oba’s palace was looted of all its precious brass busts, plaques, carved ivory tusks and other items, which have ended up in British, European and American museums. This was a dark chapter in Britain’s history. Oba Ovonramwen went into exile but on his death in 1814 his son, Oba Eweka II, became the new Oba, rebuilt the palace. There are still Obas in Benin City today, and yet their possessions are scattered around the world.

Hunter-gatherers to farmers

Demonstrating flint knapping

Demonstrating flint knapping

The tricky question of how and why hunter-gatherers took up farming is explored in one of our all-day school workshops. Starting outside, using the time frame of the Mesolithic, we explore what life was like for hunter-gatherers. What animals were available for them to hunt? How did they make their houses? What skills did they need to survive? How did they enjoy and express themselves?

We emphasise how hunter-gatherers relied on the environment to provide everything they needed; food, clothes, building material, decorative items. We teach children how to make fire and process bramble into rope, or nettle into cord. Using an anatomy apron and a deer skin we ceremonially gut a ‘deer’ and decide which bits are edible, and which bits can be used for something else like making water bags.

Demonstrating spinning wool

Demonstrating spinning wool

In the afternoon everything changes as we go inside and find out about the farming lifestyle of the Neolithic, from making cloth out of wool, to grinding wheat to make flour. We explore how, because people were producing excess food they needed something to store it in, and so pottery became very useful. Children get to make butter and try out wattling.

Finally, the classes come together to celebrate in the Neolithic way, making a causewayed enclosure with their own bodies, playing musical instruments, singing and clapping. It’s a memorable way to finish off a wow day.

Find more details of this and other workshops here.

Hunter-gatherers used every part of the animal

In the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic before people took up farming they fed themselves by hunting and gathering. But the animals they hunted didn’t just provide food. They provided clothes, containers, glue, tools and so many other necessary things. Though we don’t know if this was the case in Europe, if we look at other cultures, the bounty provided by animals was deeply respected in other hunter-gatherer societies that survived to be recorded by westerners. Though the animals were killed, they were treated as gifts from the spirits and not a bit was wasted.

We have surprisingly large amounts of evidence for various parts of the animal being used, other than the meat. Bones were hollowed out and used as containers or flutes, or they could be splintered into thin slices and made into needles, bodkins and barbed points for hunting.

Bone barbed points from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251555

Bone barbed points from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251555

Other bones were used as scrapers and burnishers for working with hides. Very large hard bones such as those from the wild ox (aurochs) and elk were sometimes turned into axes, like this one found in the river Thames. Antlers were turned into mattocks for digging in the ground, or as soft hammers for flintknapping. And, of course, animal teeth, horns and antlers were used as decoration. Star Carr’s red deer antler frontlets, worn as headdresses, may have been more than decoration. They were probably used for religious ceremonies.

Red deer antler frontlet from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251554

Red deer antler frontlet from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251554

The soft bits of animals have not survived in great numbers for us to find, but there are clues. The skulls of smaller animals such as pine martens, foxes, wildcats, otters and badgers with telltale marks of skinning found at Tybrind Vig in Denmark suggest they were caught for their fur.

Residues of animal fat have been found in shallow stone bowls along the coastline of Germany and Denmark, which may have been used as lamps. Similar traces, though coloured, were found on a wooden plate at Møllegabet in Denmark. The colour came from pigment and may have been used for body painting.

Traces of glue have been found on preserved tools and arrows, but it is invariably pine or birch pitch, not glue from boiled up animal hooves or hide. This might be because hide glue is water soluble so would quickly dissolve.

Although animals were clearly valued for more than their role as prey in the Palaeolithic, demonstrated by all the cave paintings and portable art, in the following Mesolithic this is less clear. But nevertheless, life would not have been possible without them.

