Stone Age to Iron Age Cantabria, northern Spain, and it’s links to Britain

Spain has its fair share of beautiful heritage, and our director Kim Biddulph and her family found quite a few links between Britain’s and northern Spain’s Stone Age to Iron Age period on a recent visit to the area.

"12 Vista general del techo de polícromos" by Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“12 Vista general del techo de polícromos” by Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A highlight of the trip was a visit to Altamira cave, or, at least, it’s replica. The ceiling painted with bison and horses is recreated in a purpose built museum next to the actual cave. Many of the bison were painted on natural lumps in the ceiling that made them look 3D. We didn’t have time to visit the other painted caves of the region, but will go back to visit again. The cave art of this area and southern France is spectacular, but Britain has some cave art of its own. Around eighty carvings have been found in caves at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire and more at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, and it’s likely more examples will be found.

One single piece of animal bone incised with an image of a horse was also found at Creswell Crags, one of only a couple of pieces of portable art found in Britain. In Santander Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria (MUPAC), we were blown away by the number and sheer beauty of the images carved on bone, antler and tusk.

We think there must have been communication between Britain and Cantabria in the Stone Age. The reason we’re suggesting a link is that in a museum in Bilbao we saw microliths (small flint flakes) that had come from a Neolithic dolmen, Hirumugarrieta 2, dated to around 2800-3000 BC (thanks to Joseba Rios-Garaizar of Arkeobasque for the link). Microliths (tiny precision made flakes that were used to make composite projectiles or other tools) were a type of flint technology used in the British Mesolithic from around 9000 BC up to 4000 BC (thanks to Spencer Carter for the date check), after which they went out of use, but they were certainly still being made and used in the Cantabrian/Basque Neolithic. Travel between the two could have been by foot in the earlier period but the seas were inexorably rising and then a tsunami in c.6100 BC caused by a landslide in the North Sea finally cut Britain off from the continent (see video below), so the two areas developed their own separate ways. Microlithic technology was invented independently in many different areas, though, (for example in south Asia around 35,000 years ago) so the link between Britain and Cantabria may be illusory.

 

Late Iron Age Cantabrian circular tomb stone

Late Iron Age Cantabrian circular tomb stone

Hillforts also become a thing in the Iron Age, just as in Britain, but one of the distinctive features of Cantabria, and neighbouring Basque country, in the late Iron Age are circular tombstones with distinctive motifs. Burials in general are quite rare in Britain in the Iron Age though there are some local traditions, such as the chariot burials in East Yorkshire.

Looking at the prehistory of another country is really useful to bring out the contrasts and similarities between the two and work out how typical Britain’s prehistoric traditions were. But it also reminds us that there wasn’t really a Britain at all until the seas rose and submerged the land bridge that once tied us to the continent.

Look for resources on Stone Age to Iron Age Britain from your local HERO

There are HEROs out there, you know. Yes, it’s an acronym. It stands for Historic Environment Record Officer and they manage the archaeological database for counties, districts or cities. We have mentioned them before as great sources of information on your local prehistory. Now we have more information about the HEROs that are developing resources specifically for teachers on this new topic.

Emmetts Post set into a Bronze Age round barrow on Dartmoor

Emmetts Post set into a Bronze Age round barrow on Dartmoor

We’ve mentioned the Devon HERO before, and their website is loaded with useful local information and resources to teach all aspects of the new history curriculum at both primary and secondary level.

East Sussex County Council’s HERO, Sophie Unger, has been busy. She has taken part in a Teachers CPD day to help primary school teachers to better understand the period and topics they can cover. They are also in the middle of producing prehistoric finds ‘toolkits’ with both original and replica finds and finds cards for the five prehistoric periods which we will loan out or sell to schools. They are also offering two hour schools sessions at their local record office to bring in children to discover how the HER works and use mapping resources to discover local prehistoric archaeology.

Exmoor National Park has developed three loans boxes for schools that cover the Mesolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age and the local HERO loans these out. They have also developed some learning resources on the Moorland classroom, which includes information about the prehistoric heritage of that area. Find out how to get hold of all these resources on the Exmoor National Park website.

Lincolnshire County Council’s HERO, Richard Watts, is working on a project to develop resources to support the prehistory element of the curriculum, including running teacher CPD sessions. Keep an eye on this website and get in touch with them if you’re interested in joining a focus group to shape what they create for schools.

