Archaeology, Algebra and the Iron Age

Thanks to Trudie Cole of Poole Museum for this guest blog on using archaeology as a vehicle for teaching maths.

The introduction of prehistory in the history curriculum was great news for us here at Poole Museum, as we have a lot of archaeologists on the team. However, the elephant in the room was the increased focus on standards in maths and English. With such a crowded curriculum focused towards raising standards in these two subjects how could we realistically expect pushed teachers to develop new and interesting prehistory work?

The answer was fairly simple: look for ways where archaeology can help deliver across these core subjects. And actually, a quick review of the maths curriculum revealed lots of opportunities. There is a lot more content (so much that any realistic aim to cover it has to stretch out into other subjects), but there is also an emphasis on mathematical skills and developing reasoning and problem solving. The curriculum even explicitly mentions practicing maths in real life situations. It also talks about how maths should be taught through discussion and language and socially. To me, this sounds very much like social constructivism, which is a natural home for archaeological education.

The plan of the roundhouse excavated on Bearwood School grounds

The plan of the roundhouse excavated near Bearwood School

In all honesty, I didn’t make these connections on my own. I have been working closely with the staff at Bearwood Primary and Nursery School and their visionary Head Teacher, Laura Bennett. Laura saw the potential for developing maths teaching and learning through an archaeology project, which gave us at Poole Museum, a green light and the support to go ahead.

Another fortunate piece in the puzzle is that Bearwood School is located in an area of high archaeological activity, although this is not well known. In the fields adjacent to the school, excavations in the 1980s revealed intensive settlement from the Neolithic until the Roman period, including an Iron Age roundhouse.

The roof timbers of the Bearwood School roundhouse

The roof timbers of the Bearwood School roundhouse

In discussion with school staff we decided to build a roundhouse on the school field. Many other people have built roundhouses, including within schools and with children and communities. So we knew we were doing something achievable. What would be unique about this project was the explicit link to children’s maths work.

We started planning early on and involved children from the school on the steering group. Early work included identifying sources of funding and applying for grants. Alongside this, museum staff worked with teachers to explore cross curricular links and how to bring various maths topics to be covered into the project. The aim was to really inspire the children and give them real life opportunities for problem solving.

Building the skeleton of the house from coppiced materials

Building the skeleton of the house from coppiced materials

Thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund we had the money we needed to go ahead. We coppiced some materials ourselves (museum staff, parents and children) and bought other supplies we needed. We built the skeleton of the roundhouse using manpower from the school staff, children, parents and the community. We employed a thatcher to thatch the roof. Children from the school daubed the walls.

The build was a lot of fun and engaged everyone involved with active problem solving. You can find out more about the build, what we did and how we did it on the Poole Museum learning blog.

Stories being told inside the roundhouse at the school's summer fair

Stories being told inside the roundhouse at the school’s summer fair

We held a community day to tell people about the project and gather memories of the local area. The school summer fayre was dedicated to the project and provided a showcase for the children to display their work.

A teacher’s pack will be released shortly with lots of the lesson plans that the teachers at the school used throughout the project. There will be more information on the Bearwood School website.

The finished roundhouse

The finished roundhouse

What is particularly exciting about the project is that it has initiated a sea change in how staff at the school plan and teach. Our research indicates that many schools take a cross-curricular approach to subject delivery, but still teach maths separately. However, what our project has shown is that maths can be delivered in this way and not only is it possible, but it helps with coverage and creates an inspiring context for problem solving.

Laura Bennett and myself are really keen to develop the approach and share what we have learned. Please get in contact if you would like to find out more (t.cole@poole.gov.uk).

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.

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.

Over to you – teachers doing amazing things with the Stone Age to Iron Age topic

In these new blog categories, we want to celebrate when teachers are doing amazing stuff to bring the topic closest to our hearts, Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, to life for their kids.

A few weeks ago, before half-term, we had a quick chat on Twitter with Mr Phillips, who teaches Year 3 at St Ann’s CE Primary School near St Helens in Merseyside. He runs a class blog and has shared some awesome work he and his class have done on the Stone Age to Iron Age.

