Past in perspective

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Next week TES Teacher launches a four-part poster series about daily life in ancient civilisations. Dinah Starkey whets our appetites by showing how you can introduce archaeological excavation into the classroom

If geography is about maps and history is about chaps, then archaeology is about gaps. Gaps in our knowledge, that is. Much of what we know about early civilisations comes from archaeology, but there are some surprisingly big holes. For example, there are whole dynasties of Egyptian Pharaohs which we know nothing about - the evidence simply isn't there.

Archaeology comes into its own when exploring things that last for a long time, whether they be objects or the achievements of the great and good. The less durable features of a civilisation - its food for instance or the memory of an undistinguished ruler - disappear without trace. So when archaeologists attempt to piece together a picture of the past they are using extremely sophisticated guesswork. However well-informed they are, their conclusions must often be tentative and their interpretations skewed by the nature of the evidence available to them.

While this is obvious to adults, it may be an unfamiliar idea to children, who often believe that somewhere in the world there is a big book or a website that contains "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" about the period they are studying. It's important to get across that this is not the case, because it lies at the heart of any study of the ancient civilisations. Children need practice in thinking like archaeologists, spotting gaps and playing detective. Here are some activities to help them.

Two thousand years on

Make a list of the contents of the classroom. Imagine an archaeologist excavates it in 2,000 years time. Which objects might still be there? Which would have vanished? What could the archaeologist say for certain about the room's appearance and function? What would he or she have to guess?

I know, I think...

Talk about the difference between facts and guesses, then give pairs of children a replica artefact or picture of an object from the period that you are studying. Ask them to come up with three statements that are fact and three that are guesses. What else would they like to find out about the object? How would they go about uncovering that information?

Stones and bones

Provide a group of children with a small collection of pictures showing objects dating from a few different periods of history. Include one or two that are obviously modern. Sort the objects into three sets: objects which are definitely from the period under study; objects which are definitely not (like modern bricks, for example), and ones about which children are unsure. As an extension, children could try to place them in chronological order.


Give a group of children a large base sheet showing an archaeologist's plan of an excavated building - Tutankhamun's tomb or a Roman villa works well. What does the plan tell us, about the shape of the rooms, for example? What doesn't it tell us - the height of the walls, the original style of decoration, for example? Ask children to reconstruct the building using building bricks and then justify their reconstruction to the rest of the class. How accurate is it? What additional evidence did they use?

Sand-tray dig

Fill a large plastic tray with sand and use string to divide it into 12 equal rectangles. Bury objects in the sand. If possible, include small replica artefacts from the period you are studying, such as Egyptian charms or replica coins, broken pieces of pottery and oddments such as bones, shells and fruit stones. Make a worksheet showing a rectangle divided into 12 squares like the sand tray. Children use a teaspoon and paint brush to excavate the objects. They use the worksheet to record the location in which objects were found and make a guess at what each object is.

For a wide range of replica artefacts contact: TTS, Nunn Brook Road, Huthwaite, Sutton in Ashfield, Notts NG17 2HUTel: 01623 447800Articles of Antiquity, Resource House, Kay Street, Bury BL9 6BUTel: 0161 763 6232 Dinah Starkey is the editor of TES Primary Plus materials, which can be downloaded from The TES Teacher Civilisations series, produced with the assistance and co-operation of the British Museum, will be published in four weekly parts from January 24

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