Excavation: the best way of teaching children about archaeology
The changes to the National Curriculum are bringing a new emphasis (at least for English schools) on prehistory and with it the need to understand the basic principles of archaeology. There are many ways in which this can be achieved. You could book a classroom session or perhaps work through activities on the internet. However, the most satisfying way in which pupils can achieve a basic understanding of how archaeology works is to take part in an excavation in their own school grounds. With the right help it can be a straightforward thing to do. Here are the answers to some of the Frequently Asked Questions I receive. When you’ve read this, you’ll be convinced too.
How deep will we have to dig?
Usually not more than 30 -50 cm. Archaeology is about looking for traces of material culture to use as evidence for life in the past. Or put more simply it’s about other people’s rubbish. Once you’ve dug down through the layers that people have deposited or disturbed you reach a natural undisturbed subsoil with no finds in it. In many cases this is only a few centimetres below the ground surface. If there are no finds, there’s no point digging it up so this is where we stop.
Do you ever bury things for children to find?
No. For me the whole point of any excavation is to make the whole experience as authentic as possible for the pupils. There are all sorts of reasons for this. Deliberately planting objects for pupils to find would contaminate the chain of evidence and make any report on the work suspect. I don’t want to be disbelieved when I say I’ve found what might be a Roman Road in school grounds at Wetherby or medieval pottery on the school playing fields at Austhorpe. From an education point of view, the genuineness of the excavation engenders commitment and a sense of excitement. You never know what you are going to find: you may be the first person to have touched that piece of pottery for hundreds of years. Simulated excavations have their place in education – perhaps as a classroom activity in preparation for outdoor work. But once you’re outside, keep it real!
What happens if we don’t find anything?
You will. Even if your school was built on a green-field site, there will be finds. Think back to the days before bin men and universal rubbish collection. Farmers used to pile all their household rubbish up into a huge midden along with the sweepings of cattle sheds and stable yards. Once it had all rotted down nicely, it was spread on the fields as manure. Pottery doesn’t rot: it’ll still be there for you to find.
How much will it cost?
That’s the one question I can’t answer straightaway. What it costs depends on what you want. It’s rather like doing out the kitchen. If you want vinyl surfaces and plastic doors to you units, it’ll cost so much. If you want granite surfaces and oak doors it’ll cost something else. But at least an archaeological excavation in school grounds doesn’t involve the expense of hiring a couple of coaches.
How can If find out more?
I’d be happy to come over to your school to talk things over with members of staff (though I do charge for travel expenses outside West Yorkshire). I can put together a package designed expressly to meet the needs of your pupils. All you have to do is contact me here.
Schools Excavations are only one service provided by Dave Weldrake: Heritage Education. For a full list click here.