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 (

It’s amazing what you can pick up…….

Graham Harrison of Sun Jester, a partner of Schools Prehistory, gives us a tantalising glimpse into his handling collection of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age real and replica artefacts.

After our recent training day at the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury, I decided to treat my prehistoric tools handling collection to some new storage boxes. As it has expanded over the past fifteen or so years, I’ve ended up with a variety of containers, some not ideally suited to the purpose. I also thought that as I was emptying all the boxes out I’d take the opportunity to sort and re-catalogue the artefacts.


Where did it all come from? That would take a whole batch of posts to tell!

The picture shows most of the collection, with the exception of some of the bigger items. I’ve also got an antler pick, a hafted bronze axe, a couple of bronze swords, a sword mould, a mammoth rib and bison vertebra! The right hand two thirds of the table are reproductions and the left hand third are original artefacts, by volume it’s about a 50/50 split, but the archaeological artefacts include a lot of smaller items. The plastic bags at the back of the table contain a variety of archaeological material, mostly waste flakes and partly worked flint.

Look at our recently created Workshops page to see if you’d like to book Graham or James Dilley of Ancient Craft to come in to your school or museum.

Book Review: The Secrets of Stonehenge by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom

Archaeologist and parent blogger Claire Walsh has very kindly agreed to let us reblog her review of this children’s book about Stonehenge. For more from Claire visit

The secrets of stonehenge

Being an archaeologist I’m always on the lookout for great books on archaeology for children. We spend quite a lot of time visiting archaeological sites, so to come across a book about Stonehenge suitable for children was brilliant. We love Stonehenge and were lucky enough to visit it a few years ago at dawn and we even got to go inside the fence (which doesn’t exist now). I’ve been trying to interest the children in Stonehenge and this book is really helpful in trying to do that.

This book was written in conjunction with English Heritage experts and provides a child friendly, up to date interpretation. It covers a lot of the topics which experts have been puzzling over for years such as why the monument was erected and who lived there. All of this has been brought to life with the use of some brilliant illustrations. It really is a fantastic introduction to the site. I’d recommend that this book accompanied you on a trip there if you were planning a visit.

When the new National Curriculum comes into force in September there will be a section on prehistory. This means that this book will become a really helpful addition to your bookshelf. Given the enigmas of prehistory I’m sure that it will inspire as many questions as it answers!

If you want to find out more about Mick Manning and Brita Granstom have a look at their website. They have produced a wonderful selection of books, I for one will be ordering quite a few of them. You can order a copy of The Secrets of Stonehenge here.

Look out for more book reviews coming soon.

Local prehistory in Pleasley Vale

Prehistory is not just about the big important sites like Stonehenge. Prehistoric archaeology is all around you and can form a new starting point for a local history study. Matthew Beresford of MBArchaeology has been working on the past of Pleasley Vale, just north of Mansfield on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border.

Generally in this region, human occupation during the Ice Age can be traced back no further than 60,000 years ago, when Neanderthals were using the caves as shelter sites, for example at nearby Creswell Crags.

Ground plan of Yew Tree Cave based on nineteenth century drawings (© Creswell Heritage Trust)

Ground plan of Yew Tree Cave based on nineteenth century
drawings (© Creswell Heritage Trust)

The earliest evidence of landscape use at Pleasley Vale comes from the two cave sites within a limestone gorge. No human occupation was found, but a wide variety of Ice Age animal remains were recovered in the late 19th century. Pleasley Vale Cave was discovered in 1862. Inside the cave were the bones of reindeer, woolly rhinoceros, wolf and wild horse – animals that lived in a rather cold climate. The second cave, known as Yew Tree Cave, was explored by William Ransom in the 1860s, where he discovered bones of roe deer, wolf and pig, indicating a warmer climate. Clearly the area was used over thousands of years.

Fieldwalking in the surrounding fields at Pleasley has revealed Neolithic (c.4500- 2500BC) flint tools and Bronze Age (c.2500-700BC) flints and metalwork, including part of a bronze bracelet and a bronze spearhead (found on separate occasions) just to the east of Pleasley Vale very close to the local water source. This may suggest they were offerings placed in the water, a common practice in the Bronze Age period and relating to religious beliefs.

Hayman Rooke’s plan of the Roman villa.

Hayman Rooke’s plan of Pleasley Roman villa.

Pleasley’s Roman villa may well have grown out of an earlier Iron Age settlement. The villa site at Pleasley Vale was first discovered in 1787 by Major Hayman Rooke, a local archaeologist who lived at Mansfield Woodhouse. Rooke and his team found traces of early timber buildings that dated to around AD 80 – this is quite an early date for a farmstead as military occupation was still heavy in the area, largely due to the trouble caused by local Iron Age tribes, the Brigantes in Derbyshire and the Corieltauvi in Nottinghamshire.

