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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
The new Key Stage 2 curriculum has brought in various new topics, including teaching evolution in Year 6 science. Previous to this primary school biology had included variation and adaptation, the cornerstones of evolution, but not explicitly required teachers to teach Darwin’s theory. The non-statutory guidance also mentions learning about famous figures in the history of evolutionary biology including Mary Anning and Alfred Russell Wallace alongside Darwin himself.
A colleague, Ewa Prokop who is Mad About Charles Darwin (literally), wrote a children’s book about Darwin and his work (Darwin’s Wild Pursuits), exploring some of the aspects of evolution through imagined conversations he has with creatures he meets on his perambulations in the countryside around his home in Kent, Down House, where he spent the last 40 years of his life. I particularly like the last story about the orb-weaving spider who tells Darwin that one of her sisters on suffering an accident that meant she could no longer make a web learned how to hunt on the ground instead. I’m quite fond of spidery tales.
Ewa put together a plan to run some teacher training on evolution in Yeovil Country Park, a wonderful setting, with their rangers. I went and co-delivered that recently. Along with Ewa’s book, a precis of Darwin’s life and work (which is often misunderstood) and the steps in his theory of evolution I demonstrated a number of possible activities teachers could do with children that Darwin himself did. I was pleased to note that several of the teachers had come across the blocks I wrote on Darwin and Anning for the Hamilton Trust.
The Charles Darwin Trust, one of the organisations whose umbrella I work under, identified certain ways of working that were typical to Darwin, though not confined to him, including using everyday materials to conduct simple experiments; talking to many other people, not just scientists, about their particular expertise; and close, frequent and sustained observation of certain habitats. His method is quite accessible to primary aged children.
Celandine through purple cellophane. The centre appears darker.
Experiments included wrapping unopened flower buds with kitchen muslin (with quite an open weave) to see what effect preventing insects visiting will have on the flower; taking pond mud and seeing what grows from it; and feeding carnivorous plants toenails and hair. Another simple experiment involved eating several ‘purple ones’ from a certain chocolate box (I suffer for my work, I really do!) and using the cellophane wrapper to simulate the ultraviolet eyesight of bees. If you hold them up against certain flowers (we tried celandine and wood anemone) you can see the darker markings that are not otherwise visible to our eyes that guide bees towards the nectar. Work by a team at the University of Arizona have found that this reduces the amount of nectar robbing that bumblebees undertake and so is a very successful strategy for flowering plants. This demonstrated, in a very Darwinian way, that there has been work on evolution since Darwin. This is especially important because the guidance in the national curriculum suggests not mentioning genetics.
The rangers also showed how teachers can very simply sample the environment at Yeovil Country Park with sweeping nets, tree beating and pond dipping so that children can get closer to nature, observe the animals and plants around them and start to make their own observations.
I often think of what types of sources are used to make the stories about the past on various dodgy websites. Since I’ve been working for the Hamilton Trust I have become more aware of how many websites and books offer information and resources for teachers that don’t quote where they got their information from (even the BBC). Of course, many primary school teachers will not have studied history past the age of 14 themselves, so will not know the information, let alone have the historical skills to find out.
Not only do teachers often not know and don’t have time to find out where the information comes from, how can children (and I quote from the national curriculum) “understand how our knowledge of the past is constructed from a range of sources” if the teachers have no idea? Critical thinking skills get such high billing in the science or English curriculum, they should be there in the history curriculum too.
I tend to write blocks of work on the evidence behind the various topics I write about e.g. the Shang Dynasty of China, Ancient Greece or, currently, Benin in West Africa from AD 900-1300. I built in a discussion about sources for prehistory in the workshop I developed for the Pitt Rivers Museum (particularly as it is an anthropology museum and I wanted to show that ethnographic parallels are a frequently used, if sometimes contested, alternative source of evidence to interpret archaeological sites and artefacts). When I go out to schools to talk about Anglo-Saxons I get kids to act out the invasion according to Bede, and then pick holes in the evidence as provided by archaeology.
