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kim biddulph

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Iron Age Masterchef at Wycombe Museum

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Me set up at Wycombe Museum with my portable roundhouse!

As part of a suite of pilot activities for the Chiltern Hillforts project planned by the Chiltern Conservation Board to go to a Stage 2 Heritage Lottery Fund application, I ran some family activities around Iron Age food at Wycombe Museum during the Easter holidays.

Families were invited to book on to one of two workshops, either making bread and butter from scratch or boiling water with hot stones. It was, of course, meant to be fun and educational, but also to gauge what interest there might be locally for more events like this in the Stage 2 lottery bid and what level of knowledge already existed about the Chiltern hillforts with this audience.

 

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The bank and ditch of a Chiltern hillfort, Pulpit Hill.

 

A hillfort is a woolly name given to a wide range of defended sites of the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, many, but not all, of which are on hills. These generally do seem to have been lived in to some extent when excavated and there is some evidence that some of them were attacked. There are around twenty of them in the Chiltern hills and while some have been excavated, such as Ivinghoe Beacon and Ravensburgh Castle, others have been sadly neglected. Others, still have either been ploughed flat, like Cheddington hillfort, or occupied by later buildings, such as at West Wycombe and Cholesbury, both of which have churches inside them. The Chiltern Hillforts project aims to do more investigation and public events in and around the hillforts. They are currently raising some matchfunding via Just Giving if you feel you’d like to donate: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/chilternshillforts.

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Children grinding grain on a flat rotary quern. Photograph courtesy of and copyright Colin Drake.

So the Iron Age Masterchef event proved that there was a demand for events like this. Many of the parents were looking specifically for heritage events to support their child’s interest in archaeology and history, or their schoolwork. Many of the children had studied the new Stone Age to Iron Age topic in school and so had more background knowledge than the parents (one of whom guessed the Iron Age was in the 17th century – to be fair, technologically, it was still the Iron Age in the 17th century even though archaeologists tend to define the end of it as the Roman invasion for their own purposes).

The children were very committed to keep going with all the activities, especially grinding grain on querns. We also found out that making butter in a bag is quicker than using a pot and spoon, and that even young children can do it very effectively. They tried out some bread cooked directly on the fire and several children stayed for a very long time trying to make the water boil, and we did get bubbles in the end! Here’s a video of a boiling pot from an earlier test I did.

Teaching outside the classroom

spider-021I just had a random thought this morning that all this talk from archaeologists like me but also ecologists, scientists, artists, business people, teachers themselves and many, many others about the importance of learning outside the classroom may belie an underlying, perhaps subconscious, assumption that school is not the best place to teach kids.

I say perhaps subconscious because most of us are aware of how much work teachers put in to creating engaging experiences for their kids, and I always try to write engaging materials for teachers to use in their constrained environment. But on the other hand we are also aware of just how much more engaging, stimulating, exciting and challenging learning outside the classroom in the school field, the library, a park, a museum, a gallery, a theatre (the list is endless), can be.

rsz_scrapbook-030Kids used to learn outside the classroom all the time, before universal schooling. Did they learn more, or better, then? I guess not, learning to read, write and, to a certain extent, do maths is difficult outside a classroom. I seem to be arguing for a focus on the three Rs in schools and jettisoning the arts, humanities and sciences from the curricula. But that’s not the essence of my argument. I’m arguing for embracing more creative ways to teach the non-core subjects that will also support and apply the core skills.

photoEverything that can be taught outside the classroom, should be taught outside the classroom. Schools could become arbiters of real life experiences rather than child corrals. I guess that’s where many home-edders are coming from. The logistics would be horrendous and state funding would have to be massively increased, but it’s a thought.

365 Days of Archaeology on the Archaeology Podcast Network

download-365As you may know, I have a podcast on the Archaeology Podcast Network all about stories set in prehistory. The Network has so many podcasts about various different aspects of archaeology to listen to and is just growing and growing. Each episode of my podcast is an hour long, and I know that’s a big commitment to listen to, so why not try out a bitesize podcast, from five to fifteen minutes each, every day for 2017? I bet you’ll be hooked by February.

Listen to every single podcast on this webpage, or subscribe via iTunes.