Keep an eye on West Berkshire HERO if you live in that area. They are working with their colleagues in the council who work with schools to develop some resources too.

We’d love to hear from more HERs who are or have created useful resources for teachers. If you’re a teacher and don’t know how to find your local HERO, drop us a line and we’ll find you a contact.

People in prehistory were not stupid

Hi, this is Kim Biddulph here, Schools Prehistory Director. It has been my life’s goal to prove to children and adults alike who visit museums, historic houses and archaeological sites that I have worked at that people in the past were not stupid. I consider it a triumph if someone I have talked with has the spark of revelation that people in the past were just like us.

Me teaching a shadow puppet session at the Pitt Rivers Museum, drawing done by the head of education there, Andrew McLellan

Me teaching a shadow puppet session when I worked at the Pitt Rivers Museum, drawing done by the head of education there, Andrew McLellan

I am helping the Pitt Rivers Museum develop a Stone Age workshop at the moment and I count it particularly important to ensure that the philosophical approach to people in prehistory is the same as that museum’s approach towards the makers of many of the objects in the collections from around the world. It is both an archaeological and anthropological museum. Instead of grouping its anthropology collection into cultures the museum is famous for arranging its collections by type. The original impetus for this was General Pitt Rivers interest in the evolution of the sophistication of objects from ‘primitive’ societies to more ‘civilised’ societies. The museum now keeps the same arrangement but for a fundamentally different reason. The philosophy of the museum is to reject the idea that societies evolve from primitive to civilised and to emphasise the ingenuity of humankind across the globe to solve problems with the materials and technology they have to hand. We all face the same problems, how to house ourselves, feed ourselves, travel, keep warm with clothes and fires, play, adorn our bodies to look important or beautiful, but we all do it slightly differently.

I am concerned that the idea that prehistoric European societies were primitive and have evolved to our civilised state is being taught to children in our schools now. I have heard a teacher say that people invented farming once they learned how to use their brains. I have been told of an occasion when a museum workshop leader said that people invented metal-working once they became cleverer and found an alternative to mere stone. If we say that prehistoric people were stupider than us, it logically follows that we are also saying that our own contemporary societies with similar technology to our prehistoric ancestors are actually stupider than us.

Replica Neolithic pot

Replica Neolithic pot

Let’s approach prehistoric periods with more subtlety and appreciation of their ingenuity. Lets remember that inventions were probably realised following accidents or developed out of small scale changes in behaviour spurred by changing cultural practices. Farming was invented in the Near East and spread (as an idea) across Europe slowly, taking over 6000 years to reach Britain in 4000 BC. The invention of pottery vessels alongside farming was spurred on by the increasingly sedentary lives of farmers in the Near East and someone accidentally dropping clay into a fire, probably. The better control of fire to make better fired pots probably led to the discovery of metal, when a piece of copper ore was dropped into a fire. Imagine a similar scenario for iron, which has an even higher smelting temperature.

The people who took advantage of these new inventions and technologies were not stupid, in fact they were very intelligent, seeing the opportunities that these technologies gave them not only for easier access to food and better tools, but initially probably because the knowledge and practice of this technology gave them an opportunity to get one over on their neighbours.

Early copper and bronze tools were not better than flint. Until bronze-smiths learned how to make better bronze tools, flint was still sharper and stronger than bronze. Early iron was also not better than bronze straight away. Smiths now had to learn to add carbon to the cutting edge to make it stronger and less brittle in order for iron to displace bronze.

An old (white) and replica (black) handaxe handled at one of our training days

An old (white) and replica (black) handaxe handled at one of our training days

You only have to see photos of the amazing paintings at Chauvet Cave in France to know that the earliest anatomically modern humans in Europe were not stupid. But what to say about Neanderthals or other early species of human e.g. Homo heidelbergensis or Homo erectus? How do we talk about the mental capacity of different species of humans? I think, given that they were the ones who first controlled fire, who created beautifully flaked symmetrical handaxes, and may have been experimenting with art hundreds of thousands of years before Chauvet, that we shouldn’t underestimate them either.