Woolly rhinoceros at Chauvet Cave. By Inocybe at fr.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Woolly rhinoceros at Chauvet Cave. By Inocybe at fr.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

References

Benozzo, F. 2010. The Mesolithic Distillation of Pitch and its Ethnolinguistic Reflections: A Holocene Etymology for an Italian Verb. In Scritti in onore di Eric Pratt Hamp per il suo 90. compleanno, ed. G. Belluscio e A. Mendicino. Rende, Università della Calabria, 29-42.

Clarke, J. G. D. 1954. Excavations At Star Carr: An Early Mesolithic Site at Seamer Near Scarborough, Yorkshire. Cambridge University Press.

Davis, S.J.M. 1987. The Archaeology of Animals. Yale University Press.

Heron, C, Andersen, S, Fischer, A, Glykou, A, Hartz, S, Saul, H, Steele, V, Craig, O. 2013. Illuminating the Late Mesolithic: residue analysis of ‘blubber’ lamps from Northern Europe. Antiquity 87, Issue 335, 178-88.

Menotti, F. 2012. Wetland archaeology and beyond: theory and practice. Oxford University Press.

Milner, N, Taylor, B, Coneller, C, Schadla-Hall, T. 2013. Star Carr: Life in Britain after the Ice Age. York, Council for British Archaeology.

Vahur, S, Kriiska, A, Leito, I. 2011. Investigation of the adhesive residue on the flint insert and the adhesive lump found from the Pulli early Mesolithic site (Estonia) by MICRO-ATR-FT-IR spectroscopy. Estonian Journal of Archaeology 15, Issue 1, 3-17.

Wood, J. 2011. Prehistoric Cooking. Stroud, The History Press.

Prehi/stories podcast on the Archaeology Podcast Network

prehislogo2-1Have a listen to our Director’s new podcast on the Archaeology Podcast Network. Prehi/stories aims to discuss stories set in prehistory. Are they a good way to help children and adults learn about prehistory? Do they inspire the prehistorians of the future? Can they inspire the prehistorians of today? Are they better written by prehistorians who aren’t primarily authors, or by authors who do their research?

Episode 2 is all about Wolf Brother, the first of a series of books by Michelle Paver set in the Mesolithic. Guests on the podcast include James Dilley of Ancient Craft, Donald Henson of the University of York and Matt Ritchie of the Forestry Commission Scotland which developed a teacher’s resource to go alongside Wolf Brother that you can download as a PDF. More children’s books will feature on the podcast as Kim talks to archaeologists, natural historians, authors and poets about them.

Celts: art and identity at the British Museum until 31st January 2016

Celts: art and identity at the British Museum

Celts: art and identity at the British Museum

Celts: art and identity exhibition at the British Museum has just started and we made it a couple of days after the grand opening. It charts the development of the European and then insular British art style, mainly in metalwork, from the Iron Age to through the Roman period and into the post-Roman period of Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Gaels. It’s quite refreshing to see the links between these periods rather than to have them rigidly divided. The exhibition then goes on to describe the Celtic revival of the Victorian period and what it means to consider yourself Celtic today.

The word Celt is somewhat problematic for describing the earlier groups of people, as is reflected in the exhibition text from the beginning. The people who lived in Britain didn’t refer to themselves as Celts and the observers from outside Britain didn’t refer to them as Celts either. Greek writers referred to some people on the continental mainland as Celts for a short while. But it was eighteenth and nineteenth century antiquarianism which revealed the lost history of these early periods through sites and finds and labelled them as Celtic. The word is, of course, now used as a cultural self-identified label in Wales, Ireland and Scotland, among other places.

Setting that aside, the objects in the exhibition show a clear development of an artistic style that was widespread in Europe (some of the earlier objects come from the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark) in a peculiarly British way in the Roman and post-Roman periods. It would have been good to have seen some of the continental artwork from these later periods to compare and contrast with the British stuff.

