Leeds Trinity Archaeology Project 7

The fieldwork is now completed and the students have finished their placement in school. Like any other archaeology project there’s still a lot of work to be done but from here we go our separate ways. The students spent their last day in school sharing the results of the work with the larger school community. One group made classroom museums: the other buried a time capsule. Now they have their presentations to do. My colleague, Beverley Forrest, is working on the ways in which the students work can be shared with a larger audience. She will, for example, be featuring the project in her talk at the forthcoming Historical Association Conference.

For me, it means that I can go back to blogging in my usual desultory manner – a couple of posts a month instead of a couple of posts a week. Which is just as well as it will give me time to write up a formal report about the two excavations. We may have been working with children but these have been real excavations, not play activities. This means that we are obliged to share our results with the wider archaeological community. I shall upload a copy of the report when it is completed (hopefully in a couple of weeks time). A copy of the report will also be deposited with the West Yorkshire Historic Environment Record where they will be archived for the use of future archaeologists.

In the meantime, I would like to thank Greenhill Primary and St Phillips Catholic Primary School for hosting the project and providing lots of support for the students. Thanks are also due to Martin Bartholomew and Liz Weldrake who gave up their free time to work on the excavations.Most of all I would like to thank the students themselves:

Matthew Bottom
Jarrett Brough
Emily Elsworth
Henna Ijaz
Keri O’Reilly
Jade Smith
Kate Towler
Danielle Turner
Charlotte Wakefield

Without all the effort and hard work which they put into the project, it could never have been the success it has been.



Leeds Trinity Archaeology Project 6

Exploring Agriculture


Ridge and furrow indicated by rows of children

Ridge and furrow indicated by rows of children

The northern edge of the school playing field at St Phillips Catholic Primary School (West Yorkshire, UK) still shows sign of the former field on which the school was built. Several rows of ridge and furrow are clearly visible but virtually impossible to photograph clearly. I had to get the children to line up in rows in order to locate the ridges for the camera. The ridges seem very straight to me and are probably the result of 20th century machine ploughing rather than medieval ridge and furrow.

Digging a test pit


Test pit

Test pit

The children dug a single 2.0m x 2.0m test pit on the crest of one of these ridges. Time did not allow us to excavate it fully but in one corner the natural subsoil was reached at a depth of about 30 cm. The finds were what you might expect – a few pieces of Victorian/20th-century pottery, bits of clay pipe stem, fragments of glass and some bits of cinder. The pieces were very small – a sure sign that they’d been broken up by ploughing.

Archaeology is more than digging



The children also had the opportunity to practice some other skills. I had bottomed the test pit during the lunch break creating a large pile of earth that had not been looked at properly, so children were set to work sieving the soli. It’s a good recovery technique which proved its usefulness in this instance as several pieces of clay pipe were found in this way.

The children were also shown the basics of site planning and how to measure in detail by using tapes to measure in from a baseline. This fitted in well with the work on graphs which the children had been doing in school.

They also helped backfill the site. It’s something that I didn’t at one time do with school pupils. I used to think that they might get upset at having to fill in a hole that they have just dug out. That’s not the case: children enjoy backfilling just as much as they do the rest of archaeology

Leeds Trinity Archaeology Project 5

Opening the excavation

The site before backfilling.

The site before backfilling.

On Monday we started work on the archaeological dig at Greenhill Primary School in Leeds (West Yorkshire, UK). There are several ways to go at this. You could, for instance, dig one long thin trench and range the pupils down one side. Myself, I prefer to dig a number of 2.0m x 2.0m trenches 2.0m apart. It might be easier from the point of view of ‘crowd control’ to keep an eye on a single row of children but it can cause archaeological problems: if you don’t have a large enough area exposed you’re not likely to be able to identify archaeological feature when you do come across them. Besides it’s the way that other archaeologists do it when they want to test a theory by excavation: only they obscure the fact by calling their 2.0m x 2.0m excavations sondages, instead of test pits or small-scale excavations.

Good weather…

Working on a sunny day

Working on a sunny day

Monday’s work went well. The weather was good for the time of year and the children made a substantial number of finds. Most of the items recovered were mid to late 20th century in date though some of the pottery could perhaps have been Victorian. The latter half of the 20th century may not seem that long ago to you or I but for many of these children it is an impossibly long time ago. After all it’s before their parents were born!