 

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*UPDATE*

We visited the National Association for Primary Education‘s conference last Friday on 24th April 2015. We found a kindred spirit in a teacher who wanted to show his kids that people in the Stone Age were not stupid. You can imagine how we cried for joy! He recommended a video that showed how cave paintings were not just static portraits of animals but were painted in such a way that they were like animations, and would have moved in the flickering firelight. We didn’t have time to get details but the hive mind of Twitter, specifically Helen Hall @JellyheadNelly, found it for us. It was the work of archaeologist Marc Azema, and here it is.

Book review: The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein

This is a wonderful picturebook that invites children to imagine they lived thousands of years ago and invented drawing. You see animals in rocks and clouds, watch animals all day and even come face to face with a woolly mammoth. You see animals running and dancing in the firelight on the walls of the cave where you sleep with your extended family. But no-one else can see what you can see until you pick up a charred stick from the fire and start making marks on the wall where you can see the animals: the first drawing. Then everyone can see what you see and everyone draws on the cave.

Being written in second person is really engaging and different, and the detail in the pictures really backs up that feeling of the reader being the main character in the story and being misunderstood by others. The book could easily be read without any words, with the pictures themselves telling the story. If you focus on the pictures you can see the expressions of the wider family as they disbelieve, fear and finally see the animals on the walls. If children look really carefully they can see that one member of the extended family does see, a baby, the most innocent and least socialised person in the group.

If you examine the end papers either before or after reading the book, you can find some clues as to why certain aspects of the book are in there. There is the dedication which reads:

For Susan, with love. Your beautiful drawings open our eyes to our own imaginations. –MG

Who is Susan? Who is referred to in ‘our eyes’? Perhaps Susan is the author’s daughter and she opens her parents eyes to their own imagination, like the hero of the story eventually opens his/her parents and relations eyes to their imaginations. Under the dedication is the hero looking at an elephant in the zoo, which might link to the hero coming face to face with a woolly mammoth. Perhaps that is a memory of the author’s visit to a zoo. Children will have other ideas too.

A focus on the text will provide opportunities for philosophical discussion. The phrases “Why can’t they see what I see?”, “being a mammoth might not be so different from being you.” and “It is magic.” the ‘it’ being drawing, are a few starting points that would lead to very rich dicussions.

The Author’s Note at the back gives more detail about the prehistorical background, explaining that the book was inspired by the cave paintings found in Chauvet cave in southern France. The author tells us that he had always thought children had invented drawing and when the footprint of a child, perhaps aged about 8, was found in the cave, alongside that of a wolf, he felt vindicated. It would be great to compare the drawings in the book to the drawings in Chauvet Cave, which you can find on the Bradshaw Foundation’s website.

Children could even investigate the premise of the book, which is that art was invented in Europe around 30,000 years ago. This eurocentric viewpoint can be challenged as it may be that anatomically modern humans (AMH) created art long before that but not on cave walls where it has been preserved. AMHs first arrived in Australia, it is thought, about 60,000 years ago and they may have already been drawing. A recent find of a scored shell has been dated to before AMH evolved, about 500,000 years ago. It is likely that an earlier human species, Homo erectus, had scored the abstract patterns on the shell found on Java in Indonesia.

It is also not likely that humans lived in the caves that they decorated, and it would be good to read this book alongside Satoshi Kitamura’s Stone Age Boy book that shows a more authentic way of life of these Ice Age people, living in tents by rock shelters.

Book review: The Ravens by James Dyer

The Ravens is a children’s book set in the late Iron Age, in fact in 54 BC, the year of Caesar’s second invasion of Britain, similar to Adventure on the Knolls which we reviewed earlier (and published by the same publisher). It even starts with a modern boy dreaming about what went on in an ancient hillfort. Where it differs, though, is in the quality of writing and research. It was written by James Dyer, an archaeologist with a specialism in Iron Age hillforts.

The modern boy is called Adam and he is a really good runner. He is training with a rival, a boy called David Azlett and stops on the Mound overlooking Ravensburgh hillfort. The Iron Age story then begins in the next chapter, leaving you wondering whether it’s all in Adam’s head or not.

The Iron Age Adam is tipped to be the new leader of the Boys House at Ravensburgh, but his rival is a bully called Azlett. Adam’s grandfather is advisor to their leader, Cassiv (short for Cassivellaunus, the documented king of the Catuvellauni tribe). Cassiv is away fighting the Romans, who find the British fighting methods, guerilla tactics, each to himself and use of chariots, difficult to deal with. Adam and his friend Marik go with Greggo, a veteran of the wars, to deliver more equipment to Cassiv’s warriors.