If you just want to listen to my contributions because you can’t get enough of my voice and archaeological knowledge (it happens…) here are my episodes.

4th January: The Archaeology of Whitehall Palace

15th January: The Origins of the British Museum

18th January: The Red Lady of Paviland

6th February: Trowelblazer Mary Leakey

5th March: A prehistory of the Prehi/stories podcast

18th April: Gertrude Caton Thompson

27th April: The gravel of Abbeville

Teaching History in 100 Objects

teachinghist100objectsThe British Museum was commissioned by the Department for Education to create resources for the new history curriculum at Key Stage 2 and 3, Teaching History in 100 Objects. The format was similar to the radio series by the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects. In reality these 100 objects were just jumping off points for finding an infinite array of objects to use in the classroom.

I wrote all the object files for the new area of the Key Stage 2 curriculum, Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. Some of these objects are really iconic to archaeologists so it was very excited to be able to write about them.

It was very interesting to work out what the big messages embodied in the objects were, rather than explain it from an archaeological perspective. The red deer frontlet headdress from Star Carr, for instance, stood for the rich and complex culture and belief systems of the early Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. A saddle quern from Wales reflected the change to farming and the important role of women (presumably the ones who used the querns to grind grain, though I’m happy to be challenged on that interpretation) in the Neolithic.

Doing this work also introduced me for the first time to the Must Farm excavations, which are ongoing. The earlier excavations uncovered eight scuttled logboats dating from the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, preserved in the waterlogged mud of an ancient riverbed. I was very lucky to go and visit the more recent excavations of a roundhouse that had been preserved by conflagration and then submergence in the same water, a little downstream.

I also wrote about Anglo-Saxon, Pictish and Scottish objects for the Key Stage 2 curriculum and a selection of later objects for the Key Stage 3 curriculum, including a demi-culverin cannon from the Mary Rose, a banner of the Jewish Baker’s Union, a burned Second World War ID badge belonging to Thelma Barlow of the Parnall’s Aircraft Factory (she survived, thankfully) and a cloth celebrating Ghanaian independence.

It was a fabulous project to work on, with such a range of interesting objects to write about. Since then the British Museum has partnered with the TES to run Huge History where schools work on their own museum objects. More objects being studied in the classroom is great by my book.

Fossils and dinosaurs

I really enjoyed writing about fossils, while my co-writer wrote about dinosaurs, for the Hamilton Trust. I think it was one of the most enjoyable blocks I have so far written for them, despite having also written Stone Age to Iron Age Britain, the Shang Dynasty of China, the Ancient Greeks and the history of various sports.

I got to write about some very interesting characters in the history of science, including Mary Anning, Charles Darwin and William Buckland. Mary Anning and Charles Darwin are specifically mentioned in the Key Stage 2 science curriculum, of course, and both their stories are very engaging, if very different.

Mary was the daughter of a cabinetmaker and lived in Lyme Regis. She managed to get some rudimentary schooling and learned to read and write, but that was it. She made her living by finding fossils on the beach and selling them to collectors. Most of these were wealthy, educated gentlemen dabbling in natural history who went on to publish the finds as their own. Now the specimens she uncovered are being reclaimed for her. I was excited to see a huge ichthyosaur (a marine reptile from the same time as the dinosaurs) she found in the Natural History Museum in London recently.

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Ichthyosauria.001 – Natural History Museum of London” by Drow maleOwn work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

I am very fond of Charles Darwin, and I have written about him elsewhere, but I didn’t know very much about William Buckland before writing this block for the Hamilton Trust, so it was quite a journey of discovery! I wrote the block using a ‘Take One Picture’ model, which has been used for museum teaching quite a lot. The image in question was a silhouette (very popular in the nineteenth century) of Buckland and his wife and son and several of their fossils.

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Buckland family silhouette” by Mary Buckland, née Morland (1797-1857) – http://blogs.royalsociety.org/history-of-science/2011/02/07/females-fossils-hyenas-1/ Originally taken from Elizabeth Gordon’s (1894) The Life and correspondence of William Buckland, London: John Murray. p.103.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Buckland found many Ice Age fossils in his explorations of Britain’s caves, including Kirkdale in Yorkshire and Goats Hole Cave on the Gower Peninsula of Wales. Famously, he discovered a skeleton in the latter that he named the Red Lady of Paviland and posited that she was a Roman camp follower. In reality the ‘Red Lady’ is actually a man and may date back as far as 30,000 years, a burial from the Upper Palaeolithic.

