A lively and colourful past

8th November 1996 at 00:00
From toys and games to fat Georgians and the dinosaur bone wars, Paul Noble trawls through history.

HISTORY OF ... series CANALS by Richard Tames FAIRS AND MARKETS by Richard Wood FOOD AND COOKING by Richard Wood TOYS AND GAMES by Peter Chrisp Wayland. Pounds 1.50 each.

DIGGING UP THE PAST SERIES BIBLICAL SITES by Julian Bowsher BODIES FROM THE PAST by Robin Place POMPEII AND HERCULANEUM by Peter Hicks THE SEARCH FOR DINOSAURS by Dougal Divon TROY AND KNOSSOS by Peter Hicks THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS by Peter A Clayton Wayland. Pounds 9.99 each.

Bucca, Bucca, quot sunt hic?" Not, regrettably, a show of erudition on my part, but the cry of a Roman child engaged in an ancient game that involved one leaping on to the back of another and holding up, unseen, a number of fingers or "horns".

"Bigmouth, Bigmouth, how many are there?" the child would cry. This we learn from Petronius. And from Peter Chrisp, in History of Toys and Games, we learn that the game was still being played in the Sixties when it was called "bugs" (a corruption of the Latin "bucca"). Tantalisingly, we are not told whether it survived into the Nineties.

The colourful History of . . . series is appetising fare, especially when the authors probe the less familiar corners of their subjects. Canals, for example, is informative about the early pre-industrial period and, incidentally, gives proper credit to the Newry canal in Ulster as the first true long-distance canal in the UK.

Fat Georgians receive, as you would expect, ample coverage in the book on food which also manages, in order, perhaps, to fortify the memories of the over-forties, to mention the late Fanny Cradock. "Fatness in the Georgian period," it is observed, "was a desirable sign of health and wealth", although the author might have pointed out that this remains the case in some parts of the world beyond the diet-conscious West.

Apart from a few blemishes - some incomprehensible maps (Canals) and the use of die as the plural of dice (Toys and Games) - the books are worthy products, excellent for reference in the library with a text suitable for nine to 14-year-olds.

Digging up the Past shares many of the features of the History of . . . series: same size, hard covers and basic design. Both series contain "timelines". These are not child-friendly, perhaps because they are catalogues of events which are not presented in any time-proportional way.

But Digging up the Past is a treasure trove of information that sparkles with original and stunning illustrations. One learns how easily the past can be lost, because of the work and avarice of some archaeologists and because of the ravages of fate. Poor old Pompeii, not only was it devastated by Vesuvius, but it was accidentally bombed by the allies in the Second World War and over the years has been plundered by treasure hunters - Elbeuf and Alcubierre, for example.

I mention these two because it seems to be a deliberate policy of these books to give prominence to the names of archaeologists, the bad as well as the good. We were taught at school to remember the names of scientists, soldiers and politicians so why not historians and archaeologists? Fiorelli, Glob, Tello, Douglass - maybe they all deserve fame, but there were so many names in these books that I felt overwhelmed.

On the subject of dinosaurs you may find more dramatically illustrated volumes than the one in this series, but you will be hard pushed to find such an informative one. It contains the fascinating story of "The Bone Wars - Cope and Marsh" (those names again!) and a wonderful old photograph of Marsh and some other 19th-century archaeologists armed to the teeth in a threatening pose reminiscent of a Fifties Western movie.

One of the volumes (Bodies from the Past) is not for the squeamish, but is a fascinating, up-to-date treatment of the subject. A clear explanation is given of the "complex method" of ageing skeletons and how this technique was put to the test during the examination of bodies from the vaults of Christ Church, Spitalfields in the mid-Eighties. All wonderful stuff, although one must have reservations about using this one with juniors. Photographs of the strangled dead are best left till later (or never), and in any case the series would seem to fit most comfortably with 11 to 14-year-olds.

Digging up the Past deals with archaeology in a lively and often original way, it examines the reasons why we dig up the past, and faces concerns about whether some of the past might not be best left un-dug.

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