With the confidence and freedom of being near-grown boys in the Iron Age, Adam and Marik decide to go and take a look at Caesar’s army for themselves and end up finding out a secret that could see the end of the Catuvellauni and Ravensburgh. Only swift-footed Adam can save the day, and he’s been spotted by the traitor Azlett.

The book is filled with amazing attention to detail, such as the importance Iron Age Britons attached to their appearance, sacrifices made to Iron Age gods and accounts of the campaign from Caesar’s perspective as well as the Britons’. One reference to the now discredited Icknield Way can be forgiven; the book was written in 1990.

The book could be read alongside topic work on Iron Age Britain and the Roman invasion, what it meant to Iron Age people, some of whom welcomed it and some of whom certainly didn’t. You could explore what changes the Catuvellauni might have expected if Caesar had decided to stay instead of going back to Gaul, before looking at what did happen in AD 43.

A trench through the ramparts at Ravensburgh in 1964. Photo courtesy of North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society

A trench through the ramparts at Ravensburgh in 1964. Photo courtesy of North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society

What’s particularly lovely about studying this book is that the author also surveyed and excavated at Ravensburgh, so you can look up the work he did and compare it to what he wrote in the novel. This PDF from the Chilterns AONB in which Ravensburgh sits is quite useful, or there is a quick summary from North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society.

Archaeology and prehistory blogroll

Since it’s nearly the end of term, we thought you needed some Christmas reading so we’ve combed the internet for the best and brightest archaeology and prehistory blogs and regift them to you, neatly packaged with pretty ribbons, below. Give us a shout if your favourite blog is not featured, we’ll give it a gander and add it on if we think it’s as awesome as you do.

The reconstructed village at Castell Henllys

The reconstructed village at Castell Henllys

Past Horizons collects news stories about archaeology from around the world and doesn’t just focus on prehistory, but has loads of great articles. Go there first for archaeology news.

Digital Digging, created by Henry Rothwell, is a great place to look at various aspects of archaeology and prehistory. There are three main areas of the website we would recommend.

  • Hillfort map – this will be a complete gazetteer of English, Scottish and Welsh hillforts but as yet only has a few counties online.
  • Digital models. These are not supposed to be complete visualisations of prehistoric monuments but do give a sense of what archaeological features, only found in plan form, could look like 3D
  • Grave goods – this is a great series of interviews with interesting archaeologists and others about what they would like to be buried with. It could start a very interesting discussion in your class!

Guerilla Archaeology is a collective of archaeologists, artists and scientists who are keen to bring the past to life in new ways and spend a lot of time having fun at festivals, as far as we can see *jealous face*. Their pages on shamanism in prehistory are really interesting. That’s the religion box ticked!

The Urban Prehistorian, Kenneth Brophy, is dedicated to finding prehistoric monuments in the least likely of places – the middle of towns and cities. It’s amazing how much there is to find! Maybe you could find something in your local town to visit in the new year.

Not always on prehistory but always with a wealth of sumptuous images and thought-provoking posts, Gavin MacGregor’s heritagelandscapecreativity blog is pretty awesome to read.

If you like a dash of feminism in your archaeology cocktail (and let’s face it, who doesn’t? Seriously, who?), then you’ll love Trowelblazers, collecting stories of awesome women in archaeology, palaeontology and geology.

Stonehenge bauble from English Heritage

Stonehenge bauble from English Heritage

Fun and strangely addictive is Clonehenge, a blog that collects images of replicas of Stonehenge from around the world, and ones made of chips, chocolate and even fish-fingers! Set your students a challenge to try to get their own Stonehenge replica on there!

Mike Pitts is the editor of British Archaeology and particularly interested in Stonehenge and archaeology in the media, plus has some lovely photos on his site, making it very attractive.

To go a little further back in time, you could look at John Hawks’ blog, which is about early human species. Recent posts have been about potentially the earliest art found dating back about 500,000 years and the loss of skin pigmentation as human populations moved north.

The Day of Archaeology happens every year in July. There are loads of blog posts that showcase a day in the life of lots of different types of archaeologists from around the world. Have a browse.

