Giles Dawson joins a group of Rochdale pupils as they delve into the secrets of the past
How do you bring a Roman fort into the 21st century? How might you plan and provide a worthwhile visiting experience for young and old alike? And what constraints does a tight budget impose on you?
These were some of the conundrums facing a group of Year 8 pupils from Rochdale in Lancashire, as they made a two-day tour of fort sites at the eastern end of Hadrian's Wall - Arbeia, Segedunum, and Chesters. They were taking part in an innovative Excellence in Cities scheme to link gifted and talented children from four of the borough's secondary schools (Cardinal Langley, Oulder Hill, Springhill High and Middleton Technology School) in a project away from their home environment.
Leading the 40 children through this unfamiliar world of what the legions left behind - and what modern museum designers have imposed on the landscape - was John Crossland, a professional archaeologist attached to Manchester University. He runs Past Below Ground, which provides hands-on archaeology sessions for school groups of all ages. As well as getting a feel for the history and the conditions under which Roman soldiers lived and worked, the Rochdale pupils were asked to look at the presentation of heritage sites from a modern business perspective.
The Tyneside end of Hadrian's Wall is a fruitful area for studying archaeology. Not only does it have a convenient concentration of major sites, but the presentation of these sites differs greatly from one to another. Organised by schools into four "consortia", the students were asked to observe the visitor services available at each site and then draw up a bid for improvements and additions to Chesters (site of the excavated remains of a fort in a highly scenic position beside the North Tyne).
The site and new museum at Segedunum gave the young visitors from Lancashire much food for thought. Here, the most remarkable buildings are not Roman at all. One particular building is a reconstruction based on what the bath-house at Chesters might have looked like.
Easily the most memorable structure at Segedunum is the lookout tower, the kind of structure you would see at an aerodrome rather than at a museum designed to commemorate and interpret a 2000-year-old military fort. The students were impressed by the commanding views over the fort outline and beyond, as well as by the flat-screen displays within the tower. But they were also starting to think - if I had pound;9m to spend (which is what this museum cost in 1997-2000), would I put quite so much of it towards this kind of eye-catching architecture?
On to Chesters itself, the pupils made a beeline for the bath-house, and were able to explore the "model" for the reconstruction building at Segedunum. The students didn't have much time left to study the museum at Chesters; but they were already buzzing with ideas picked up from the sites they had seen.
This Excellence in the Cities project, is just one of the sessions organised by Past Below Ground which is the schools service of the University of Manchester Field Archaeology Centre. John Crossland runs sessions both in schools and at archaeological sites for primary and secondary pupils. "Most of my work is in schools but I also go out to sites. When I go to schools I take Roman, Tudor and Victorian artefacts into the classroom and these visits provide a rare opportunity for the children to handle genuine artefacts."
Past Below Ground: charges per class within Greater Manchester, pound;120 per day, pound;60 per half day. There is a charge for travel outside the Greater Manchester area. Tel: John Crossland, 0161 2752314, email: firstname.lastname@example.org