First up, children did some initial research on tablets and were given topics to flesh out in teams. Each team then became the teachers as they shared their research with the rest of the class. See the full blog post here: Stone Age researchers.

Tying in with practising writing persuasively, the class then wrote adverts to persuade people to buy Stig of the Dump, which they were using as their focus book. “If you like jaw-dropping adventure, then we have got the book for you!” We agree on our book review of Stig. See the school’s full blog post here: Stig of the Dump adverts.

Inspired by Horrible Histories, Year 3 then did some research about the Iron Age and made their own Celtic raps. We love the lyrics!

Heads hang down from our belts,

You’re the losers and we’re the Celts!

See the full blog post here: Celtic Rap!

Are you doing amazing things with your class on this topic? Tell us about it and get featured here!

Running a mini archaeological excavation with a twist

To understand why archaeologists say certain things about prehistory it is important to understand how archaeologists work. Many museums and heritage sites try to do this by running sandpit digs. So often a sandpit dig is just about finding objects, but here at Schools Prehistory we think it’s important to know that archaeologists try to work out where the artefacts were originally deposited in the ground.

So today our Director, Kim Biddulph, ran a little experimental dig with a couple of four year olds. Not exactly the equivalent of a Year 3 class, but with a bigger sandpit and older kids it could work for half a class. If anyone wants us to try it out with you in September, just let us know.

Set-up for the dig with bits and pieces from around the house

Set-up for the dig with bits and pieces from around the house

Archaeologists don’t know what they’re going to find but if they dig carefully they can find and record even the minutest traces of past human activity, like footprints preserved in clay. When kids dig, they’re not being careful being they don’t have the experience of looking for things. To give them that experience in our minidig we tried building the excavation with them first and then digging it out again. It gives them clues of what to look for. In a class of thirty 7 year olds, you could get each half of the class to create a dig and then swap digs so children still get the sense of discovery, but have some idea of the things they might be looking for.

rsz_IMG_3374It helps if children have some idea of the timeline of prehistory and particularly how houses change over time before you start. We started out with a plastic box and some clay, which was spread on the bottom as the ‘natural’. ‘Natural’ is technically a layer below which there is no human activity, but sometimes this doesn’t work in practice. Let’s ignore that for the moment.

rsz_IMG_3377Children can built an early house, maybe choose a Mesolithic tipi shaped house, or a Neolithic stone built house like at Skara Brae on this layer. We let the 4 year olds leave footprints with play figures, and you can gauge whether your older kids would still like to do that. The figures are also useful because they can accidentally drop objects that get embedded in the clay layer, in this case a replica bone flute, a shell and a flint core.

rsz_IMG_3383Discuss out of those things, which would still be around in 10,000 years time for archaeologists to find. If it rots, take it out.We took out the tipi, leaving post-holes behind to look for later.

 

 

rsz_IMG_3389We covered this up with sand and built a Neolithic stone rectangular structure (out of Lego) above. Artefacts left by the Neolithic inhabitants included some antler, a flint tool and, new for the Neolithic, a sherd of pottery.

 

 

rsz_IMG_3402When covered with wind-blown sand it left quite a lump. The hollows around were filled in with gravel from a meandering river.

 

 

rsz_IMG_3406On top of this gravel layer a roundhouse was built. Roundhouses were in use during the Bronze Age and Iron Age. If you want to make sure it’s Iron Age and not earlier, throw some iron in there. Once again we discussed whether the house would stay. As it was built of wood, mud and straw we decided it had to go, again leaving post-holes behind.

 

rsz_IMG_3424We finally covered the whole thing up with compost, pretending to be topsoil. As topsoil is generally a mixed layer, because of ploughing or just worm action, we had objects dating from the Roman period to today in that layer. Obviously, sometimes these periods are represented by sealed layers that haven’t been touched by the plough. Each of the previous periods would have had its topsoil, so as a variation you could put a thin layer of compost over each successive layer.

