Visit a special place dating back to 410AD and find out how the Anglo-Saxons shaped the course of history. Mike Levy uncovers a fascinating past
Deep in a clearing in the woods of West Stow Country Park, Suffolk, there is a strange site: on a small rise is a solid collection of wooden houses with thatched roofs.
A glimpse of the Middle Ages perhaps? In fact, they are much older. These are carefully reconstructed dwellings of the people who last lived on this fertile site: the Anglo-Saxons.
Stow is the Anglo-Saxon for "special place", a name that could not be more appropriate to a unique historical experience. West Stow Anglo-Saxon village may be a reconstruction, but it sits on a real settlement founded by North European tribes in 410AD, but who left 250 years later.
Not since the 7th century has the area been settled, so when it was excavated in the 1960s, a rich treasure-trove of Anglo-Saxon finds was unearthed. What the archaeologists found has helped to reshape our understanding of the culture of the first English settlers - an ongoing and exciting journey of discovery that pupils can share.
"We know there were around 80 houses on this site, but all we have are the postholes and no clear idea of what their houses looked like," says Lance Alexander, the village's education officer.
The site is open all year round and regularly gets school groups from afar field as Kent. "We split them into groups and each one gets a worksheet which helps them to become 'instant experts'," says Lance.
Being investigators is what the school experience is all about. "We involve the children in the process of discovery and interpretation. The Anglo-Saxons who lived here left no written records and much of their houses have rotted away. But we have found an immense quantity of pottery, iron tools, delicately carved bone combs and some wonderful jewellery.
"We know from the postholes where the houses stood, and a fire in one house has given us some amazing clues that has overturned our view of our ancestors."
Large school groups can split into two: one group investigates the village site with its houses, animal enclosures and craft building which houses the kiln and forge - a reminder that these farmers produced delicate and sophisticated goods including knives, ceremonial armour, cloth and pottery.
While they are exploring and investigating the village, the other group can look round the modern and very well designed Anglo-Saxon centre with its rich collection of finds, the best of which are ornate and beautifully crafted grave goods (including tiny bracelets and necklaces for children). The worksheet Lance has prepared keeps the children busy - questioning, interpreting the evidence and making educated guesses.
"One thing they learn is that we don't know all the answers. In many cases the evidence we have is thin."
It is this paucity of evidence about building and craft techniques that has made West Stow a beacon for what Lance calls "experimental archaeology".
Now familiar to viewers of programmes such as Time Team, this method involves present-day craftsmen working onsite to reconstruct how artefacts and buildings would be made - it is a reminder that West Stow is a very serious archaeological site.
Lance's aim is for the children to get a taste of the excitement of discovery. One of the most important discoveries at West Stow was the revelation that Anglo-Saxon dwellings were really quite sophisticated and far from the primitive structures we may remember from old history books.
"We show the children a sunken house - basically a thatched roof over a pit. We used to think that Anglo-Saxons lived in that pit. But evidence from a fire shows that in fact they had wooden flooring built over it.
"Also, they did not have a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape. Their houses must have been warm and dry. You don't make sophisticated jewellery and delicately woven cloth for people who live in damp pits."
This discovery has made us rethink our view of the Anglo-Saxons, who are now seen as a rather sophisticated farming community. This is underlined by the amazing collections in the centre. Children can handle some of the artefacts, including original pottery, but most is in well-displayed modern cases. The centrepieces of the museum are models of a man and wife and the kind of dress and jewellery they might have worn. There is an astonishing collection of ornate combs, brooches and pins.
But it is also what is not there that fascinates children. There is a tiny fragment of an iron axe blade - but how do we know what it was? Where did the rest go? What happened to the handle? These are some of the myriad of questions that the children are asked and it is clear they have a very exciting and stimulating time.
The village has programmes for special needs children and is in the most part wheelchair-friendly (though access inside the reconstructed houses is limited). "Children often come here having done work on the Anglo-Saxons, but in a way we prefer them to have done little or none. We want them to get really excited by what they are going to find here. It is a real journey of discovery," says Lance, who is clearly proud of his very special place.
www.stedmundsbury.gov.ukweststow.htm; tel: 01284 728718