Gundestrup Cauldron. By Rosemania (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/4121249312) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gundestrup Cauldron. By Rosemania (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/4121249312) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wonderful and well-known objects from the Iron Age part of the exhibition include the Gundestrup Cauldron, a wonderful feasting vessel made of silver and decorated with panels showing scenes of gods, animals, sacrifice, magic, music and warriors. Although it was found in Denmark, it was probably made in northern France or southern Germany, showing that there were links and movement of objects, and probably people, between these places. What is even more amazing are the animals that may be attempts by Iron Age craftspeople to depict elephants and rhinoceroses from hearsay.

Basse-Yutz flagons. By British_Museum_Basse_Yutz_flagons.jpg: [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Basse-Yutz flagons. By British_Museum_Basse_Yutz_flagons.jpg: [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Links to the Mediterranean world are also clear, with wine flagons dating to about 400 BC from Basse-Yutz in north-eastern France based on Etruscan examples and a lovely Greek painted cup repaired with gold from Kleinaspergle near Stuttgart in Germany that was traded north around the same time. ‘Celtic’ Europe was not as isolated or barbaric as the Ancient Greeks like to make out.

St Chad's Gospel. By The original uploader was Claveyrolas Michel at French Wikipedia (Transferred from fr.wikipedia to Commons.) [CC SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

St Chad’s Gospel. By The original uploader was Claveyrolas Michel at French Wikipedia (Transferred from fr.wikipedia to Commons.) [CC SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The reconstructed Wetwang chariot and the incredible Snettisham hoards of gold and silver torcs are quite spectacular. Throughout the exhibition are also ‘ritual’ objects, including statues of possible deities, such as the two-faced statue from Holzgerlingen in Germany dating to about 500-400 BC through to an altar to Brigantia from Birrens near Glasgow that dates to AD 120-180 and then on to Christian crosses e.g. the Dupplin cross from Strathearn. Despite the conversion to Christianity, the pagan decorative style is still quite apparent, and is seen in St Chad’s Gospels, which is also on display.

Whether you’re teaching Stone Age to Iron Age Britain, Roman Britain or Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Scots, there’s loads to get out of visiting this exhibition. It’s on until 31st January and there are specific school visit sessions (all free), either self-led or with support from the museum’s facilitators.

We’ve thrown the doors open to all of primary history

While prehistory will remain our primary passion, here at Schools Prehistory and Archaeology, we’re moving forward – in time! “Why stop when the Romans arrive in Britain?”, we thought. Why ignore the awesome Anglo-Saxons and the vivacious Vikings? And why give the Shang Dynasty the cold shoulder?

We’re archaeologists, and all these topics, and most of the others in the Key Stage 2 history curriculum in England, can be studied from the archaeological evidence as well as the measly bits of writing that has survived. So get ready to have all sorts of exciting teaching ideas about the ancient Maya, the Indus Valley, Benin and Baghdad.

The Shang Dynasty of China, for instance, is a Bronze Age culture, and even though writing had already been invented in China by this time, the majority of what we know about the Shang comes from what has been dug up by archaeologists.

A great activity to do with kids to help them understand how bronze was cast can be done with chocolate or jelly. Both substances, like molten bronze, are liquid when warm and go hard when cool. In the time of the Shang bronze was used to make vessels for food and drink, mainly as offerings to the many gods. Make your own vessel by following the instructions below.

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First you need to make a blank out of clay. You can make this exactly how you want the final cast to look and is easier than making a mould with the decoration in reverse. Above are some of the common patterns on Shang vessels.

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You will leave this to dry and then encase it in another layer of clay. This is the mould.

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Remove the mould when it is leather-hard and then leave that to dry.

Replica Shang Dynasty vessel made of ice

Replica Shang Dynasty vessel made of ice

Melt the chocolate or dissolve the jelly in some hot water and then pour it into the mould. You could even make an ice pop. Leave it to set and then break the mould to get at your delicious replica Shang vessel (technically not a vessel as it is solid; the Shang would have suspended a smooth blank inside the mould to cast a vessel).

This and more exciting activities on the Shang Dynasty are all available from the Hamilton Trust.