A green towel served as the grass and then the children were allowed to deturf and start digging. Digging is not the best word for it, though, as archaeologists usually use pointing trowels, not garden trowels, and employ a brushing motion, rather than digging. As we were working with 4 year olds, we decided it would be safer to use brushes. Any soil that was disturbed by the brush was scooped out. Any artefacts were put in a tray to look at later. The diggers soon noticed when they got down to gravel – it felt different to brush, it looked different and it even sounded different. We removed the last of the topsoil and had a look at the gravel layer.

rsz_IMG_3501Unfortunately we couldn’t see the post-holes of this layer as the gravel had been slightly disturbed, but that’s why archaeologists have to dig so carefully! When digging through the gravel, we put our finds in a separate tray. We soon found the sand, which looked, felt and sounded different again, and stopped to clean up the top of that layer. Soon we exposed the house and dug up the finds in the sand, which were put into a third tray. Coming down onto clay was another change and we cleaned up that surface to see whether we could see the post-holes. We could, faintly, and if a thin layer of compost had been put on top of the clay to start with, before the sand, they would have shown up beautifully. If the clay layer at the bottom had been smoothed out before building on, that would have helped too.

After cleaning up each layer, children should draw their dig, especially any post-holes or walls they have found. Older children could extend their learning by digging down through the layers to make a ditch around a house. The challenge for the other group would be to work out which layer that ditch was dug from.

rsz_IMG_3546After the dig is finished, go through each tray of finds to examine what came out of each layer. What was in the lowest layer? Is that the earliest or the latest layer? What is missing from that layer? Can children hazard to decide which time period it might have been?

Digging in this way gets across four main points:

  • Archaeological excavation is more than just digging for artefacts
  • That it matters about where on a site the artefacts were found
  • How layers built up on a site and how archaeologists recognise, investigate and record them
  • How artefacts can help work out both relative dating and what was happening in each layer

This session will be written up for the Hamilton Trust and the full instructions will be available from them, along with a whole block of lessons, so do get your school to subscribe to their service if they haven’t already.

Wolf Brother’s Wildwoods, a Forestry Commission Scotland resource

Wolf_brotherMichelle Paver’s series of books set in Mesolithic Scandinavia, The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, published by Orion Children’s Books are a fantastic read. The world is full of demons and spirits and one boy, Torak, is the hero who can save the world. He is left alone in the world when a crazed bear kills his father and the only friend he has is a wolf cub who quickly grows up to be a very useful companion.

The first in the series is Wolf Brother and, as it was set in Scotland,  Forestry Commission (Scotland) created a set of resources, Wolf Brother’s Wildwoods (pdf), for teachers to build activities around the book. These activities are mainly to encourage outdoor learning, particularly in the Forest School approach, but they are also very helpful in exploring what life was like in Stone Age Britain.

The Mesolithic (middle stone age) in Britain is a time between the melting of the ice sheets around 10,000 BC to the introduction of farming around 4000 BC. The ice sheets had left Scotland by about 8500 BC and that’s when people started to explore and exploit the area. Wolf Brother must be set at least a few hundred years if not a couple of thousand years later as the landscape is pretty well known and there are different groups of people living in different environments, e.g. in the forest, on the coast, on the islands.

Torak, as an outsider, gives the reader a chance to get to know the Mesolithic. We meet people who live in skin tents, who use flint arrows to kill red deer and then use every part of the deer for food. The Forestry Commission resource has a great poster detailing what every part of the deer could be used for. This could bring up discussions of sustainability, reducing waste, contrasts with modern day hunting in the UK, and many other issues.

every part of the deerThe book is exciting all the way through: Torak’s capture by the Raven clan; his escape aided by one of the Raven girls, Renn; their quest across a glacier; a devastating avalanche just at the right moment. Paver does not talk down to her readers, exploring topics such as self-sacrifice, loyalty, and loss. Nor does she avoid using challenging language, but the excitement and paciness of the book keep readers enthralled. It is probably most appropriate for Years 5 or 6. There are several sequels, too, so it should encourage readers to go on and read more.

