This book was such a joy to research and write for. Once again I worked with artist Alex Leonard to develop authentic characters from Scotland’s Mesolithic. I looked for evidence of materials that would have been available and examples of them having been used in other cultures to counter the idea that hunter-gatherers would just have worn fur. Sealskin, fishskin, birdskins and even some woven or netted fabrics were featured. The character’s appearance is also informed by genetic studies of Mesolithic human remains from Europe which consistently reveals people had dark skin tones and dark hair, but often with pale eye colours.
The activities in this book include wonderful storytelling and map-making activities. Imagine living in a world with no maps, no roads, no signposts, no sat nav. We know that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers moved around, but how did they know where to go? How would they give instructions to each other?
Matt brings together groups of writers and artists most, but not all, with an archaeological bent and always produces fantastic resources for specific use with the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, but that will be useful to schools in the rest of the British Isles as well. This publication focuses on the use of forests by Neolithic farmers.
It is organised roughly into chronological sections looking at the development of timber monuments throughout the Neolithic in Scotland, but there are parallels for many of these Scottish structures in the rest of the Britain and in Ireland. Huge timber halls, wooden circles and post flanked cursuses accompanied the stone monuments that we know so much better because they’re still here, for the most part.
I provided ideas for the classroom and woodland based activities that could help teachers explore the use of the timber resource in Scotland’s heavily forested Neolithic. One of these was like a ‘Combination Man’ game where one person draws the feet and legs, covers what they’ve done and passes it on and then the next person draws the torso, and the final person draws the head. With the help of Alan Braby, a superb illustrator, the book suggests ‘Combination Post’ game where children draw what they think the posts of a timber circle might have looked like. Is it carved? Painted? Left as it is? Has the tree been turned upside down so the roots stick out of the top?
Alan Braby also provided very intricate reconstruction drawings of the monuments in use, including a very grisly ‘Table of Bones’, a mortuary structure for excarnation. Alice Watterson produced more intimate reconstructions of the personal use of tools in the Neolithic. Linocut landscapes, including the one on the cover, were produced by Liz Myhill. John MacPherson was given the task of locating typical woodlands around Scotland and photographing them without people, to get a feel for the different types of woodland and the emotions they evoke. As Matt Ritchie says in the book, he wanted photos of woodlands that were ‘open, light and safe;… bare, skeletal and dormant; deep, dark and scary…’
Gavin MacGregor and Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage were given the job of writing stories exploring the different ways that people in the Neolithic may have used and viewed the forest; as a resource; as a scary place to be avoided; as an ancestral home. These evocative tales were the basis of ten characters sketches that I wrote. Alex Leonard really brought them to life, though, with his beautiful cartoon style drawings of them. Winta and Shaarmarke, Ani and Uri (and Boudin the dog), Tanta and Laki have all become my friends now.
Gavin, Ingrid and I took part in the Third Public Archaeology Twitter Conference and explained some of the process from storytelling to illustration. Here is the moment I created on Twitter: #PATC3 First Foresters and response
I was so lucky to work on this wonderful project with all these talented people, who could have thought I would ever get the chance to do anything quite so cool again. But that’s another story.
I don’t want to use the J word, but I have been deleting old emails recently and it reminded me about the way my freelancing career has developed over the years.
At first it all started as an extra to full time work. I left English Heritage to work at the London Borough of Camden on a Heritage Lottery Funded project, but I was keen to continue to do something in association with the Charles Darwin Trust and, as it turned out, they wanted that too so I started to do some writing and teaching work with them. During the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and 150th year since the publication of Origin, 2009, I was very busy with work for them as well as work for Camden. It quietened down a little in 2010, and then got quieter still after that, and I had a new baby which also reduced the amount I could do.
