Cleaning up the Tower

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
What's the connection between a group of primary children retrieving modern-daycoins from a wishing well and archaeology?Chris Fautley goes digging for clues

An archaeological "dig" by school children at the Tower of London yielded thousands of artefacts. It wasn't quite the stuff of dreams - the "artefacts" were 20th-century coins - but it was probably the closest 30 children from Years 5 and 6 at Hermitage Primary School, Wapping, east London, will ever get to the real thing.

The Traitor's Gate area of the Tower's moat has long been used as a wishing well; during the winter months it is drained, the coins retrieved and donated to charity. Earlier this year the Tower's chief archaeologist Graham Keevill got local schools to participate, recognising the scope for treating coin retrieval like an archaeological dig.

"It has the potential to get the children involved at a very early age, to enthuse them about archaeology and maybe get some of the archaeologists of the future in here. We hope they'll come away with a much better awareness of archaeology," he explained.

In true archaeological fashion, the moat was divided into a numbered grid, with each child allocated a square from which to retrieve coins. These were placed into labelled bags, to be taken to the classroom where they would be recorded, analysed and cross-referenced to the grid, with the help of Tower staff.

Not only would the exercise give the children a different view and better understanding of history, it would prove there was more to archaeology than random digging, said teacher Kate Green.

"We'll look at the coins as pieces of evidence I find out where they came from. You learn about history by finding things out. It's not just a random activity. It's detailed. It's methodical. The children are being historians themselves, because they're having to do the finding and checking."

The "dig" was part of a project that included a visit to the British Museum, classroom talks by Tower archaeological staff and artefact-handling sessions. The on-site work would, said Kate Green, enable the children to make the link between artefacts, museums and books.

Don Henson, education officer for the Council for British Archaeology, says there is scope for children to take part in similar activities, and not just at high-profile sites. He suggests a survey of local churches as an example.

"Instead of finding coins, they find different styles of window that show different dates," he says. "It's the children coming up with new data that generates follow-up work in the classroom. It's incredibly useful."

Kate Green hailed the Tower dig as "a great success". Around 7,000 coins were recovered, not only British ones but some from as far afield as Israel, Mexico, India and Russia. The exercise proved, said Ms Green, that archaeology can be accessible to schools - they simply need to be made aware of it.

Don Henson admits that school participation in archaeology is "patchy", often because archaeological organisations struggle to survive. While there were "many blank areas", there were some where liaison was excellent - as in Cambridge-shire and Northamptonshire.

The message from Graham Keevill is: "We're out there. We want to get involved with schools." He suggests teachers contact their county archaeological officer or local museum as a starting point.

There is also a wealth of amateur societies around; many do their own field work and welcome the involvement of younger people. "But it takes somebody to make the first move," says Don Henson.

The Council for British Archaeology runs a Young Archaeologists Club with 50 local branches, membership of which is open to schools, and publishes 'Teaching Archaeology' a resource directory of software, videos and books (Pounds 9.95). A teaching guide, 'Archaeology in the English National Curriculum' is also available (Pounds 3.95, or Pounds 12 for both, all post inclusive). The Council for British Archaeology, Bowes Morrell House, 111 Walmgate, Yorkshire YOl 9WA; tel: 01904 671417

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