The resources created for teachers to use alongside the book, Wolf Brother’s Wildwoods, provides ideas of activities to do in the classroom and outside in woodland. These include making timelines, making nettle cord, meeting trees blindfolded, building shelters, microhikes wriggling along a rope ‘track’ on your tummy, laying and following tracks, creating journey sticks, writing kennings (knowings) and making tree spirits – all prefaced by extracts from the book. There are lots of images of recreated Mesolithic scenes as well as the animals, plants and tools mentioned in the books.

journey stickWolf Brother’s Wildwoods also gives teachers south of the border a glimpse into Scotland’s curriculum for excellence. It’s always interesting to find out how others approach pedagogy, and contrast it with one’s own approach.

A book for adults set in the same time period and general area is The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone. It is a very insightful view into the Mesolithic world, beautifully written and full of the same kind of themes as Wolf Brother.

Making a replica scale model of a skin coracle

In our spare time archaeologists sometimes like to help run Young Archaeologist’s Club branches. The Young Archaeologist’s Club (YAC) was set up in 1972 as Young Rescue to provide opportunities for young people who were no longer able to dig on archaeological sites so easily as archaeology became more professional, and risky. It is a national club run by the Council for British Archaeology with local branches which run once a month and are run by volunteers.

Both Graham and Towse Harrison of Sunjester and Kim and Edward Biddulph (see About us) have helped run YAC branches, and last weekend Kim was at Aylesbury YAC branch to help at a session run by the former County Archaeologist, Mike Farley, who, as a keen sea kayaker, has an interest in prehistoric boats. He made and paddled a replica ‘skin’ coracle on Aylesbury’s canal some years ago and he had prepared some materials for our members to create their own craft, albeit not really big enough to sit in!

Coracles on the River Teifi, near Cardigan in Wales, 1972. By Velela via Wikimedia Commons.

Coracles on the River Teifi, near Cardigan in Wales, 1972. By Velela via Wikimedia Commons.

Coracles are used around the world and are made in various styles and shapes, though they are often circular or oval. Sometimes they have a flat bow and a rounded stern like these boats on the River Teifi near Cardigan in Wales in 1972. They were generally made by weaving an open basket shape from flexible lengths of wood, often willow in Britain, and then covered in animal skin. No prehistoric coracles have been found, as they are quite fragile craft, but paddles have been. It is assumed that coracles were probably used throughout prehistory on inland waterways and lakes. They wouldn’t withstand much sea travel.

Step 1: Putting in the coracle structure

Step 1: Putting in the coracle structure

So, on to making your own model coracles. Mike got some wooden board about 20cm x 30cm and drilled six holes in in an almost diamond arrangement. He also used lengths of willow; about 50cm long would be plenty long enough. You will need some garden wire or twine to hold the joints together, and some ‘skin’ material. An old raincoat cut up worked really well. Finally, you will need some thick cotton thread and some bodkins (large blunt needles) for sewing the skin onto the coracle frame.

Firstly, the willow wands need to be bent and slotted through two holes, one wand going lengthways and the other three widthways.

Step 2: Weaving the shape and securing with twine

Step 2: Weaving the shape and securing with twine

Take more willow wands and weave them around the bottom of the boat, where the willow wands go through the wooden board. You will need three or four lines of woven wands to make sure the coracle is secure. To make it extra safe, wind garden wire round the base of each willow wand where it goes through the wooden board, and where each wand crosses another.

Trim some of the excess willow from under the board and you are ready to take the boat out. With any luck it will hold together. Now is the time to take a thin piece of hardboard and cut it to size for a seat. It should be secured between the woven lengths of willow.

 

Step 3: Cover the structure with 'skin'

Step 3: Cover the structure with ‘skin’

Take the ‘skin’ material and cut it down to shape. Fold it over the top of the boat and sew it into place under the woven band.

The final test is floating the boat in water. We found that the shallower the boat the better it floated. If the boat is too deep, you can try putting some stones in the bottom to weight it down. This would be a great point of discussion about displacement and surface area.

Step 4: Does it float?

Step 4: Does it float?