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,