Eye-catching evidence of the past
These books are a visual feast and will bring pleasure to children and teachers alike. However, although written in what the publishers describe as lexigraphics: the universal language of learning, they do not all succeed at communicating at an appropriate language level for a primary pupil sent to "find out", without sufficient adult support.
Viking is the 50th title in the Eyewitness Guides series. The material comes from all over the Viking world and on some pages, costumed actors help interpret the evidence. Although there are many traditional warrior images at the beginning, mercifully without the mythical horned helmet, domestic and trading aspects are done well. Women and their role in the economy are positively presented and a whole page picture of a labelled vertical loom graphically explains the function of a loom weight. The stories and legends are too compressed to make much sense.
Confident readers could extract information from parts of the text using the contents, page headings and index to guide them and key stage 2 teachers would also find information they need in a concise and accessible form.
Pyramid, another key stage 2 topic, is more problematical. It begins by posing an interesting question, namely the existence of pyramids in a number of cultures including the Maya and ourselves. It is a pity that these receive only minor attention. The book is really about all aspects of Egyptian life. The author is an enthusiastic, academic Egyptologist, but his detailed knowledge could overwhelm the young reader only seeking in-depth information on a few popular subjects, such as Tutankhamun.
Archaeology is similarly affected. It is packed with information, about excavation techniques, famous sites from all over the world, dead archaeologists, conservation, fakes, forgeries and reconstruction. Sixth formers thinking of applying for an undergraduate course in archaeology might find it good preparation, but surely the publishers cannot mean, as they say in their blurb that it is "aimed at seven-year-olds".
The Visual Dictionary of Ancient Civilisations is different. Seventeen ancient civilisations from all over the world are included and 200 photographs show artefacts that provide evidence about how people lived, their technological achievements and their communal values. Each item is named and labelled, so that you look at, say, siege equipment carved on Trajan's column in Rome to learn what would be explained in words in a conventional dictionary.
Narratives could be written by more able children on topics like feasting in Ancient Greece or the decoration of a mummy case from information in the pictures. Sadly missing, from the point of view of those wishing to teach a national curriculum non-European unit, is a spread on the Indus valley, which only appears in the rather complicated timelines at the back of the book.
Unfortunately China is not in the national curriculum for history, but use the pictures in this book as inspiration for work in art and geography.