Archaeolink provides a base for encounters with some of Scotland's earliest people, says Judy Mackie
Inside Archaeolink's Iron Age House, aromatic wood smoke tapers towards a hole in the twig-thatched ceiling. Flickering flames bring to life a line of ochre-tinted paintings on the mud daubed walls, causing the primitive horses to dance eerily in the gloom. A gigantic cooking pot swings from a hook over the fire. Nearby, a half-made woollen garment hangs on a crude wooden loom.
Soon the surprisingly spacious one-roomed house will be full of schoolchildren, transported back thousands of years by costumes, crafts and stories. Its creator, Dr Hilary Murray, a professional archaeologist and head of interpretation, makes some final adjustments, and another action-packed day at Archaeolink begins.
The Iron Age house is only one of several fascinating attractions at the Aberdeenshire pre-history park, which bring the impossibly distant past to glorious life.
Tucked away at the village of Oyne, 25 miles from Aberdeen, Archaeolink, which opened in June 1997, blends perfectly with the undulating scenery. The visitor centre is housed in an earth mound, its external walls made of glass. The outside attractions - a working Iron Age farm, a Mesolithic hunter-gatherers' camp, the remains of a real Iron Age fort, a Roman marching camp and a "sandpit dig" for young children - are within easy reach of the centre and look as if they have been there forever. Within the former Gordon area, there are 7,000 recorded prehistoric sites, including stone circles and Pictish symbol stones. Using these ancient monoliths the park focuses on the themes of prehistoric technology, early agriculture, environmental changes and early beliefs and rituals.
The six-stage indoor journey begins at the visitor centre, within the Circle of Time exhibition foyer, which, in a whirl of images and sound, projects the visitor back 7,000 years. A 20-minute spell in the Archaeodome film theatre dramatically introduces our early ancestors, stone circle rituals, the reconstructed Battle of Mons Graupius (83 AD), and the dawn of Christianity.
A trip through the interactive and atmospheric Myths and Legends gallery brings to life at the touch of a button enthralling legends of local stones, and tales of kelpies and giants. Intriguing scenarios for past and future landscapes are simulated by computer, as part of the Changing Landscapes feature, and the computerised ArchaeoQuest - the only one of its kind - prints out a personalised tour around prehistoric sites in Aberdeenshire, with challenges and maps.
Finally, the Archtivity Fun Room provides an entertaining opportunity to try out ancient crafts such as weaving and arrow-making; to dress up, and play games from the past.
Each party receives a noisy welcome from the trained interpretation staff - professional archaeologists and craftspeople -who don ancient costume and either execute an exuberant hunting dance, or throw themselves into armed combat as Roman soldiers.
"It's a fast, fun way of getting the children immediately involved. We want to be as different from the classroom as possible, and we do not hand out worksheets," explains Hilary Murray.
Topics are relevant to 5-14 environmental studies curriculum strands on People and Places, People in the Past, and Technology. Period-based visits cover Early Man, Iron AgeCelts, CeltsRomans and Romans.
Subject-based topics include textiles, clothesfarmingtechnologyfood in prehistory, plants and their uses, shelter and buildings, and archaeological techniques.
For primary-age children, costume and role play (outside in the park, when weather permits), are key features of the visit, during which they meet the farm animals and learn crafts and other early practical skills. Secondary 1 and 2 teachers use Archaeolink to give their subjects a broader historical perspective through a series of problem-solving challenges, or as a venue for team-building exercises, such as reconstructing an Iron Age bread oven. Standard grade, Higher and Sixth Year Studies pupils of history, geography, art and design, and technology, also find the park a valuable resource and some have taken part in work experience placements. Special needs groups focus on creative, craft-based activities.
Organised group sessions normally last two hours. One primary school which knows the park very well, is nearby Oyne School, whose 34 pupils had immense fun working with architects and archaeologists during Archaeolink's own "pre-history" and helping to construct the outdoor exhibits.
"The park provides an excellent chance to experience hands-on activities which link them with their early ancestors. The programmes are very flexible and fit in well with the curriculum," says headteacher Ruth Hassan.
Archaeolink, Oyne, Aberdeenshire. Tel: 01464 851500. Opens April 3. Child pound;1.50, adult pound;3.90. One adult helper free for every 10 children