He’s more famous, though, for identifying the first dinosaur, although they weren’t called that at the time. Earlier finds of the same dinosaur, Megalosaurus, had been thought to have come from Roman war elephants. He noticed that a jaw bone looked very much like modern lizards, but much larger, and therefore coined the name. His wife, Mary, was an excellent scientific illustrator as well as a natural historian in her own right, and drew the Megalosaurus jaw in question for her husband’s publication.

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Buckland, Megalosaurus jaw” by Mary Morland (later Buckland) – http://www.lhl.lib.mo.us/events_exhib/exhibit/exhibits/dino/buc1824_l.shtml. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Quite wonderfully, he also coined the term coprolite for fossilised faeces, having first been notified by Mary Anning of strange stones found in the abdominal area of the ichthyosaurs she was finding.

The block gave me an opportunity to explore the history of science with children, and to reflect on how science works, how it is important to publish and get your name on discoveries, and the social history of the nineteenth century where women were not given the scientific kudos they deserved. I may also have revealed Buckland’s proclivity to eat every animal he came across, from bluebottles to mice on toast by way of panther. Well, I couldn’t not, could I?

Discover Darwin

I’m always a little daunted by the prospect of reading the classics. I don’t get on well with Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy, though Jane Austen is my all time favourite writer. So I didn’t expect to be able to follow the writing of Charles Darwin when I first read On the Origin of Species. Amazingly, I could, and very easily. Darwin had not written a dense scientific treatise. It was a popular book intended for a very wide audience. It’s wonderfully poetic in places.

If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to read just the last chapter of the book, or even just the final paragraph if you’re that worried. The final chapter summarises the entire book, and the last paragraph is an even more succinct precis.

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

I used this paragraph as the basis for a few lessons work on non-fiction writing for a set of lessons The Charles Darwin Trust educational consultants (including me) wrote for the London Borough of Bromley. The borough had unsuccessfully attempted to get the natural environment around Down House listed as a World Heritage Site as it was there, in Darwin’s Landscape Laboratory, rather than the Galapagos Islands or anywhere in South America, that Darwin did most of his thinking, observation and experimentation that confirmed his ideas about natural selection.

entangled bank

I contrasted Darwin’s writing with that of modern science writers such as E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins (in hindsight I should have included some female science writers). I wanted to get across the idea to children that writing in science doesn’t have to be impenetrable and that by writing in an engaging and even poetic way, it can bring science to a wider audience.

Milton Keynes Late Roman coin hoard in schools

I tell the story of the coin hoard being buried in AD 353 and rediscovered in 2006 elsewhere on my blog. The nature of the coin hoard, with coins of the usurper Magnentius, makes a fantastic story as well as the opportunity to introduce how knowledge of the past is constructed and look in detail at the imagery and inscriptions on Roman coins.

The hoard is now in the Buckinghamshire County Museum who applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund to make the hoard more accessible, which included putting up temporary displays in Milton Keynes schools, writing lesson plans for teachers to use and having a costumed Roman visit schools to cement interest in the topic.

I was keen to support maths teaching, which now includes learning Roman numerals, and provided some optional maths activities about timelines, coin values and work on percentages and averages based on the information on the 1456 coins. The museum wanted to use the coins to explore the movement of people and ideas so I also created activities about the various mints across the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity for instance.

The school visit entails acting out the story of Magnentius’ attempted coup and then getting to handle some of the coins from the hoard. I’m not sure which part of the day the kids enjoyed best, fighting in a pretend Roman army or actually holding real Roman coins.

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Aylesbury Young Archaeologists Club

In 2008 I helped set up Aylesbury Young Archaeologist’s Club branch. This is part of a

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Digging at Boarstall Tower with the National Trust

national network of Young Archaeologist’s Clubs that are supported by the Council for British Archaeology. They provide an opportunity to learn more about a subject that’s not taught in schools but that kids are often fascinated about.

