Archaeology: why we dig it

Sequencing, developing chronological conceptual frameworks and spotting clues, Primary Times explores how the puzzle of the past enriches primary education

Reading about people in the past can be a dry and dusty affair and for primary aged children, it can be limited by their reading ages and abilities. Yet, experiencing a real Roman building or handling original artefacts is an amazing tactile experience that brings the past into direct and immediate focus.

For primary school aged children this concrete tactile experience helps to build their conceptual understanding of how people lived in the past and makes the distant past more accessible. It also helps to build a sense of time, or chronology. We all know that some young children under the age of seven think that dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time that their grandparents were born! Children under seven have not yet fully developed their chronological conceptual frameworks. Exposure to archaeology, (buildings, objects and digs), at an early age can help to develop this critically important concept of time through tangible, hands on activity.

Part of the work of archaeologists is interpreting the objects that they have found, some of which are too fragile to be handled. Therefore, experimental archaeologists often make replicas or reconstructions in order to understand how these objects worked. Wearing a replica mail shirt, for instance, is an immersive and experiential activity for adults and children alike and enhances our understanding of how people felt wearing armour, and walking into a reconstructed Iron Age house can be an awe-inspiring experience, which helps children to imagine the living environments of prehistoric peoples. These memorable encounters bring the distant past to life and help to engage and maintain children’s interest in their school studies.

Archaeology is also about discovering past landscapes, where people lived and worked. It provides opportunities for children to explore their local area, even their own back gardens, to reveal clues about the people who once resided there. It enables children to develop a sense of place and community through time and adds meaning to their immediate surroundings.

Being an archaeologist also means being a detective, and children love puzzles. Sequencing objects in order of time is an activity that can be undertaken at home but working with archaeological objects is a very different experience. Categorising or grouping objects such as pottery by typology, or the type of shape, and/ or decoration, is a skill that not only contributes to historical understanding but is also a basic building block of mathematical understanding.

Finding and interpreting objects is one step in the archaeological process. Objects need context if they are to be fully understood. An archaeologist needs to use many skills in archaeological excavation and survey work. For example, when archaeologists dig a site they do not always know exactly what they are going to find, and they need to carefully record each stage of the dig by using context sheets, drawing buildings and taking photographs. Later when the dig is finished, they will analyse all the evidence to draw conclusions about what they have found. This process is like one huge puzzle with lots of different clues. Giving a child the chance to access archaeology in school and at home can open a whole new world of discovery, supporting both formal and informal learning in a range of subjects.

The summer holidays are an ideal time for exploring archaeology and this summer the Festival of Archaeology offers a variety of exciting experiences from 13-28 July. Why not visit the Festival of Archaeology website and find an event near you? You might also want to join the Young Archaeologists’ Club, which runs branches all year round, across the UK – check out From the Council for British Archaeology: Dr. Joanne Kirton, Youth Engagement Manager, and Gillian Waters, Festival Coordinator.

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