How an Eastbourne school brought its Bronze Age heritage to life
When West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne was built, the choice of site was rather fortuitous for the thousands of students who would pass through the school's gates. As luck would have it, our school is located on land where the second largest Bronze Age settlement in Europe was once situated - many of the artefacts that have been found within the peat are on display at the British Museum in London.
Being on a major archaeological site is an exciting educational opportunity and at West Rise we have embraced the Bronze Age in a big way.
Next to the main school site is an area of marshland owned by the local authority. Five years ago, after hearing about the Bronze Age settlement from a local archaeologist, we asked the authority if we could lease the 120 acres of land, including two vast lakes, as part of our school grounds. We wanted the land to be the environment for a living history project. The authority agreed a 10-year tenancy, and this was followed by annual funding from Natural England for us to maintain the area and buy a tractor and quad bikes for farming.
After acquiring our marsh, we quickly bought some new school pets. Our continuing research into the Bronze Age revealed that 3,000 years ago, massive horned cattle called aurochs roamed our marshes. Water buffalo are the closest living relatives to the now extinct auroch, so we bought some from a local farmer. We taught the children to look after the buffalo and have had the herd for years now. We have also become successful buffalo breeders.
Further research showed that our ancestors navigated the dykes and rivers in the area in oval-shaped boats called coracles. In perfect synchronicity, our school adviser at the time had three coracles in her garage which her husband, a history enthusiast, had built some years previously. We started teaching children to row the vessels on our lakes, and also showed them how to fish with reed rods and goose feather quills from the marsh.
With the land, animals and boats in place, we began work on building a Bronze Age village on our marsh. One summer, Year 6 students (aged 10-11) spent several days working with our site managers to construct an 80m- long, raised wooden causeway across the wetland. This was a replica of one of the perfectly preserved finds during an archaeological excavation of the site. The causeway leads to a large platform that rises up from one of our lakes, and that platform will form the base for a Bronze Age roundhouse that we plan to build.
Within our Bronze Age habitat, we worked alongside Eastbourne Museum to teach our students prehistoric crafts. Using fleeces from our flock of sheep, the children spun and dyed wool. They dug clay from the marsh and made replica Bronze Age pots, firing them over an open fire. We have taught the children a range of traditional open-fire cooking techniques and have even had them skinning rabbits and plucking pigeons.
UK inspectorate Ofsted visited our school before Christmas and was full of praise for the Bronze Age project, which confirmed to us that it is good to think big, take calculated risks and do things in new ways.
The secrets of the marsh go on revealing themselves to us, and echoes from 3,000 years ago continue to inform our curriculum in ever more creative ways.
Mike Fairclough is headmaster of West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne, England.
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