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Hoo dunnit?

Examining artefacts online encourages pupils to ask questions like historians, says David Mason

Online databases are incredibly useful in the classroom for teaching and learning history. They give us access to artefacts and information, encourage genuine enquiry and interpretation, and support whole-class investigation.

Pupils at key stage 2 can learn about thinking up and answering historical questions using these online resources. Try getting children to search the British Museum Compass online archive for the purse-lid from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo. You will need to:

* Log on to

* Click on "explore", then "compass".

* Type your keyword into the "quick search" box (the one for this artefact is "Sutton Hoo") and click the "find" button.

* Compass will find all the artefacts in its database that have links to Sutton Hoo. Click on one of the thumbnails to see more about each artefact.

What's the purse-lid made of? What was its use? What is interesting about the design? What does it tell about the people who made it?

Pupils may say it would be even better to have the artefact in the classroom - to feel it and pass it around the class. Explain that the purse-lid is too rare and fragile to be handled, and that it is in a museum many miles away from the classroom. As a valuable museum object it does, however, tell us that the person who owned it was wealthy. The person who made it was a skilled and imaginative craftsman or woman. The society that sustained it had extensive trade links to bring together such a range of materials. The animal imagery suggests a pre or non-Christian society and one with a love of symmetry.

The artefacts online at Compass can be used to support the Sutton Hoo section of unit 6b on the Anglo-Saxons in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority scheme of work. Pupils could write their answers to the four investigatory questions while exploring the database on the computer. Alternatively, using a data projector would allow for whole-class exploration. If you have an interactive whiteboard you can annotate the image, otherwise project it on to an old-fashioned whiteboard and add pupils' comments.

For more advice visit the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) website (

Compass does a lot more than focus on the Anglo-Saxons. Its database has more than 3,000 artefacts from a range of eras and civilizations.

The Petrie Museum ( has an inspiring online database of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology. As well as being able to search through thousands of artefacts, you can create your own selection of favourite objects to make it easier to use. Some of the entries are stunning and there are lots of opportunities for art and textile work. Try the "serendipity" button and let the database surprise you with a random choice.

Don't feel you should restrict yourself to artefacts. The National Portrait Gallery ( has hundreds of paintings and a search facility through the 35,000 portraits from the gallery's collections. I saw one teacher in an Islington primary school do a wonderful activity where she gave groups of children different portraits of Queen Elizabeth I to investigate and then discussed with them why their interpretations of her character were so different.

What we want pupils to do with online databases is:

* see the relationship between ideas

* select items and experiment with language in presenting their conclusions

* read for meaning

* pause, think and ask why?

David Mason is content manager for the London Grid for LearningEmail:

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