Experimental archaeology recreates the past to give children a hands-on example of what ancient life was all about, reports Martin Whittaker.
At Elmhurst Junior School in Somerset, children are putting the finishing touches to an Iron Age round house out in the playground.
They have built it from pieces of hazel using replicas of prehistoric tools, wattled and daubed the walls, learned how to make string from plant fibre and helped make a clay oven from mud and sticks.
The five-day session at Elmhurst was led by Guy Apter from History in the Making, a company that specialises in historical and educational workshops for schools. Headteacher Jim Swain is impressed: "The children are totally engrossed," he notes approvingly.
"They have learned through direct experience. It's taught them a lot about the way Celtic people lived and how inventive they were." Experimental archaeology aims to answer questions about the way our ancestors lived, using available physical evidence to bring to life our ideas of what the past was like. How did they chop down that tree with a stone axe? How did they build houses, cook, and bury their dead?
Part of the appeal for schools is its immediacy and hands-on approach, says Guy Apter. "When you look in a hole in the ground it's so difficult to see what they're looking at. But with experimental archaeology, anyone can come along and have a go. It's exciting."
Don Henson, education officer of the Council for British Archaeology, says increasing numbers of centres are carrying out this kind of reconstruction.
"Much of the work in museum education over the past 20 years has been about getting kids to do things hands-on - to touch, to feel, to play with, to draw, to analyse. The experimental side of archaeology is an extension of that."
Experimental archaeology originated in Denmark in the 1950s. It was first taken up in the UK in the early Seventies by Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, a replica of a farm that would have existed in Britain around 300 BC.
Today Butser is more of an open-air laboratory than a museum. The centre carries out research into Iron Age agriculture and domestic life, based on evidence from excavations at sites in Britain and Europe. Schools are welcomed, with tours as well as Celtic activities and games.
Experimental archaeology is even going on in some back gardens. Doug Gentles is a part-time lecturer at Royal Forest of Dean College in Gloucestershire, and edits the Newsletter for Experimental Archaeology.
He also runs adult evening classes in the subject at his home. Here he gets students to recreate elements of prehistoric life. They have copied cave paintings in charcoal and ochre on an outside wall, worn Celtic dress and made nettle soup, and experimented with making arrows and flint axes. They spent the summer term making longbows.
Mr Gentles once lived in a cave for a fortnight to study the effects of fire on the cave environment. Now he is keen to involve schools in experimental archaeology. He says: "Experimental archaeology tells you ways things could have been done, but it doesn't tell you exactly how they were done. It opens up new ways of understanding prehistoric man."
Although it is fun and educational, there is a serious research element. For example, one experiment cited in the newsletter aims to answer the riddle of why ancient remains of Kalahari bushmen were found smeared with red ochre. One theory is that the ochre delayed decomposition or repelled scavengers.
To test this, experimenters plan to bury two pieces of meat, one smeared with ochre and one not, to see which survives the best.
Jake Keen, of Cranborne Ancient Technology Centre in Dorset, wants more schools to get involved in the research side of recreating the past. His centre, part of Dorset Outdoor Education Service, is well booked up with school visits.
"We have had one school that does experimental archaeology as part of its GCSE work. We have smelted iron with them and recorded what's happened. In the long term they can go back and do that kind of thing in their own grounds. We try to encourage that sort of interest."
Mr Keen says the popularity of television programmes such as Time Team and Meet The Ancestors is raising interest in archaeology. Similar sites to his own are cropping up in other parts of Dorset.
But he says teachers should exercise caution over the validity of some activities. He cites one extreme example where children were encouraged to put their hands in wallpaper paste, to give them a sense of how it felt to daub an Iron Age building. "That's just ridiculous," he scoffs.
"I am concerned with activities going on under the heading of authentic Iron Age, authentic this and that, which have no relationship with what's known of the period.
"There's likely to be a growth in this area. It's how to make sure it's done well - that's the difficult issue."
History In The Making, 44 Roman Way, Glastonbury, Somerset, BA6 8AD. Tel: 01458 831664.Council for British Archaeology, Bowes Morrell House, 111 Walmgate, York YO1 9WA. Tel: 01904 671417.Butser Ancient Farm, Nexus House, Gravel Hill, Waterlooville, Hants PO8 0QE. Tel: 01705 598838. This offers a wide range of workshops for schools. Full details listed on its website www.skcldv.demon.co.uk'Newsletter for Experimental Archaeology', tel: 01594 834343.Cranborne Ancient Technology Centre is at Cranborne Middle School, Cranborne, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 5RP. Tel: 01725 517618