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Look what I've found...

Organising a dig can bring children into contact with the past in exciting ways, says Andy Bowles

Television programmes such as Channel 4's Time Team have promoted enthusiasm for archaeology. In Leeds, we use archaeology to teach the national curriculum and we think all primary children should take part in excavations. Archaeology is about excitement, activity, procedures, posing questions and thinking. Excavations are easy to organise, relatively safe and offer a way to develop thinking and key skills.

What is archaeology?

Archaeology contributes to what we know and understand about the past. We tell children:

* It is an agreed approach to finding and interpreting physical evidence.

* It draws on scientific methods to do this.

* It is not directly about the people and events of the past.

* It is about how to "find out", and is concerned with asking and then trying to answer questions.

* It is about communication.

* It can later be studied at GCSE and ASA-level in some secondary schools.

Archaeologists ask questions like these: * Why should we excavate here?

* How did this get here?

* What is it or what is it part of?

* What does where it was found tell us about what it is?

* Is there another explanation? What does the evidence tell us about past people and events?

For children, excavations provide points of contact with history. They share the excitement and sense of achievement in their finds. When they say: "Look what I've found", what they mean is: "Here is something that tells us who we were and what happened to us before we were alive. Here is my own contribution to what we know and understand about us." This is not about the rich and famous, but the ordinary people whose lives children can relate to.

Introducing archaeology

Children often bring objects to school that they have found in the environment. Wherever redevelopment takes place, children can see how some evidence of the past is buried.

Appropriately chosen historical artefacts prompt children to ask: * How did you get this?

* Where was it found?

* Who found it?

* How old is it?

* What is it and how do you know?

In Leeds and West Yorkshire, pupils are becoming archaeologists with the help of Dave Weldrake from West Yorkshire Archaeology Service (WYAS), Steve Burt - once a local education authority advisory teacher for history and now head of South Leeds City Learning Centre - and myself, a lecturer in the School of Education at Leeds Metropolitan University.

Our experience has taught us to work small and sometimes think big. We have learned that archaeology has something for everyone. Dave organises projects in schools where individual classes participate in an excavation.

This might last a week and might be associated with school landmarks, such as a centenary.

Projects have included the investigation of a possible kiln site at Wrenthorpe Primary School near Wakefield and a possible medieval hollow way at Pontefract Larks Hill Junior and Infant School. In each case, WYAS was called in by schools that wanted to know more about their grounds.

Nineteenth-century pottery and glassware were found at both sites. "It's a wonderful opportunity for learning," says Patrick Wilkins, headteacher at Larks Hill.

Steve worked with Primrose Lane Primary School in Boston Spa, Wetherby, to investigate the ridge and furrow in a proposed playing-field site. Children who worked on the site found Tudor pottery and a microlith (a small flint tool).

With support, your school can also organise a dig. Thinking big is easier with a group of schools or an LEA. This summer, Steve will lead the Rothwell Castle project, which has lottery funding and involves schools in South Leeds. The question will be: "Where is the medieval manor house"?

At the Beckett Park site of Leeds Metropolitan University, children from local schools participate in investigations led by Dave and myself.

On-site, children are supported by trainee teachers, and in well-prepared lessons they work in the trenches and wash and sort finds. The project has focused on monastic farming, a 17th-century manor and a First World War hospital. Finds have included Civil War and Victorian pottery, 17th-century window lead, decorated monastic stone, an unknown 18th-century road and a well.

Alison Robson, from Carr Manor Primary School, Leeds, describes the project as having "turned my class on to history" and as "the best thing we do".

This year, an 18th-century farm building will be excavated. But from our experience, you can dig anywhere and find something to fascinate children.

Andy Bowles is lecturer in the School of Education at Leeds Metropolitan University TIPS FOR ORGANISING AN EXCAVATION

We recommend that you:

* always involve local professional archaeological services

* encourage participation from the whole community

* prepare children by using other sources to pose authentic questions for your excavation

* use local history libraries

* consider working with your LEA or other schools, or organise an excavation yourself

* warn children about the safe use of tools and sharp finds, and use parents to help you supervise

* keep excavations to a maximum depth of about 75cm

* make sure everyone involved has a current tetanus inoculation (most people have)

* use site maps and consider asking providers to do an underground services check for you

* do not excavate if you have doubts about a site

* be firm with headteachers, teachers, students and parents who forget they are supposed to be supervising and can't resist joining in the digging.

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