Me in a replica headdress of a possible Mesolithic female shaman from Bad Dürrenberg, Germany, made by James Dilley of Ancient Craft

Me in a replica headdress of a possible Mesolithic female shaman from Bad Dürrenberg, Germany, made by James Dilley of Ancient Craft

Caroline Wickham-Jones is an archaeologist with particular expertise in Mesolithic Scotland and runs a blog simply called Mesolithic, though she does stray into other periods. And why not.

Staying on a Mesolithic theme, the inimitable Spencer Carter runs a blog called Microburin on his work in archaeology and, whenever he can, especially in the Mesolithic of Teesside.

Excavation blogs

Here are a selection of blogs about excavations happening on prehistoric sites around the country, although most are quiet over Christmas but you can read about what they were doing in the glorious summer.

Multimedia

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Prehi/stories podcast with Schools Prehistory’s Kim Biddulph on the Archaeology Podcast Network

And if you don’t feel like reading anything but want a few videos to while away the time, then look no further than Archaeosoup, run by Marc Barkham-Astles. He has videos on just about everything from the Great Orme copper mines in North Wales to the Iron Age chariot burials of Wetwang in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Finally, if you want some soothing audio on an archaeological theme, have a gander at the Archaeology Podcast Network. There you’ll find podcasts on Archaeological Fantasies, Women in Archaeology, and the Archaeology of the Caribbean among others.

Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Buckinghamshire

ubpOur director, Kim Biddulph, has lived in Buckinghamshire for over ten years so knows a thing of two about the prehistory of this county. In fact, many years ago she worked on a project to get the county’s archaeological database, held by the county council, online with added imaged and teaching resources. Today you can find it at Unlocking Buckinghamshire’s Past. Search by parish, time period or type of site to find some prehistory near you. Look at the teaching packs to find loads of ideas on teaching archaeological skills in the classroom and look how the landscape of Buckinghamshire has changed over time. There are also round-ups on the website of main sites for each period. The website is maintained by the Buckinghamshire Historic Environment Service, who would be happy to supply images and more information on the prehistory of the county.

Boddington Hillfort

Boddington Hillfort

Some important sites to know about in Buckinghamshire are:

  • Mesolithic (Stone Age hunter-gatherer) camps found along the Colne and Chess valleys, for instance East Street and Stratford’s Yard, Chesham and the Sanderson Factory Site, Denham.
  • Neolithic kidney-shaped barrow at Whiteleaf Hill above what is probably a post-medieval chalk-cut cross. It is in a nature reserve and is readily accessible by foot with a nearby car park.
  • Massive Neolithic to Iron Age waterlogged landscape along the Thames at Dorney excavated for the Eton Rowing Lake.
  • Many Early Bronze Age round barrows preserved on the top of the Chilterns, e.g. Beacon Hill in Ellesborough, but only because the ones in the valleys have been ploughed flat.
  • Later Bronze Age roundhouse and settlement at the Blue Bridge in Milton Keynes.
  • Later Bronze Age or Iron Age territorial boundaries, often called Grim’s Ditch, for instance this section in Park Wood, Bradenham (just behind old Bomber Command).
  • Later Bronze Age and Iron Age hillforts are dotted among the Chiltern hills. Many of these are publicly accessible, from Pulpit Hill near Princes Risborough to Ivinghoe Beacon to Cholesbury.

One prehistoric feature that is actually a myth is the Icknield Way. Ridgeway paths like this one were all the rage in mid-twentieth century archaeological theory, but it has become clear that the majority of settlement and activity happened in the river valleys and that rivers were probably the main routeways through the landscape. Plus there are Iron Age roads at Aston Clinton that cut across at right-angles the supposed line of the Icknield Way along which no roadway was found. See Harrison, S. 2003. ‘The Icknield Way: Some Queries’, Archaeological Journal 160.

Replica Iron Age roundhouse at the Chiltern Open Air Museum. Photograph by Kim Biddulph.

Replica Iron Age roundhouse at the Chiltern Open Air Museum. Photograph by Kim Biddulph.

There are a few museums to visit in Buckinghamshire to learn about the prehistory of the county.

  • We have worked with the Chiltern Open Air Museum to develop their Stone Age workshop, they had an existing Iron Age workshop in their replica roundhouse and they have also developed an archaeological dig workshop.
  • Buckinghamshire County Museum has some awesome Iron Age objects on display in their galleries including a hoard of gold coins found near Buckingham and a beautiful mirror found in Dorton.
  • Milton Keynes Museum has a small display on prehistory which they intend to expand.