I have found writing about the sources of evidence for Benin’s pre-colonial history quite a challenge. Websites and books merely told the stories of various Ogisos and Obas, and the possible invasions from Ile-Ife that either they got from another website or book without references, or they assumed you knew what the main sources were.
Finally, I found several almost primary sources. Firstly, those stories about the Ogisos and Obas come from the oral histories that were told for centuries in Benin (now in south-west Nigeria, not the site of the current Republic of Benin) and written down and published in 1933 by Jacob Egharevba. If you have an account with Questia, you can read it online. But how far can we trust the oral histories that may have been reworked several times?
Secondly, there are the accounts by Europeans about what Benin was like after the period in question. There’s Olfert Dapper who published in 1668 (and hadn’t visited so based all his information on reports from others), Olaudah Equiano claimed to have grown up in Benin before being sold into slavery at the age of 11, but he may have been born in the Americas, and Sir Richard Burton wrote about the kingdom and other areas of West Africa during a journey in 1862. But what can the writers of these later centuries tell us of the pre-European period? Surely the mere contact with Europeans changed the society hugely, plus it’s written by outsiders who have particular agendas.
Thirdly, there’s archaeology. Not a lot of archaeology has been done in the kingdom of Benin but there is one article I found in the The Journal of African History by Graham Connagh dating back to the 1960s where he dug on the site of the former Oba’s palace and some of the levels dated back to the 13th century AD (you can find it on JSTOR). But I didn’t find any other articles on the archaeology of the kingdom of Benin. Do please point me their way if you know of any!
Having taken the teachers and children through these various sources of evidence, I am challenging them to recreate Benin City using the various sources. Here’s my recreation of part of the Oba’s palace based on one of the Benin bronze plaques now in the British Museum below.
Children will have to decide whether to focus on pictorial evidence, written descriptions or archaeological discoveries, especially where they contradict each other. It’ll be interesting to see whether any of them think about focusing on one particular time in the Kingdom of Benin’s history. The evidence I have provided for this task ranges from the 12th to the 19th centuries AD. Did the city stay the same during this period? I hope there’ll be plenty of discussion (perhaps even arguments) about the reliability and validity of the evidence as classes build their models of Benin City.
For the past two years I have had the great privilege to manage the workshop programme for Kids in Museums, sourcing venues who will host us, researching and inviting speakers and developing new themes for the workshops. I ran my last one last week at the Science Museum on Welcoming Families with Autism in museums and galleries. Kids in Museums is now reviewing the workshop programme. Back when the workshops started in 2010 they were the only ones of their kind in the museum sector, and it is testament to their success that many other organisations now run workshops on how to work with families, Early Years audiences and young people.
The highlights of my stint have been the personal stories of what a difference access to the arts and culture have made to people. There was Gloria at the London Transport Museum who had first arrived as a young volunteer and had gone on to be a consultant to other museums about how to welcome young people into culture. There was Sally who had not done well at school but with the help of Arts Award had managed to get into university and was also running the Arts Award Youth Network. Most recently there was Jack, a young man on the autistic spectrum, who spoke with pride about his volunteering at Dorchester Museum to help local youth clubs rediscover their history.
The best bits were always hearing from actual children, young people and parents about what museums can do to be more accessible, more welcoming and more inclusive. The young tour guides at the Wallace Museum were articulate, professional and funny. Kids in Museums has a dedicated group of families that go undercover to judge the shortlisted entrants to the Family Friendly Museum Award and it was great to hear directly from them at the workshops. Vyki Sparkes, who also blogs at Museum Mum, was one of those who came to a couple of our workshops, bringing her youngest along with her at one point. Another parent museum blogger who likes to remain anonymous, Tincture of Museum, spoke very passionately at the recent Welcoming families with autism workshop about the small things that museums can do to help families affected by ASD, like pointing out when a lift might be using time travel sound effects.
