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.