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kim biddulph

Archaeology Biology Museums Schools Writing

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.

Little Missenden church and its medieval wall paintings

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St John the Baptist Church, Little Missenden

I was lucky enough to be put in touch with the team at St John the Baptist church in Little Missenden in the Chilterns who were putting in a stage 2 bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the conservation and interpretation of their impressive set of medieval wall paintings this autumn.

Little Missenden is a pretty little village that is most famous for being the set of the Vicar of Dibley and Midsomer Murders. It was on the main road from London to Aylesbury but the village has since been bypassed and now nestles in some obscurity alongside the A413 north of Amersham and south of Great Missenden (of Roald Dahl fame).

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Phase plan of the church

The village was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and the parish church is even older than that, with the central build dating back to between AD 950 and 1000, firmly in the late Anglo-Saxon period. The build does incorporate some Roman brick, suggesting a villa was nearby. The Chilterns was certainly a popular place for Roman villas, with examples known at Latimer, Mantles Green Meadow in Amersham, Hambleden, Yewden and Bledlow in Buckinghamshire alone.

 

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St Christopher and St Catherine

 

But what is even more amazing about St John the Baptist church are the wall paintings that date variously from the 12th to 17th centuries. The most striking painting is a larger than life size St Christopher with the infant Jesus on his shoulder. This painting is directly opposite the door as you come in, a deliberate placing for travellers to genuflect to while passing the open door of the church. Around him is the story of St Catherine told in cartoon form.

Some members of the congregation have got together to write a bid for funding to help conserve the paintings and promote them to the public more widely, and I was asked to help develop their ideas for involving schools, families and young people. I very much hope the church gets the money as the paintings are amazing and should be shared more widely. They are devising a very innovative lighting scheme that will be accessed via smartphone technology so any visitor will be able to light up the part of the church they want to see more clearly. There will also be activities for schools and families to engage more meaningfully with the extraordinary paintings and the story of the church.

Good luck Little Missenden church!

Museums and heritage in New Zealand

I’m very lucky to have family in New Zealand and so have managed to visit the beautiful country several times. With me and my husband both working in the heritage business, we tend to sample the museums, archaeological sites and historic houses alongside the natural beauty and Lord of the Rings attractions.

We haven’t seen them all, by any stretch (we’ve never managed to get to the South Island), but we have visited the museums in Auckland, Rotorua and, this time, we managed to see Te Papa in Wellington. Some of the earliest European houses in New Zealand are in the Bay of Islands, which we also explored.

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Inside the natural history gallery at Te Papa

Te Papa in Wellington explores the heritage of the islands, both Maori and European, as well as the natural history of the archipelago. I was very keen to see the museum as it’s well known for its work with the local community. Children’s voices were used to interpret the natural history displays, and there was a great deal of input into the displays by iwi (Maori tribes). We were there during term-time and we saw a kindergarten group come in to find out about native wildlife, and some high school kids were enjoying the house in a simulated earthquake.

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An oven at Te Wairoa that was buried by the eruption of Mount Tarawera

Rotorua Museum also has a fantastic display of Maori history and cultural objects, including a display on their contribution to the First and Second World Wars. The museum is housed in the old Bath House and some of the rooms are preserved from its heyday. As Rotorua is a volcanic area, there are many spas where you can safely take advantage of the hot pools and bubbling mud. Up in the hills south of the city are the remains of a several buried villages, Te Wairoa, for instance, that were destroyed in the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886, and there’s an account of this in Rotorua Museum.

Auckland War Memorial Museum sits on the top of an extinct volcano in the Auckland Domain park. It has an amazing collection of not only New Zealand treasures but also of the Pacific islands. Maori culture is represented by wonderful meeting houses and canoes among other things.

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Te Whare or meeting house at Waitangi

Russell Museum in the Bay of Islands is a very cute museum with a scale model of Captain Cook’s ship, as well as social history objects of the earliest European settlement in new Zealand. Despite being very remote now, at one point it was the colonial capital of the islands.

Further up the bay are the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the treaty between the British Government and the Maori iwi was first signed in 1840. It had already been a meeting place for the Ngapuhi people before Europeans arrived. An early government building exists on site, and a century later a Maori meeting house was also built.

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Stone Store in the foreground and the Mission House at Kerikeri in the background

Some of the oldest European buildings in New Zealand are in the Bay of Islands, including the Mission House, built in 1822, and Stone Store at Kerikeri, which was built to store grain before it was realised that wheat would not grow in New Zealand. They were built across the river from Kororipo pa, a fortified Maori site, which was still in use when the European houses were first built.