School workshops on the Stone Age to Iron Age at museums in England

To go alongside our post about museums with prehistoric collections to see, here is a list of museums in England that run workshops on a Stone Age to Iron Age theme. They are grouped by region, again, so hopefully you’ll find somewhere near you. Let us know if you know of a museum near you that runs workshops on prehistory in the comments below. We don’t take any responsibility for the quality of the workshops on offer.

London

The Museum of London at Barbican runs a great overview workshop that involves shadow puppet shows with a story and song for each period in later prehistory, the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age. Children then get to handle replica objects as featured in the story, as well as real archaeological objects from London.

The Museum of London’s London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC for short) in Hackney also runs workshops for schools looking at real objects from the Stone Age to Iron Age found in London to find out what they tell us about people’s lives in prehistory.

South-east

scrapbook 004The Chiltern Open Air Museum near Amersham offers a Stone Age workshop (which our director Kim Biddulph developed for them) exploring the skills and lives of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers where children get to make fire, shelters, bramble or nettle cord and pigments. You can then contrast this with a workshop set in the Iron Age roundhouse where children grind wheat, make bread, churn butter and wattle fences.

Luton Culture offers three prehistory sessions either at the Stockwood Discovery Centre or in school. One is object and chronology based, the second looks at the changes from hunter-gatherer to farmer and the third gets the children creating their own prehistoric art using natural pigments and brushes.

St Albans Museum isn’t all about the Romans, they also run a Prehistory Explorers session in local schools where children find out about how archaeologists work and how they piece together evidence about the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

Celtic Harmony are near Hertford and have a reconstructed Iron Age village where children can learn all about life as an ancient Briton. They run a range of workshops where children can become warriors, farmers or hunters

Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford offers a Stone Age to Iron Age workshop that we developed for them! Children will work out from the clues on the timeline what period their collection of objects comes from and then hunt around the museum for objects to help them solve everyday problems using only the materials available to them in either the Stone Age or the Metal Age.

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford runs a workshop on Life in Prehistoric Britain, which gives children chance to handle artefacts and work out what they tell us about people’s lives and then hunt for objects on display in the museum. Children get to make a replica torc and take part in a prehistoric celebration.

The River and Rowing Musuem in Henley on Thames runs a workshop designed for Key Stage 2 pupils that covers the Stone Age to the Iron Age. It gives pupils the opportunity to handle prehistoric artefacts and have a go at cave painting.

Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury currently runs workshops that can be tailored to a time period including the Stone Age, such as exploring the objects from a burial in A Murder Mystery or comparing several time periods of Buckinghamshire in Time Travellers.

Knole Park in Sevenoaks, despite being better known for it’s medieval deer park and Jacobean house, I am reliably informed that they undertake Stone Age to Iron Age outreach sessions in schools and prehistory walks around the grounds.

Dover Museum focus on the Bronze Age as they have the remains of a Bronze Age boat in the museum. They run a drama workshop on Bronze Age community life, or craft workshops making replica boats or pots. They have set days for booking their workshops.

Braintree Museum offers a new Stone Age to Iron Age workshop designed for Key Stages 1 and 2 to carry out a mini dig, and handle archaeological collections. It also provides the opportunity to try some archaeological tools and try cave painting.

Lewes Castle in Sussex runs handling sessions for schools exploring changing technology from Stone to Bronze and all children handle real prehistoric artefacts from the collections.

Banbury Museum have developed a Time Traveler workshop designed for Key Stage 2 that maps changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age by creating a timeline and handling and investigating objects.

South-west

Kresen Kernow offers an innovative Prehistoric Cornwall workshop – free of charge – to schools right across Cornwall. Linked to the National Curriculum it highlights the social and technological changes which can be traced in Cornwall’s unique archaeology. Featuring a handling session and various activities linked to a site near to your school it will take your children on an immersive journey from the Neolithic to the end of the Romano-Cornish period. For more details see: https://www.cornwall.gov.uk/community-and-living/records-archives-and-cornish-studies/learning/formal-education/topics-and-themes/key-stages-1-2/

Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter run and Stone Age to Iron Age experience for schools that is led by a storyteller. It gives pupils the opportunity to handle genuine and replica artefacts as well as learning about their local environment. The session culminates in a drama performance.

