Evidence waiting to be unearthed

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Environmental studies are giving archaeology a new lease of life, says Aileen Little

Catrina Curtis is two years old. She is by far the youngest member of Marischal Museum young archaeologists club in Aberdeen; but already she has attended 16 monthly meetings, most recently at Sunhoney stone circle near Dunecht.

But archaeology is probably in Catrina's genes. Her parents, Elizabeth and Neil Curtis, run the club. Having met while studying archaeology at Glasgow University, the pair have since done more than most to awaken children to the magic of a subject linking past with present.

Assistant curator since 1988 of Aberdeen University's award-winning Marischal Museum, Neil Curtis is convenor of the Group for Education in Museums in Scotland (GEMS). His passion for enthusing children about their environment is matched only by his wife's involvement in writing educational material.

A primary teacher who is helping set up Aberdeen's new Elphinstone Institute for historical and cultural studies, Elizabeth is chairman of the Council for Scottish Archaeology education committee, has produced a school resource pack on the archaeology of Upper Deeside and Gordon, and co-written Settlers of Scotland, part of a series linked to the 5-14 curriculum.

Good teachers have always done imaginative work on, for example, the Romans, the Egyptians or the Victorians, argues Neil Curtis, but now, thanks to environmental studies which span geography, history and social subjects, good archaeological practice is more widespread: "Archaeology is not just prehistory," he stresses. "It's about people in place and time. Nowadays, teachers are using real evidence."

The Curtises' interest in the educational potential of archaeology was triggered by the correspondence between the national guidelines' recommended structure for environmental studies and the nature of archaeology itself, where skills such as planning, collecting evidence, recording and presenting, interpreting and evaluating and developing informed attitudes equally come into play.

Elizabeth cites one of her projects at Airyhall primary, Aberdeen, as an example - it focussed on the period between the death of Alexander III and Robert the Bruce; and it incorporated both national and local contexts. Planning involved discussions, while collecting evidence entailed a trip to the Medieval Aberdeen Project (housed in a reconstructed period building). Here, a drama teacher meets parties in character and in costume. Role play is on the agenda, as is a "dig" in soil on the premises. The project also included visits to view primary evidence such as St Machar Cathedral and the motte in Seaton Park. Everything seen and done was recorded.

As for presentation, Elizabeth's class performed drama, and constructed 3D models of Aberdeen. Interpretation covers eventualities such as seeing a blocked-up window and realising it wasn't always like that - or appreciating why a motte has steep sides. In turn, evaluation may involve pupils in deciding to what extent evidence can be trusted.

An investigative and problem-solving approach is highly desirable: "It's not just teaching about the past, it's encouraging people to think about the past," says Neil Curtis. "Process is as important as fact."

Neil Curtis and his colleague run workshops at Marischal Museum, where 12 topics are on offer. The fact that they receive 3,000 school children a year, with more than half bussed in from the countryside, is testament to the importance attached to environmental studies. Marischal also regularly sees first-year history classes from three secondaries.

The Curtises feel high quality experience is growing nationally. With encouragement from the Council for Scottish Archaeology, junior archaeology clubs over the past two years have gone from two to 15. Already putting their philosophy into practice with their own small daughter, the Curtises are working to instil the kind of environmental awareness which will be a match for planners in years to come.

"Archaeology includes thinking about what happens in the future," says Neil. "It is almost synonymous with developing informed attitudes about the environment."

Touching the Past - Archaeology 5-14, a collection of good practice throughout Scotland, is edited by Elizabeth and Neil Curtis and published by Scottish Children's Press at Pounds 4.95.

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