From footprint to full works

18th February 2005 at 00:00
A primary project that began with artfully planted "finds" ended with an authentic recreation of a Saxon house, reports Chris Fautley

Newly available: period des res, 3.5m x 2.5m, adjacent West Sussex school.

Oak floor, wattle and hazel walls, hand-made oak shingles. No door. Would suit aspirant Saxon.

It's amazing what was found by pupils who took part in an archaeological dig in their school playing field: pottery shards, loom weights, roof tiles, oyster shells - and the footprint of a Saxon building. Sufficient to call in the experts to help recreate their own Saxon house.

Summerlea Community Primary School in Rustington is not built on an archaeological site. Nevertheless, headteacher Brian Ball organised a dig last summer because he wanted every pupil, from Reception to Year 6, to reap the associated benefits.

Nor was he surprised when 200 artefacts were discovered - because he had buried them there himself. He first tried the idea some years ago, when he buried objects in a sandpit. "I thought uncovering evidence and coming up with theories about it is a primary learning skill for anyone," he says.

The "site" was divided into metre squares, each containing buried artefacts (loaned by museums, such objects being bountiful in the county).

Additionally, Brian buried darker soil which, when revealed, would form the footprint of a building.

Although older children twigged that the site was not genuine, they willingly accepted his explanation that it was the best way to recreate history to help them learn. "We create an illusion - and for some children that illusion is maintained the whole way through," he says. "It's like drama. It's like role play."

Each class excavated two squares under strictly controlled conditions.

Nothing was removed before being photographed, sketched, measured and logged. Then, when the building's footprint had been established, a team from the East Sussex Archaeology and Museums Project helped build the real thing. This enabled pupils to try wattle and daub construction and making oak shingles, together with associated activities such as pottery, dyeing, weaving, making a clay oven and baking bread.

The project had enormous cross-curricular scope; Brian, for example, was interested in providing a stimulus to promote good writing. There were also opportunities for language development, with the "discovered" objects encouraging debate - as Year 4 teacher Sue Bingham found. Her pupils became extremely interested in the Saxon language and how English derived from it.

"We all started with history, but we very quickly got into design and technology," says Sue. "It came alive a lot more because we were working with real, big tools. You are very much more timid in the classroom."

Design and technology also featured when the reproduction house was built.

"If they walk inside a real building they have helped build, their understanding of the materials and how it is put together has far more depth to it," says Brian. Art benefited too - particularly three-dimensional art which, says Brian, can be difficult to get everybody engaged with "in that messy art sort of a way". This project enabled 25 children to work with clay at the same time.

Sue continues on the art theme: "Not only did it mean we drew what we saw, but children used other skills," she says. Some researched Saxon jewellery, then created their own with wire and clay.

They also tried weaving, and that meant following patterns, which led to maths. "We were measuring almost from the minute we got outside," she says.

Other subjects? Geography: examining settlement sites; food technology: making bread and Saxon stew - far more inventive than anything they normally do, says Sue; English: some pupils became reporters writing about the dig; and citizenship. "Citizenship is not just about being a good citizen," explains Brian. "It's about understanding the way a culture works, and the way a whole group of people live their lives."

Throughout the two-week project, teachers manipulated learning according to pupils' age and ability. Some children might undertake independent research into an artefact; those of less ability would spend more time sketching it and, with help, perhaps write their own theories about what it might be.

"In many senses your starting point is the same, but what you are doing with the children is measured for their abilities," says Brian.

Sue found that average-ability pupils extended themselves throughout the project. "I now think a lot of the boys got more out of it than I realised at first," she says. Less able pupils were able to talk about things they had not been able to talk about in the classroom. Team-working skills also improved -probably because the children felt more comfortable outside.

It was also the ideal platform for teachers to share ideas. "Much as we talk to each other in school, we don't see the teaching that would be done out on the field. We talked a lot more about who was doing what and where," Sue says. But even so, could not the same sort of benefits be achieved, for example, in an open-air museum of rural life?

"The difference for me is fundamental," says Brian. "The children start the learning in this project by digging up the objects. There's no evidence, there's no building, there's nothing." In museums, the buildings already exist and somebody will explain and demonstrate associated activities."

This is much more child-centred in that children explore their own theories," he says.

* Ideas to exchange? Contact Brian BallEmail: head@


You don't have to build a Saxon house to enjoy the benefits of a dig, nor need it last a fortnight. Bury anything, suggests Brian, and when children uncover it, ask what it is, what it tells you, and what story unfolds from it. His tips for creating a dig are:

* Consider site, size, project duration and number of children involved.

* Decide what you want children to learn from the artefact. What they find determines the way forward.

* Decide on procedures: ensure clear recording methods are in place.

* Draw up clear, practical tasks interwoven with challenging questions.

* Consider skills with which you wish children to emerge.

* Seek help from county museum services.

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