Hello, who were you?;Scotland;Early Civilisations;Travel

5th February 1999 at 00:00
The Museum of Scotland will introduce you to people of the past and encourage you to get to know them better, says Raymond Ross

Literacy in Scotland - A Weapon of the Roman State" announces one of the bold display cards on the Early People floor of the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It makes you think of the Latin roots of traditional Scottish education with terms like "dominie" and "dux", or the Roman basis for Scots Law, as you find yourself looking at the roots of literacy in your own land.

Literacy is a weapon and always has been, though the display shows it was rejected by the Celtic tribes, who reduced Roman lettering to the level of superstitious spells. But then time was to produce three alphabets in early Scotland: the Latin, the Runic and the Ogham.

In the Early People gallery specially commissioned Eduardo Paolozzi figures - strange-looking men and women - bid you silent welcome. But these are strangers bearing gifts. For each sculpture contains miniature display boxes embedded in torso and limb welcoming you to the themes of Early Scotland (8000BC to AD1100).

"The figures are appropriate," education officer Elspeth Mackay tells Primary 6 pupils from Sciennes Primary School in Edinburgh, "because we don't know exactly what people looked like in those days."

For a school group using worksheets the Early People floor takes around two hours to cover reasonably (and it is only one of six floors in the new museum, which opened last November).

Exhibits cover the Celts, Romans, Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, but not as separate ethnic identities. Rather, themes are struck: A Generous Land, Wider Horizons, Them and Us, presenting the multi-ethnic Scotland - as it always was and is - as living together, warring with each other, trading, travelling, living and dying (a true "intermingledom", to borrow a term from Robert Burns).

"The thematic aspect is innovative," says Sciennes P6 teacher Alison Yeoman. "It fits perfectly into the 5 to 14 curriculum guidelines and allows pupils to compare common links with today and to contrast the differences. And the whole gallery is just so beautiful."

They're also buzzing. The Saturday before our visit had attracted 8,000 visitors. With such a level of interest the education department is geared up to cope with interest from schools.

It is offering museum familiarisation courses for teachers until May this year. Five to 14 information packs currently available include The Celts, which starts with the Carnyx (or Celtic war trumpet) displayed on the Early People floor. (The amazing sound can be reproduced by pupils in the Discovery Centre on the third floor.) "Understanding People in the Past is one 5 to 14 topic which includes life in the ancient world," says Elspeth Mackay. "And the Early People gallery is good for developing historical skills because evidence is necessarily incomplete. When pupils ask: How do we know? How can you tell? How do we find these things out? - the displays show them, with reconstructions from evidence and different materials.

"Objects are a good way to teach about the importance of evidence because they are not biased in the way that texts can be," she says. A good example is the Roman Horse which is dressed in a special "parade harness" reconstructed by museum staff showing where all the bits would have fitted.

Nearby is the Cramond Lioness which proves popular with Sciennes pupils "because of the story".

Discovered by a ferryman in the Almond estuary at Cramond on the outskirts of Edinburgh two years ago, this elaborate funerary sculpture was probably one of four such statues carved on imported stone to mark an important grave.

The lioness is eating a man, symbolising the power of death, and two snakes carved on the base symbolise the survival of the soul.

In the Discovery Centre pupils can see for themselves the touching skeleton of a 12-year-old Viking boy lying buried with his possessions - like so much in this museum, it is the real thing. Beside it, they can examine a longship burial on an interactive computer screen.

They can also unpack a Roman soldier's kitbag and examine its contents, including the soldier's wax tablet, which they can write on. Literacy being a weapon, of course.

Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh school parties enter free. Discovery Centre Pupils pound;1 each, teachers free. Tel: 0131 247 4041

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