It was always refreshing to introduce some culture into the day, as well, to remind us all why we do the jobs we do. Aisling Fahey, the Young Poet Laureate for London for 2014-15, performed some of her poetry for us at the Learning together workshop at the Barbican, and a Barbican Young Poet named Amina Jama did the same at our Youth Panel workshop at White Cube. Martin Daws, the Young People’s Laureate for Wales got us all involved in performance at our Teen Workshop at Cardiff Story. Miaomiao Yu of Bach to Baby played (Mozart) for us in the Foundling Museum, a very moving experience.
We heard plenty of research, too, with presentations by Abigail Hackett of Sheffield University about her doctoral research into how toddlers experience museums on repeated visits, from Caspar Addyman of Birkbeck’s Baby Laughter project and from Eirwen Hopkins and Iona Towler-Evans of the Choice Project at Swansea University that used the commission model to engage young people at risk of being NEET (not in education, employment or training) with their local heritage.
The last, and most important thing to say about the workshops, was what an amazing team of people worked on them. Catherine Townsend and Mikaela Webb both did amazing jobs of liaising with venues and caterers, and pushing the marketing out to new channels. The volunteers who support the workshops, like Jane Allnut, Tempe Nell, Rachel Job, Jack Shoulder, and many, many more all do a fabulous job and go the extra mile to make sure that the days always run smoothly. My heartfelt thanks goes out to them for making my job pretty easy.
In 2006 two metal-detectorists found a hoard of Roman coins near Milton Keynes. Archaeologists were notified and the site was excavated, and it was thought that the coins were probably buried in a pot in a rubbish heap. The coins were not particularly valuable, they were all bronze, but there were 1456 of them. They were reported as treasure the are no in Buckinghamshire County Museum.
What is fascinating about these coins is the story they tell. The coins date to the 4th century AD, mostly around AD 350. There are a couple of coins of Constantine the Great (the emperor who made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire) but many more from the reign of his sons, Constantine II, Constantius and Constans (Roman emperor’s baby name books weren’t very imaginative).
A century before this the emperor Diocletian reorganised the empire into two zones, the Western and the Eastern Empires. There was an over-emperor or Augustus who generally controlled the Eastern Empire and a junior emperor or Caesar who controlled the Western Empire. When Constantine the Great died, his three sons split the territories between them. They bickered, though, as you’d expect, and it eventually came to blows. In a battle between Constantine II and Constans, the former was killed.
Things stabilised for a while, but then Constans is said to have got very cruel and preferred the company of his barbarian bodyguards that his generals. One of these, a man called Magnentius (who is said to have had a Frankish mother and a British father) decided to make himself Augustus and Caesar and sent someone to dispatch Constans.
Eventually, Magnentius and the one surviving son of Constantine the Great, Constantius, fought. Their armies met in Dalmatia and in Frankia and eventually Magnentius was defeated and he killed himself. Constantius is supposed to have sent a servant called Paulus to Britain to punish anyone who supported Magnentius, and he got the nickname Paulus Catena or Paul the Chain for dragging people through the streets in chains.
The coins in the pot found by the metal-detectorists near Milton Keynes in 2006 were mainly coins of Constantius, Constans and Magnentius. Perhaps the owners of these coins buried them in a panic generated by Paulus Catena’s antics.
Brett Thorn at the Buckinghamshire County Museum asked me to write some teacher’s material to go with the coins as part of a tour of part of the hoard to schools in Milton Keynes. I was also to devise a session where I would go in to the school in costume and let kids handle some coins from the hoard.
I did my first one yesterday, and it went really well. We told the very complicated story of the rebellion and burial of the coins in the hall, along with cardboard swords, laurel wreaths, purple robes and paper chains. I involved every single child from two classes in telling the story, which helped bring it to life. Later the kids remembers which friends had been Magnentius, Constans and the others.
The kids loved handling the coins, and already knew that they had to wear gloves to protect the coins from the acidic oils on their hands. I worked with a small group at a time to handle the coins, and took some Roman games to try out for the rest of the class to play while they waited.