And bad weather

Tuesday’s weather was not so good. In fact for most of the day it rained so badly that I didn’t want to get the camera out for fear of damaging the electronics. The children, on the other hand, could not have cared less. Finds came in more slowly too. There were a few pieces of pottery, some cinder and some very small fragments of brick, but nobody complained at all. Children enjoy digging and, as I’ve said before,, archaeological excavations get children enthused. Even if you offer them the opportunity to go back inside, most of the time they won’t want to.

Why is gingerbread worse than mud?

After the children had gone home, we were stacking the tools in readiness to stow them away into the van when a couple of cleaners came into the room. Naturally we began to apologize about the mess. ‘We’re not bothered about the mud,’ said one of them. ‘We can deal with that. It’s that gingerbread those people have been making: it gets absolutely everywhere’.

And the Trinity students themselves. What did they think of the whole thing? ‘I’ve never been so muddy,’ said one of them ‘but it’s been really good’.


Leeds Trinity Archaeology Project 4

The simulated excavation

The simulated excavation

Putting things together

In an era of ever tighter budgets, finding suitable resources for an activity can present a problem. The cheapest way to get round it is to use two things that you already have in a novel way. And this is exactly what one of the students working on the Archaeology Project did.

Simulated excavation

He took a school sandpit and one of those articulated plastic skeletons used for the teaching the study unit on the human body, put them together to make an archaeology simulation. The excavation of the half buried skeleton offered an opportunity, not only to discuss what happens when an archaeologist discovers a dead body, but also to emphasize the need for care when the class got chance to work on a real dig. After the excavation the bones were laid out in their correct anatomical order and the group discussed questions about what you can learn from human remains.

Solving a common question

Have you ever found any dead bodies is one of the most common questions children ask (along with have you ever found any buried treasure? or Have you ever found a dinosaur? This exercise offers a neat way of dealing with the question as well as giving the teacher an opportunity to revise part of the science curriculum – just by using the things you have in an in a new and imaginative way.


Leeds Trinity Archaeology Project 3

The nature of the problem – a recap

Yesterdays’ blog began with defining a problem – how to teach children about the basic principles of archaeology in a world with too many distractions and misunderstandings. Besides those I’ve already mentioned – movie portrayals of archaeologists and the confusion between archaeology and palaeontology – there is also the media’s attitude to the subject. Newspapers and TV tend to focus on the exceptional because it makes a good narrative. A metal detector find of a gold hoard is bound to be reported while days of patient scraping at the earth go by in unrecognised anonymity. The gold hoard is the exception not the rule. I’ve worked on excavations now for nearly 50 years and I’ve never found a single gold object. This is not a sour grapes, metal detectorists V. archaeologist sort of thing: it’s just a fact of life. Most metal detectorists spend their time digging up mundane objects too.

 Valuing the past

All of us that are interested in the past  – archaeologists, historians, and metal detectorists alike – know that even if an object isn’t worth a lot of money (and therefore not newsworthy). It could still tell us a lot about life in the past. Perhaps there’s a different kind of value to an object other than the purely monetary one.

 Making the point

Yesterday I watched a group of students from Leeds Trinity university make that exact point. They had already spent some time working with their class to clarify what the children thought about archaeology. Some of these ideas had been recorded as spider diagrams and were pinned to the wall to remind the children what they had talked about on the previous day.


Now it was time to put those ideas into practice and carry out a simulated excavation in the classroom. The class were split up into groups and each given a bowl in which objects had been buried under sterile cat litter. It was the children’s job to excavate the finds and construct a narrative. They were aided in their task by a worksheet prompting them to ask such questions as Who do you think this person was? and What do you think they did?

There were probably as many stories as there were children. In some ways it doesn’t matter. Our view of the past is, after all, only a construct. We need to be flexible enough to be able to change it when a new piece of evidence comes along to fit into the jigsaw. This is exactly what the children did. As each new item was uncovered they adapted their narratives to accommodate the new evidence; it’s what archaeologists have to do every day.

A double benefit

A simulated excavation like this is extremely useful. Not only does it hone the pupil’s reasoning skills but it also provides some simple training for how the real thing works. Which is just as well: next week the pupils will be carrying out a real dig in their school grounds.


