At a recent meeting of archaeology and heritage education professionals at The Hive in Worcester, it was suggested that a national framework was put together as further guidance for teachers in this new curriculum area. The current non-statutory guidance was thought to be lacking in detail and accuracy. Some thoughts as to what would be in that framework were suggested and the overall discussion brought out others, so here is a first stab of what this framework might include. It is very much up for discussion at the moment, so do add your thoughts below, whether you are a prehistorian or a teacher.
Teach to the local
Find out about your local prehistoric sites (see guidance here) and use these in your teaching. Many worries among teachers and heritage professionals was that this era is the most remote to be taught to children of a very young age. By focusing on your local sites, some of which may be visitable, this can help children access this period.
Overview vs. depth study
It is recommended that the whole period is put into some perspective with an initial look at the whole time period of prehistory and some of the major events, and then to focus in one one period or aspect of this period of history.
Be aware that the theoretical standpoint in archaeology towards this time period has radically changed in the last 40 years or so. While you don’t have to go into much detail of this with your pupils, be careful about what sources you use. Books written in the 1960s will generally present an out-of-date interpretation of the evidence (see this note about our references). The best bet is to find very recent popular publications or use news items on the BBC.
New sources of evidence
The ability to read objects as sources of evidence will be key in this period before writing. There is some pictorial evidence but this is as ambiguous as the objects made and used in prehistory. Written sources of evidence for the later periods of prehistory need to be used with even more care as they are generally written by classical authors about societies they know little of directly but have heard about second-hand. This does not make literacy impossible to cover while studying this time period, though, as there are plenty of books and poems about prehistory.
Not just the object, but also its context
What is sometimes missed when studying prehistory is the context in which many of the well known objects were found. Even some sites are often explained out of context with wider developments in the landscape, such as at Stonehenge. It will be necessary both for archaeologists to make their site plans, including phasing, available for teachers to use, and for teachers to become familiar with this form of secondary evidence. A diagram of this sort will be much more accessible than a written site report.
Wonderful developments in scientific archaeology are allowing greater precision in dating sites and the possibility of dating a wider range of objects. Other types of scientific analysis allow archaeologists to build up an idea of site formation processes, the past environment, biological relationships between people on the basis of shared DNA and the mobility of humans and animals based on chemical signatures in their bones. Keeping track of these developments will be key for all concerned with teaching prehistory. One of our information booklets has got a general overview of scientific techniques used in archaeology.
This is a start on principles, but the content of what could be taught could also be agreed. Please add or critique to your heart’s content.