I eventually moved from the London Borough of Camden to another employed role at the Pitt Rivers Museum and freelancing went by the wayside. After the maternity cover contract ended I decided to go it on my own. The costs of childcare while working full-time were too onerous and I wanted to spend more time with my little one. At first I trained to be a childminder and managed three months of this. Childminding is not an easy job, let me tell you. I was more tired doing that than any other job I have had, and I have worked as a field archaeologist, in the catering industry and now visit schools to do days of teaching, all of which are tiring but not like childminding. So I looked for other things.
All of a sudden, I found things. I had experience of writing for teachers through English Heritage and the National Museums Online Learning Project so a friend introduced me to a friend who had set up a business called Plan Bee. She needed a history specialist to write lesson plans and resources for the new curriculum so I took that on, writing lesson plans on the Prehistory of Britain, the Shang Dynasty of China, and the Kingdom of Benin, for instance. With this experience under my belt I approached the Hamilton Trust, on the advice of another friend, and said I could write their Prehistory of Britain topic. I found the Hamilton Trust work much more in depth and I still write for them, just recently having finished a recap of all British history for a post-SATS topic for Year 6s.
At the same time I had applied for two local jobs. One was as a secretary for my village’s Neighbourhood Plan at £10 an hour and this lasted for over a year with me working mainly in the evenings. I also applied to be a workshop leader at the Chiltern Open Air Museum and I work there still on a zero-hours contract mainly teaching schools but also families and home ed groups. I also volunteered for Kids in Museums and an opportunity came along to take over organising their workshops on working with families and young people.
I set up Schools Prehistory in order to get information out to teachers for the new topic in primary history, as it is my specialist subject, and I think on the back of that was approached by a contact from the British Museum (which was part of the National Museums Online Learning Project that I had written for) to apply for a job as a writer on the Teaching History in 100 Objects website that the DoE had funded to support the new history curriculum across Key Stages. I wrote about lots of objects for them from Late Bronze Age logboats from Must Farm to a cloth celebrating Ghanaian independence from 1957.
I also started marketing myself as a time travelling visitor with Schools Prehistory to schools and still visit schools across the south-east and midlands as a Stone Age, Roman, Saxon of Viking woman or as an archaeologist, sometimes with colleagues and sometimes on my own. I had difficulty in selling lesson plans through my own website so now they can be downloaded if teachers sign up to my newsletter.
As a time traveller, and for the purpose of developing a Mesolithic workshop at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, I developed some bushcraft skills and so my latest venture has been to set up 500 BC. I asked the Forestry Commission, who look after Wendover Woods near me, whether I could work on their site and duly applied for a licence to do so and now run toddler groups, home ed courses, family and adult bushcraft days, holiday clubs, school visits and team-building workshops. I am expanding to other sites and to sub-contracting.
I have also tendered for shorter freelance contracts conducting market research with families, or devising and piloting schools workshops but have not had much luck with those. Where I have been successful it’s usually through recommendations and word of mouth.
This isn’t meant to be a self-congratulatory post. I wanted to show how I built my freelancing portfolio, which is a little unusual, but has all the elements of how to be successful at freelancing whatever field you’re in.
Network. Having a good network that you stay in contact with via social media and attending sector events is essential.
Don’t be afraid to approach people cold. Before you do this you have to do your research and be sure that they want something only you can offer.
Create your own opportunities if you can – apply for funding, see a need in the market you can fulfill.
Collaborate. Find like-minded people you can sub-contract to (you’ll need employer’s insurance) or pass work to, and they will hopefully pass some back.
Try to have a couple of relationships that bring in a regular income and supplement them with shorter contracts. Then when you need to find the next job, you still have a little work and money to tide you over (I can’t say I’m very good at saving!)
Be flexible. Not everything you will end up doing is going to totally rock your world. As you get more confident and busier, you will be able to say ‘No thanks’ to those contracts that don’t totally float your boat.
I hate saying this, because it’s not something I love doing, but you will need a brand. Either that’s your name or a trading name that will represent you. As you can see, I have a couple of different ones for different strands of my work.
If something doesn’t work, learn from it and move on.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.