IllusCoverSome useful publications on the prehistory of the county are published by the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society. The most useful for teachers would be An Illustrated History of Early Buckinghamshire, which can be ordered from their website.

Other archaeological societies and organisations in Buckinghamshire that could be of help are:

If we’ve forgotten anything, do let us know!

Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Devon

Several weeks ago we took a trip to Devon and had a great time getting to know its prehistory. Teachers in Devon are spoiled rotten with amazing places to talk about or visit. Here are a few of them.

Devon is blessed with the site of the earliest piece of anatomically modern human (Homo sapiens) from Europe. The verdict is out on exactly how old it is, but it seems likely to date to about 40,000 years ago. It is a piece of jawbone and was found in Kents Cavern in Torquay. It was excavated in 1927 and found in a layer filled with bones of Ice Age animals such as wolves, deer, cave bear and woolly rhino. Schools can visit the cave to find out more about the Stone Age.

Tableau of life in the cave at Kents Cavern

Tableau of life in the cave at Kents Cavern

Display about a basket made of lime bast from Whitehorse Hill at Plymouth Museum

Display about a basket made of lime bast from Whitehorse Hill at Plymouth Museum

The cusp of the Stone and Bronze Ages can be explored by learning more about Dartmoor and the various hut circles, cairns and stone rows up there. In the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (e.g. 3000-1500 BC) the moor was the focus of religious and funerary activity with the creation of the stone rows and circles, as well as burials under round barrows (mounds of earth), cairns (mounds of stone) and in cists (stone boxes) buried in the peat. Once such cist has recently been excavated, at Whitehorse Hill, and dates to around 2000 BC. It’s on display at Plymouth Museum until 13th December and we plan to go back and see it ourselves. Burial in the peat means lots of organic material, that would otherwise have rotted, has been preserved, including a bracelet made of woven vegetable fibre set with tin studs. It was the focus of a BBC documentary called the Mystery of the Moor.

Tin was clearly being mined in the early Bronze Age (tin being one of the elements that can be mixed with copper to make bronze) and was probably exchanged with powerful tribes in the Stonehenge area that controlled the flow of raw materials to the continent. The people were also farmers, but their way of life did not become one of permanent settlements and fields until the middle Bronze Age, which is when the reaves (low stone walls) and hut circles of stone appear on the moor. In the later Bronze Age there was a climatic downturn which made the moor uninhabitable. The Dartmoor National Park Authority has useful posters to download, including this one on Prehistoric Dartmoor, and can be booked to take your group out safely onto the moor to see the prehistoric monuments. Alternatively, you can use OS maps of the moor to study the Stone Age to Bronze Age developments. We took a trip up to see Emmetts Post, which is a later stone marker set into a Bronze Age barrow, just before it is destroyed by porcelain clay mining after being excavated by Oxford Archaeology. It was a wet day!

Emmetts Post set into a Bronze Age round barrow on Dartmoor

Emmetts Post set into a Bronze Age round barrow on Dartmoor

As we’ve explained many times before, use your local Historic Environment Record (HER)! Unfortunately, Devon has three! But if you go to the Heritage Gateway and search for Devon, you will automatically get results from all of them. The main Devon HER has started collecting and creating useful pages on Devon’s prehistoric past, including Bronze Age burial mounds on Busdon Moor, Milbur Down Iron Age hillfort near Newton Abbott, Bolt Tail Iron Age hillfort near Bigbury Bay, and Dolbury Iron Age hillfort at Killerton.

Museums you can visit to find out more about the Stone Age to Iron Age include:

Usually on display in Exeter is the Kingsteignton Idol, an Iron Age carved wooden figure. Similar figures have been found in Roos Carr in Yorkshire and from the River Thames at Dagenham (although the latter is much older, Neolithic in date). Perhaps they were used as religious statues, or maybe even children’s toys. Either way, they are fascinating.

If there’s anything other resources you’d like to add about Devon’s prehistoric past that could be used in the classroom, please feel free to comment below!

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.

Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Surrey

In a continuation of our new theme, we’re collecting useful resources and places to visit for teachers in Surrey who are teaching the new curriculum in September.