Te Waimate Mission House is further inland. I was particularly keen to go there as it was visited by Charles Darwin on his round the world voyage in 1835. He actually spent Christmas there, but didn’t take to New Zealand. On this point I disagree with him entirely.

Guided tours, indoors and outdoors

I’ve been lucky enough to have been doing some guided tours again recently. I was a tour guide at Hampton Court Palace for four years back in the noughties and have dabbled with guiding on and off since, and have trained others in good tour-guiding techniques at the Royal Mews, the V&A and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

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Me at Acton Court

Mainly my tour guiding experience has been indoors, such as in Acton Court near Bristol, which is a wonderful survival of a house built especially for one of Henry VIII’s progresses in 1535. This was a gift of a job as the house was only accessible by tour, meaning there were no other visitors milling around making noise, we could take over the whole room wherever we stopped and there was virtually no furniture in any of the rooms, making each of them spacious enough for large groups. While the rooms were bigger at Hampton Court for the most part, there was an extra need to consider other visitors and not take up too much space while, at the same time, having much bigger tour groups.

This time I have been tour guiding on a bus and outdoors and instead of a tour being only an hour at most, this tour has taken the whole day, albeit with large breaks in between for informal chat, lunch or naps! I’ve been helping out a company called Tours from Antiquity which runs bus tours to Stonehenge and Avebury. The tour buses are small and the clientele are super-interested, dedicated to spending a whole day immersed in Stone Age archaeology. Of course, the big difference between this way of working and what I’ve done before is that I haven’t been guiding in period costume. I’ve had to think hard about what to wear every day!

Avebury stone circle and henge
Avebury stone circle and henge

Talking outside is obviously different and, on the whole, more difficult than talking inside. The group spread out more, the wind can take my voice, and there is often the sound of traffic to compete with. At Stonehenge there are other visitors to consider, though we get there very early when its quiet, while at Avebury and other sites this is not so much of a problem. I do what I usually do to be heard, face the group, stand comfortably so that I can comfortably project my voice, make sure I have eye contact with everyone.

 

 

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

What’s more difficult is crafting a tour that seeds ideas at the start of the day that can be linked back to at various points and weaving threads throughout that can be tied up at the end. I hate having a collection of unrelated facts in a tour. What makes the information memorable and meaningful is a narrative. This is difficult when one of the stops on the tour is Bath, but luckily even that Roman and Georgian town has a link back to Stonehenge. The Circus was designed by an early antiquary and architect, John Wood, who built thirty doors for the thirty sarsens in the stone circle at Stonehenge, and one of the roads that radiates from the Circus, Bennett Street, is aligned on midsummer sunrise.

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Silbury Hill from West Kennet long barrow

Having a narrative doesn’t mean that you can’t go off on a tangent or drop in the odd interesting but unrelated fact, nor does it mean that everything has to fit neatly into a specific interpretation of the evidence. I present several models of why Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill were built and how they were used. It’s interesting to note the vistas from each, though, the alignments on midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset at Stonehenge, the view from Avebury to Silbury Hill and out from the cove vaguely towards midsummer sunrise, and the connected theme of movement around the landscape with the avenues from Durrington Walls to the Avon, the Avon to Stonehenge and back, and the avenues from (or to) Avebury to the Sanctuary and the Beckhampton enclosure and cove. I also have a second narrative alongside the first, the development of technology and techniques in archaeology and the way archaeology is done.

Axe-polishing stone set in the entrance of West Kennet long barrow
Axe-polishing stone set in the entrance of West Kennet long barrow

I can go into so much more depth and explore some very complex ideas because of the investment and commitment of the tour group and the length of time we have together. We talk about the attitude towards the past in prehistory at West Kennet long barrow where an axe-polishing stone has been incorporated into the tomb’s chamber which had clearly been used for some time and had a heritage of its own. I theorise about the change in religious ceremonies from honouring the ancestors to worshipping the sun. I explain the Early Bronze Age Wessex culture boom and bust.

Also, the informal chats in between the formal tour allows reflection and clarification, and lets me get to know more about members of the tour personally and find out if they have any personal interests that I can address. One was more interested in archaeoastronomy, a retired physics professor was interested in geophysical methods, an author wanted to know about how people lived. Finally, the tour finishes at the only pub inside a stone circle in the world and we share a beer and laughter at the end of a great day exploring some of the most iconic prehistoric sites in Britain.

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