I’m writing about cricket history at the moment for a topic on sports history and tournaments for the Hamilton Trust. I came across a very interesting article on several newspaper websites, including reputable ones, suggesting that the earliest reference to cricket may not have been in England as once thought, but in France.
Apparently an agent of the throne, a young man called Estiavannet, wrote to King Louis XI of France in October 1478 about being shouted at by a group of men in Liettres in northern France for staring at their game of ‘criquet’. Apparently, it might be ‘croquet’, in which case, the English still have it.
Despite all this detailed information with names, dates and locations, I have not been able to find a primary source at all. I found out it resides in the Archives Nationales in Paris and contacted them, scoured their online collection database, but to no avail. If anyone has any leads, please let me know!
I volunteered for the Oxford University Museum of Natural History yesterday on one of their Dino Days that they do for Year 7s. I wanted to remind myself what secondary school students were like, plus I’m fond of dinosaurs. It was a great day.
I was helping with casting dinosaur footprints and other fossil casts with plaster of paris. One of the conservators had made silicon moulds for the job, and the kids had to follow instructions to mix the plaster and pour it into the moulds. While it hardened, they found out a bit more about trace and true form fossils.
I’m particularly fond of trace fossils, from coprolites (fossilised faeces) to footprints to skin impressions. I wrote a block of work on trace fossils, the study of which is called ichnology, for the Hamilton Trust. While the conditions for fossilisation for both true form and trace fossils are similar, there is so much more potential for greater numbers of trace fossils than true form, since every single dinosaur could have left thousands of footprints or specimens of faeces behind, but only one body.
One of my favourite finds for the block I wrote was a quarry in Bolivia where thousands of dinosaur footprints have been found. Due to the movement of the earth’s crust since the time of the dinosaurs, these now appear to be walking vertically up the wall.
I also like this one where the dinosaur had clearly sat down and then moved away again, found at a farm in Utah.
Early and modern humans have also left tracks (though not in the same strata as dinosaurs as some would have you believe) like the famous ones at Laetoli in Tanzania (probably 3.7 million years old and belonging to Australopithecus afarensis), but also at Happisburgh in the UK (about 800,000 years old and possibly Homo antecessor) and modern humans, Homo sapiens, around 7000 years ago at Monte Hermoso in Argentina. What better way to get children to engage with what these footprints can tell us (height, gait, speed) than by getting them to make dinosaur feet, dip them in paint and run across paper with them, or make their own footprints in wet sand and fill them in with casting material?
Last year I finally decided to get the tattoos I had wanted for ages. It’s a big step, to commit to letting someone permanently mark your skin, but as I nervously brushed my teeth that morning I caught sight of the little crossed scars that I bear on my stomach from a couple of laparoscopies. I had not particularly wanted those marks on my body, but they were there. It was time I chose what was emblazoned into my skin.
It was Ötzi who sealed my fate as an archaeologist when he was discovered in 1991. At the same time as I was enthralled with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, I was amazed by the incredible preservation of this man from the Alps, down to his tattoos and even pubic hair. Now, Ötzi has 61 separate tattoos, apparently, and I was never going to recreate them all, particularly as many would be on areas of my body that never see the light of day. So I chose three sets that I could most easily show to people.
There are two rough lines on his right wrist that some have suggested are not tattoos at all but the marks of a tight band wound round his wrist, but if that’s the case, why are they just on the upper surface of the arm? Then I chose a cross on the outside edge of my knee joint and three circles on my ankle. Ötzi actually has two but I decided on one circle for every member of my immediate family.
One of the most fascinating things about Ötzi’s tattoos is that many of them fall on acupuncture points that are used to relieve joint pain. Sure enough, from x-rays of his bones, the tattooed joints seem to suffer from osteoarthritis. So the tattoos were medicinal. This is how I interpret my tattoos to children and adults alike when I dress as a prehistoric person. I am my own replica object.