The historic country of Surrey stretched from the banks of the Thames to the North Downs but Greater London has since encroached and will be dealt with in a separate blog post. Unfortunately, because Surrey has been densely settled and farmed over the millennia, a lot of prehistoric evidence has been destroyed. The best place to go to for a run down of Surrey’s history is Exploring Surrey’s Past, especially the overviews of time periods.

Some interesting archaeology includes finds of mammoth tusks in Farnham Quarry that date to a time when Neanderthals, and possibly modern humans, were living around the area c. 30 kya. After the end of the Ice Age, a large camp was made at North Park Quarry near Bletchingley. It dates to the Mesolithic period, the middle Stone Age and Neanderthals had died out by this point.

Is this what the Blackweater Valley looked like 30,000 years ago? Neanderthals and mammoths together. By Randii Oliver [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Is this what the Blackweater Valley looked like 30,000 years ago? Neanderthals and mammoths together. By Randii Oliver [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When farming appeared in the Neolithic, people started building huge monuments. There was a big enclosure at Staines Road Farm near Shepperton, in which a woman’s body was buried at the entrance, which faced to the Midsummer Solstice sunrise. Surrey’s one and only known long barrow at Badshot Lea would probably have had a wooden mortuary chamber to start with that several people were interred in, and only later would a long lozenge-shaped mound have been constructed on top of it.

The Bronze Age saw the beginnings of hilltop enclosures, and there was one excavated under Queen Mary’s Hospital at Carshalton. For many years it was thought that most prehistoric people lived on hills, but it was the seminal excavation on the site of a new motorway bridge at Runnymede that changed that view. A late Bronze Age riverside settlement, complete with wharf, was excavated in the 1970s. It had been preserved by waterlogging, and was sealed under several feet of alluvium or riverine silts.

Colin Smith [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eroded bank and ditch of the hillfort on St Ann’s Hill. Colin Smith [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A hillfort proper, St Ann’s Hill can be visited (Chertsey Museum below does guided walks to it). Some excavation in the 1990s confirmed that it dated to the early to middle Iron Age and contained post-build roundhouses. Not everyone lived in hillforts in the Iron Age, though, and there are numerous smaller villages or hamlets such as the one at Runfold Farm near Tongham.

Recently Schools Prehistory was invited to a Learning on My Doorstep event at Brooklands Museum and we met all the museums and organisations in Surrey that are preparing to run workshops on Stone Age to Iron Age Britain and lend out loan boxes of prehistoric artefacts, real and replica.

  • Farnham Museum has been preparing some objects for their loans boxes and have a good range of materials in there, from flint to bone and skins. They plan to run workshops in the museum as well as take objects out to schools. Their main thrust is to see how things changed over time in the Stone Age to Iron Age. Sophie Smith from Farnham Museum is on our Experts on your Doorstep list.
  • Surrey Heritage at the Surrey History Centre is providing loan boxes of Stone Age artefacts and can lend out mini-digs to use in school to learn about archaeological techniques. These will require a £25 returnable deposit. Contact kate.jenner@surreycc.gov.uk for more information.
  • Chertsey Museum also has mini-digs for schools to borrow or can do a big dig when you visit the museum and is working on a prehistoric loans box. They also take guided walks up to the local Iron Age hillfort on St Ann’s Hill.
  • Guildford Museum also lend out loan boxes on archaeology and Stone Age axes. They cost £10 for three weeks and schools have to collect the boxes and drop them off.
  • Spelthorne Museum, Staines, are currently developing their offer, but already ran a Secrets of Stone Age Spelthorne day in July so it won’t take too much for them to prepare a new session.
  • Elmbridge Museum have a new Stone Age workshop for the autumn, and have created a discovery box of real Stone Age artefacts too, including a stone mortar that children will be able to see has been well used.
  • Haslemere Museum are well-known for their Ancient Egyptian session and have extensive prehistoric collections. They are in the process of developing a prehistoric session to support the new curriculum.

There is another very small museum known as the Abinger Mesolithic Pit Dwelling Museum. This was set up in the 1950s when it was thought people lived in pits. A more up-to-date view of Mesolithic dwellings has now been installed, thanks to the Surrey Archaeological Society.

A great book that has lots of up-to-date research about Surrey’s past, but doesn’t entirely focus on prehistory, is Hidden Depths: An Archaeological Exploration of Surrey’s Past.

If there’s anything we’ve missed, let us know in the comments below.