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery runs a workshop on Bronze Age Dartmoor, focusing on the changes in technology in the Bronze Age, but also includes an overview of prehistory from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.

Salisbury Museum runs two workshops on prehistory. One is focused on the Amesbury Archer, a Bronze Age burial discovered near Stonehenge and now on display in the museum. Children get a chance to handle a replica costume of this person and try on prehistoric outfits themselves. In Surviving the Stone Age children are guided through making a survival game that they then play and see who manages to survive the Stone Age.

Wiltshire Museum in Devizes runs a workshop called Journeys into Prehistoric Wiltshire that get children handling objects found in the county and making replicas to take away.

Andover Museum of the Iron Age

Poole Museum runs a workshop called Changing Societies in which the class is split in two and one experiences life as Stone Age hunter-gatherers while the other tries out the Iron Age farming lifestyle. They then get back together and swap notes.

Andover Museum of the Iron Age runs workshops on life in the nearby Danebury hillfort, looks in depth at one of the burials there and also runs a cross-curricular workshop looking at the materials used in the Iron Age.

East of England

Hoeing the fields

Hoeing the fields at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk runs a Neolithic Britain workshop where children get to recreate a hunt in the woods, try out ploughing with an ard and work with various tools.

 

 

 

 

 

Ipswich Museum in Suffolk offers a workshop called “How did life change during the Stone Age?” During this full-day visit pupils investigate, questions and compare two lifestyles in our prehistoric past. Artefacts, art and role-play bring the distant past to life.

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge offers a multi-sensory prehistory session for schools, with object handling. Contact their outreach organiser via their schools learning web page.

Flag Fen near Peterborough is the site of a Bronze Age settlement and ritual platform on the edge of and going into the fens and is also the home of the Must Farm boats that were found recently. They run two sessions for primary schools, focused on prehistory and archaeology.

East Midlands

Derby Museum and Art Gallery runs Adventures in the Stone Age workshop focusing on how humans survived in Europe 40,000 years ago during the Ice Age and can include an optional make and take activity.

West Midlands

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery runs two prehistoric sessions with one including handling objects and the other providing arts and crafts activities. At Sarehole Mill children can make prehistoric shelters, do some digging and visit a real Bronze Age site.

Heritage Education in Warwickshire offers a day long workshop called Stone Age to Iron Age that they can come and deliver in the classroom. The workshop uses replicas of objects from Heritage and Culture Warwickshire’s archaeology collection.

North-east

Hull and East Riding Museum runs three different workshops on the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

Bronze Age axe head and mould. Image copyright Leeds Museums and Galleries.

At Leeds City Museum you can book a timeline workshop where children become the heads on a timeline of bodies from the Stone Age to the present day to get good chronological understanding. At the Discovery Centre down by the canal, there is a Stone Age to Iron Age workshop in which children can handle archaeological artefacts to find out about the prehistory of Yorkshire.

At Dig in York children get to take part in a mock excavation and discover objects. They can then look at burials and beliefs or houses over time from the Stone Age onwards.

At the Yorkshire Museum in York is a workshop called Prehistoric Progress which lets children explore artefacts from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages and work out what the major technological advances were, as well as do practical activities such as make shelters, pots and jewellery.

The Yorkshire Museum of Farming near York has an Iron Age roundhouse and teachers all about Stone Age and Bronze Age life including hunting, farming and making pottery.

The Bowes Museum in County Durham offers a Stone Age to Iron Age workshop specifically designed for Key Stage 2 pupils.

North-west

The Manchester Museum runs a workshops called The Mystery of the Thunderstone where children learn to excavate and record Stone Age and Roman artefacts to solve the mystery of what the thunderstone is.

