Classroom practice - Blow the dust off the past with archaeology

Artefacts have the power to bring history to life, and you can use technology to share the excitement of excavation with your class

One of my first memories is of unearthing a curious brass object in the garden and thinking that it might be interesting. I took it to Reading Museum, whose kindly curator thought it was Roman, and we went round the galleries - filled with wonderful material dug up from nearby Roman Silchester - to find similar examples. I suppose it was at this point that I decided to be an archaeologist.

Nearly 50 years later and now a professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol, I still have this treasured little possession and I can still remember those galleries full of the remains of daily life from 2,000 years ago.

Many of us have similar stories about the power of objects to actually "touch" the past and yet schools rarely teach history using artefacts. This needs to change.

Objects and where they come from can tell evocative stories in a way that documentary history often fails to. Although we may not be able to recover all deep political or philosophical ideas, we can understand the personal, the daily life and often the thoughts of those people in the past.

Artefacts may not be able to tell us about the causes of the First World War but they do tell us about life in the trenches. They can help us to engage with difficult topics and bring home what war was like in a physical and objective way.

It's also exciting to uncover history in this way. The process of archaeology is often serendipitous. However well-planned an excavation, we never know what may be discovered in the next 10 minutes or the next week. We ask questions and try to come up with hypotheses before we start, but are often left with unanswered questions and new avenues of enquiry. In fact, archaeology is much like reality, with no neat, predictable narratives or expected outcomes. Discoveries often far exceed expectations. The non-linear, non-narrative nature of archaeological finds is often in contrast to traditional history.

So schools should embrace archaeology in teaching. But how do we do this? It is difficult. Museums do not easily give up prized artefacts for schools to use in lessons and arranging a proper archaeological dig is nigh-on impossible.

Recreate an excavation

Yet options are emerging. At the University of Bristol, we have been working with design company Uniform as part of the React Objects Sandbox project to develop a prototype machine called the Reflector. This captures some of the essence of archaeology for classrooms.

The internet-enabled box lights up every time content - images, sound or text - is "discovered". The students retrieve this and analyse or discuss it. This content can be uploaded by museums or even archaeologists on live digs.

To test the product, we chose the topic of the Atlantic slave trade. It is a difficult and emotionally charged story to tell. And the suffering of at least 12 million Africans was all but invisible in the archaeological record until a remarkable excavation on the island of St Helena in the south Atlantic led to the discovery of the remains of more than 300 liberated slaves, now documented in an exhibition at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.

Curated by children

To tell this story, the Reflector produces output - printing a photo of a ship's nail, a glass bead, a narration or some text explaining a new find. We encourage the pupils to curate the output by mounting the photos or pinning the text to the wall. We also encourage them to have a discussion about why such an object might have got into a grave, or why a child might have been wearing a small cloth slipper.

In this way, learning about the past becomes a detective story. So far our tests - both in the UK and on remote St Helena - have been well-received by teachers and students alike.

To make learning real, the past needs to be experienced. We need to replicate the excitement of the object, the thrill of discovery, and this should be just one way of doing that. Teachers, organisations and companies need to develop innovative approaches, too. It's sure to be an exciting time for archaeology in schools. I only wish that I were an eight-year-old again to enjoy it.

Mark Horton is professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol and a presenter of BBC2's Coast. Reflector was developed as part of Objects Sandbox, run by knowledge-exchange hub React, and is a collaboration between Horton and Alex Bentley from the University of Bristol and Uniform. It will be exhibited at Christie's in London from 17-21 September as part of the London Design Festival.

What else?

A Teachers TV video follows an archaeological dig at a school.

Try your hand at archaeology by reconstructing a Neolithic pot.

Do you have what it takes to be an archaeologist? Stage an excavation to find out.

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