Pleasley Vale’s history extends into the more familiar medieval and post-medieval periods, and right up to the modern day. Further information can be found in the publication Pleasley Vale: A Journey Through Time (2012) edited by Matthew Beresford, and is available as a free downloaded via

An education box was also created on the site, and is stored with the Bolsover District Council team at the Greaseworks building at Pleasley Vale. This features educational resources, information, artefacts and activities, and was designed for use by schools and local groups.

Matthew Beresford is an archaeologist and teacher who runs MBArchaeology, specialising in Community Archaeology and education. He leads the archaeology element of the Limestone Journeys project, for which the Pleasley Vale research was undertaken. He is also author of Beyond The Ice: Creswell Crags and its place in a wider European perspective (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2012), and co-runs the hugely popular Ice Age Camp family learning archaeology sessions during the summer. For more information visit

Stonehenge: a new dawn for education groups

Susan Greaney has been very busy for the past few years, as Senior Properties Historian for English Heritage, on the interpretation for the new visitor’s centre at Stonehenge, which was launched last year just in time for the important winter solstice. Here she tells us what awaits visiting schools to Britain’s most iconic prehistoric monument.

You may have seen in the news that the Stonehenge visitor centre has now opened to the public. Housing a fantastic exhibition, an indoor café and a shop, this building has transformed the experience of all our visitors.

For the first time there are also high-quality facilities for schools and education groups, making a visit to Stonehenge easy, informative and hopefully inspiring! A fully equipped education room is available both for free self-led visits as well as Discovery Visits, led by our experts. Opening for bookings from this week, the new space has its own toilets, bag storage and interactive whiteboard.

Groups can find out more about Stonehenge in the extensive exhibition gallery, where for the first time archaeological objects from the World Heritage Site are on display. A variety of films, models and displays, as well as a changing temporary exhibition, help to tell the story of the unique monument and its surrounding prehistoric landscape. From Easter 2014 the reconstructed Neolithic houses in the outdoor gallery will also be built and available for education groups to use.

A school group getting closer to the stones

A school group getting closer to the stones

Our new Discovery Visit ‘Neolithic Life’ will explore how people lived at the time of Stonehenge, with pupils able take part in a number of hands-on activities such as cookery, fence building and rope making. As well as exploring how, why and when Stonehenge was built, the visit encourages pupils to use enquiry skills to investigate why Stonehenge and the surrounding area was so important in prehistory. This session will be available from 6th May and you will be able to book from mid-March.

With prehistory on the primary curriculum for the first time, now is the perfect time to bring your school to Stonehenge. More information about the facilities available, online resources and how to book can be found on the English Heritage website.

Francis Pryor on why studying prehistory will be good for kids

Time Team at Friar's Wash Roman temple complex, Hertfordshire.Professor Francis Pryor (right) writes about why it’s great news that kids in England will now be learning about British prehistory.

We all need a sense of perspective if our lives are ever to make any sense. When I was very young I adored dinosaurs and made models of them. By the time I was a teenager that sense of the distant past began to expand, but I could find very little that filled the huge gap – a mere 100 million years, or so – between the Jurassic and our own time, because history began, with a respectful clunk, in 5th century BC Greece. There may have been a mention of the Mycenaeans there somewhere, but certainly there was nothing about Britain, which may as well not have existed. It wasn’t until my university ‘gap’ year that I realised just how advanced British Neolithic culture actually was – and what we know now has truly transformed things, to such an extent, that I would have no hesitation in saying that Britain from about 4000 BC was effectively civilised. Indeed, I would see the birth of modern Britain at around 1500 BC, mid-way through the Bronze Age. By that time the British Isles were cleared of most forest cover; there were field systems and settlements and these were linked together with a national road network, plus a host of local lanes and trackways. There would have been regular crossings of the Channel and North Sea and people living along the Atlantic coastal approaches were in constant touch with communities further north, in Orkney, Shetland and Scandinavia, not to mention the Atlantic shores of France, Spain and Portugal. By the Iron Age Britain had developed its own artistic style, known as Celtic Art, which has a liveliness and robust vigour that still speaks to us, 2300 years later. Indeed, I have heard it said that Celtic Art was Britain’s only original contribution to world art (but that’s a bit hard on the likes of Turner, Constable and Moore). Yet until now this rich story has been ignored by schools and educationalists.

I believe passionately that we’ll only avoid making profound mistakes, with many decades of unfortunate consequences, if we can learn from the past. That’s what I meant when I began this piece with that phrase about ‘a sense of perspective’. In the short-term world of politics, where, we are told a week is a long time, history and the appreciation of historical events, can provide guidance for decision-making, but only if the politicians concerned want to learn. I well remember the despair of many colleagues working on archaeological projects in the Middle East, when Bush and Blair confidently announced their disastrous campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will have to come to terms with the ill-will of the Arab world over the next century, let alone weeks. As mistakes went, that was a big one. But archaeology and prehistory deal with processes rather than events. So the perspectives we bring are longer-term. Maybe the children at primary school who are about to be taught prehistory will be less self-centred and arrogant. And with luck those that eventually become our leaders will have a better sense of their own limitations. With luck…

Find out more about Francis on his blog,