At Tullie House in Carlisle children get to handle and record objects, role-play ceremonies inside stone circles with real and replica artefacts, and make their own lunula, a crescent moon shaped neck decoration from the Bronze Age.

Touchstones is a museum and discovery centre in Rochdale and runs Stone Age and Bronze/Iron Age workshops for schools. In the Stone Age workshop children make paint and pottery, and in the Bronze/Iron Age workshop they learn about making houses and weaving. They also offer an outreach session in schools and loan boxes of real and replica objects.

The pre-Christian festival of Beltane – what’s the evidence?

Wicker man burning at Butser Ancient Farm

Wicker man burning at Butser Ancient Farm

Today a few places around the country, for instance Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, will hold Beltane (or Beltain) festivals instead of maypole dances and light a wicker man at dusk in a ceremony that supposedly extends back to the pre-Christian (and potentially pre-Roman Iron Age) Britain. But what’s the evidence for this?

We do have a couple of written sources that describe Britain and Europe in the time just before the Roman occupation. Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars specifically mentions that the druids burned a great effigy of a man made of interwoven branches, with people as sacrifices trapped inside,and the Greek geographer Strabo also mentions the practice, though neither specifically link it with Beltane or even mention the name of the festival. Strabo says “having devised a colossus of straw and wood, [they], throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings”. Both sources probably derived from the earlier Greek traveller, Posidonius, so potentially neither of the later writers had seen it for themselves. The description, which also served to justify the imposition of Roman rule over dangerous barbarians, could easily have been exaggerated from the practices of Beltane that survived in the western and northern parts of Britain in much later periods, described below.

The next reference to Beltane is around 900 CE in the Irish text Sanas Chormaic, a time when Ireland was very firmly Christian. The Sanas is a glossary of terms with explanations, and Beltane is described as the time when druids would bring the cattle to the lucky fires to make sure they didn’t get any diseases in the coming year (presumably caused by evil spirits) before being driven out to summer pasture. The mention of druids clearly harks back to an earlier time, but it’s not clear what evidence the author based this explanation on. The author goes on to explain that Bel may mean lucky, or refer to a pagan god called Bial. Because the author, a monk, would have been very familiar with the near eastern pagan god Baal described in the Old Testament, it’s likely he got mixed up.

18th century engraving of a Wicker Man. By UnknownMidnightblueowl at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

18th century engraving of a Wicker Man. By UnknownMidnightblueowl at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Beltane festivals were still being held in Ireland in the 19th century, especially in Leinster and Munster, when both cattle and people leaped over flames to protect them against fairies and witches. They are also mentioned in the Scottish Lowlands in the 16th century and in the Highlands in the 18th century where a bannock bread would be made in the flames. They are also known in the Isle of Man, Cumbria, Devon and Cornwall in the 18th century but not across the rest of England. Although not recorded across much of Wales, they were known in Glamorgan and Montgomeryshire in the 19th century.

From the geographical distribution they look suspiciously ‘Celtic’ (although we prefer British, Celts not being described in Britain in pre-Roman times) in origin. But the corresponding areas of the continent that were Celtic e.g. France and Spain, had no tradition of May celebrations whereas they are found in Germany, Scandinavia and Austria. They may not have been Celtic in origin, then, but to do with a shared pastoral economy that relied on cattle or other livestock, rather than the mainly agrarian economy of south-eastern Britain and south-western Europe, where they practised other May traditions like bringing greenery into the house.

Edinburgh Beltane Festival 2012. By Stefan Schäfer, Lich (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Edinburgh Beltane Festival 2012. By Stefan Schäfer, Lich (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Whether you light up the barbecue or do a bit of gardening this bank holiday, rest assured you are probably continuing a couple of millennia of pagan traditions 😉 And, of course, some of you will be celebrating with modern pagan ceremonies too.

References

Green, M, 1997. Exploring the world of the druids. Thames & Hudson, London.

Hutton, R, 1996. Stations of the Sun. Oxford University Press, Oxford.