We’ve had a pretty steady group of volunteer leaders over the years, with some very useful additions recently. We’re all active in archaeology in some way or another and we’ve got a great range of skills, from a Historic Environment Record Officer, buildings and landscape archaeologist, an artefact specialist, a geophysicist to a professional digger.

Our members are very loyal and we get around 10-15 regular attenders, and we’re welcoming new members every month. We meet one Saturday morning each month and usually have a theme each year. In 2015 we planned a test-pit excavation in a willing volunteer’s garden, dug the test-pits and then researched and wrote up the findings. In 2016 we’re doing a year learning about ancient technology and have done pottery making, weaving, food technology, fire making and we plan to do bronze-casting and arrow-making.

The most rewarding thing about it is seeing members from the age of 8, when they can first attend, grow up with us and stay with us until they turn 16, when they can become a volunteer helper and stay with us until they go to university (hopefully to study archaeology!), or when the ones who are sometimes the most difficult to engage get really stuck in with an activity and when members really shine by presenting their work to their parents and local archaeologists.

Pitt Rivers Museum Archaeological Display

Pitt Rivers Museum at night
Pitt Rivers Museum at night

In 2016 I undertook some market research for the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Need, Make, Use project in advance of a new permanent display of some of the archaeological collection that is otherwise not very obvious in the museum; anthropological items are the majority of items on display. The objective was to gauge the interest and background knowledge of family visitors to the museum about archaeology to inform the design of the redisplay.

The desk-based section of the work involved researching what other museums had done with their archaeological collections. It was really interesting to read about and talk to curators about some of the decisions they had taken about the themes and stories they wished to bring out from the archaeology, and why specific items that had been chosen for display. Grace Todd at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff was very helpful, explaining the thinking behind their Adventures in Archaeology exhibition. It was centred around props from the latest Indiana Jones movie, using this as a basis to explore real archaeological adventurers. Themes they wanted to get across were that early archaeologists were not necessarily trained as such but had other backgrounds, that archaeology can be discovered by anyone today, but conversely that archaeology is a skilled profession. Each case was centred around one ‘wow’ object that caught the eye.

The Museum of London had tried out putting modern objects that performed a similar function to their Roman counterparts on display in the same cases to test whether it would help understanding about life in Roman London. The results were mixed. Some visitors were aggrieved to have modern objects in a Roman display, while many teachers felt it helped their children identify with Roman Londoners. At Manchester Museum the Egyptian gallery starts with a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ style display and has visible storage, both of which could be used to describe the Pitt Rivers display policy, but matched it with digital technologies, touchable objects and 3D projections to make it more accessible for families.

Deciding how to display objects on the family consultation day
Deciding how to display objects on the family consultation day

The second part of the project involved consultation with families and young people. Family visitors at half-term, parent volunteers at a focus group and the museum’s resident Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) were the targets. The feedback was very interesting. Despite the YAC group’s prior interest in archaeology, the jargon that could be used in archaeology displays was little understood. At the National Museums of Wales in Cardiff, this kind of result had been anticipated, but instead of taking out jargon words, they made sure they were explained.

Timelines were tricky without help, and a visual method of orienting the objects in time was requested by all participants. The Pitt Rivers policy of grouping objects by function rather than period or place was questioned on numerous occasions, though conceded by some that it brought up interesting contrasts as long as objects were clearly labelled. The plan for the archaeology displays was instead to group objects by material. When asked to create their own display of objects, families preferred to group by theme e.g. the domestic world, clothing than anything else.

Families were virtually unanimous that images could give context to the objects, either showing how they were made or used, and several suggested embedded video in the cases, something that’s never been done before in the permanent galleries at the Pitt Rivers Museum. A little information for adults to read to help interpret displays for their children was also requested, but just a little.

The Need, Make, Use blog shows the process of choosing pottery for display in the new archaeology cases, and I think they are going to be as packed as always. I look forward to seeing the final displays unveiled.

References

Hicks, D & Stevenson, A. 2013. World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: a characterization. Oxford, Archaeopress.

Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, 2012. Breathing new life into Roman London: Summative evaluation of Our Londinium at the Museum of London. Manchester.

Weeks, J 2013. Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum. Museums Journal Issue 113/02, p42-45.

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