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First Public Archaeology Twitter Conference #PATC 28th April 2017

The amazing Lorna-Jane Richardson organised the first Public Archaeology Twitter Conference as part of her work and experimentation in digital public archaeology on 27th and 28th April 2017. It was an amazing day full of brilliant presentations in the format of maximum 12 tweets over a 15 minute period. There were 58 papers, and on 28th April they ran from 9.15am to 11.30pm (BST)!

It was wonderful to see the incredible projects people are doing around the world to engage people in archaeology, particularly by Gavin Mackenzie and Kenneth Brophy with Team Build ‘n’ Burn.

I got fired up about the image problem archaeology has, thanks to a lack of diversity, most brilliantly expressed by Cath Poucher (plus she inspired me to use more gifs).

 

I researched and presented my own paper, and I’ll let the tweets speak for themselves.

This image above is from Stone Age Boy from Satoshi Kitamura, so ‘woman on hide’ is alive and well in children’s picture books being used in schools today.

The books were Stone Age Boy by Satoshi Kitamura, The Wild Girl by Chris Wormell, Ug by Raymond Briggs (a book, by way of full disclosure, I absolutely hate btw), The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein, Stone Age Bone Age by Brita Granström and Mick Manning, and Cave Baby by Julia Donaldson and Emily Gravett.

This image above is of the central character in The First Drawing by Mordica Gerstein. Is it a boy or a girl? S/he is referred to in second person all the way through to encourage the reader to put themselves in their place whether boy or girl. But everyone I know who has read it (including my daughter of 7) thinks it’s a boy.

It was also great to get some feedback from other tweeps.

 

 

And this couldn’t have been done without Lorna, obviously. I wholly support this tweet.

 

The conference was, quite simply, incredible.

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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.

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

30th April: John Lubbock

5th May: Children’s books about prehistory

8th May: Tollund Man

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.

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 2007 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.

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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