Leeds Trinity Archaeology Project 2

The nature of the problem

It’s week three of the project and the students are having the chance to put their ideas into practice. They’ve been concentrating on introducing young people to the basic concepts of archaeology. It’s no easy job. Misconceptions abound. The movies don’t help: an archaeologist’s life is definitely not like the screen portrayals of Lara Croft or Indiana Jones. Nor do we dig up dinosaurs: that’s the job of a palaeontologist.

 And some solutions

The students presented a whole range of solutions to the problem. I think my favourite was the ‘rubbish game’. They talked about how archaeology is not really about looking for buried treasure: it’s about dealing with other people’s rubbish to see what it can tell you about life in the past.  To help make the point the students had made several sets of cards showing different objects. These were handed out to the children to see what they could deduce from the images. I was particularly impressed with one child who worked out that the items were old because something was labelled in ounces and ‘today we use grams’.

 Making archaeology local

The students also spent time with the children looking at aerial photographs and old maps. This is a useful idea because it makes archaeology local. Too often school books illustrate the biggest and best.  Children can therefore find it hard to relate to this (unless, of course, they happen to live on Hadrian’s Wall or in Hampton Court Palace!).  You can show how things change over time in their area by asking questions such as Can you see where your school is? or Why isn’t it on this map? Wasn’t it built then?  and Can you see what was here before your school was built?  Archaeologists call this process map regression. It not only a good way of working out where things were in the past, it also allows you to start thinking about what kind of evidence might survive.

 All enthused about archaeology

And now the children at Greenhill Primary School are all enthused about archaeology. It’s just as well really because next week we’re having a dig…


Swastikas over the Moor

Ilkley Moor’s most famous Swastika. This is a modern replica place next to the original which has become too eroded to see clearly.

Ilkley Moor’s most famous Swastika. This is a modern replica place next to the original which has become too eroded to see clearly.

Last week I was interviewed by a researcher from the BBC about the use of the Swastika in prehistoric rock art. I talked to him about the Swastika stone on Ilkley Moor and, much to my surprise, some of my comments were printed on the BBC website.

The carving is probably one of the most visited rock art sites on Ilkley Moor – so much so that the local authorities have laid out an easy-to-follow gravel path all the way to the fenced off enclosure which contains the Swastika Stone.

The carving itself is very eroded – not surprising really given that it has had to face the elements for approximately four thousand years but the modern replica placed next to it allows you to see the outline clearly. It’s quite a sophisticated design with a curved groove working its way around the eight hollows or cups to form a swastika. To this has been added another appendage with its own hollow. It’s a good test of visual memory.  Perhaps in your childhood you had a party game called Kin’s Game inflicted on you. A number of objects would be brought in on a tray covered with a tea towel. The tea towel would be whisked off for 60 seconds and then replaced. All you had to do was list the items which you could remember…

Try something similar now. Look at the image for a count of 60 and then turn off your screen. Now try to draw the Swastika design. It’s not a simple as you might think.

No-one knows why this design (or any of the other designs on the Ilkley Moor carved rocks) was created. Don’t be fooled by such archaeological phrases as ‘It’s a ritual object’. All it means is that no-one (particularly the speaker) has no idea about the object’s use at all.

Famous as the Swastika Stone might be, it’s not the only one on the Moor. There’s another on the Badger Stone. The south face of this rock has long attracted attention on account of the intricacy of its designs but it was not till a couple of years ago that an act of thoughtlessness drew my attention to the fact that there is also a swastika carved on the Badger Stone. Someone had used charcoal to outline the patterns incised on the surface of the stone. I can’t say that I approve of the practice (rubbing things into a friable rock face will just make them erode more quickly) but I have to admit that it has certainly made the design clear.

The layout of this modern maze was inspired by the Swastika Stone.

The layout of this modern maze was inspired by the Swastika Stone.

Many people in Ilkley and the surrounding district will know of the Swastika Stone. In fact the stone is so famous that it was used as the inspiration for a modern maze on the edge of the Moor.  I suspect that fewer of Ilkley’s citizens will know about the Swastika on the Badger Stone but all this has made me begin to wonder: perhaps there are still other Swastikas out there on the Moor waiting to be found …