Round the ringing rocks they run;Curriculum

8th March 1996 at 00:00
Peter Dreghorn describes the 5-14 excitement kindled at Kilmartin Glen in Argyll as children uncover planted "ancient" artefacts and deduce the site's mysterious purpose from measuring and investigating its prehistoric stones

Set in a beautiful remote glen in Argyll, Kilmartin House is an "eco-museum" where local children find out about the past by simulating the work of archaeologists as part of the Argyll Archaeology Project. The idea for the project came from a visit I made to the area one misty post-Hogmanay holiday. I met the enthusiastic directors of the Kilmartin House Trust, Rachel and David Clough, and we created a plan with the help of local teachers. The Cloughs already had a whole range of ideas for promoting the area and enough funding to provide a rich educational resource for young people.

To start the project, replica finds are "buried" in a fibreglass mould and covered with sand. The evidence is collected by carefully trowelling back the sand and recording the shape, colour, size and texture of the find on a grid. This magical process of hide-and-seek from long ago focuses the project by stimulating the children's imagination in a scientific manner. It also begins to meet all the strands of 5-14 People in the Past and at the same time reflects the work of professional archaeologists.

There is a hot debate within the profession about excavation per se and whether it is politically correct to encourage young people to even simulate the process. On the one hand, archaeologists are attempting to limit direct excavation because sites are then exposed to the ravages of weather and other erosions. On the other hand, the excavations are often carried out as "rescue digs" - as precursors to building programmes which would obliterate the information.

The importance of simulated digging in the 5-14 programme to capture children's imaginations cannot be over-estimated. The sense of wonder and of closeness to the lives of those from the past are central to the process. The Argyll Archaeology Project team believes that knowledge of history is encouraged by simulating excavations, which in turn develops an informed attitude to our heritage. Nevertheless we keep to certain ground rules while "digging".

A number of the artefacts found around the Kilmartin area are in the British Museum of London, so the Cloughs intend to borrow some of them for the locals and their children to see, perhaps for the first time. Many of the larger museums also have "unprovenanced" artefacts, or finds for which there is no record of origin, which could be made up into handling kits for schools, making history come alive.

Having recorded the finds on a chart and discussed the possible uses and perhaps names, the children are then asked to plan a visit to Temple Wood stone circle and Nether Largie burial cairn by looking at photographs and maps of the area. Usually school parties try and "do" the whole valley, which has a whole series of extant stone circles, burial cairns and cup and ring marks and is set in an idyllic natural environment. In this project, the children carry out detailed measuring and recording of one site.

At level A and B of the 5-14 programme they might merely count the stones or, beyond level E, calculate the volume and weight of the huge capping stone on the burial cairn. Back in the classroom the groups present their photos, sketches and measurements to each other and seek interpretations for their finds. It might be that they decide, based on measurements and what they already know, that the stone circle is a sports arena, and that it would have taken 10 men to lift the capping stone. As long as their idea is based on evidence, the process of 5-14 learning is satisfied, as is their natural curiosity.

One of the most interesting aspects of designing the project was that the teachers involved were concerned about the knowledge and understanding that they might need to start the work. This stemmed from their experience of their own schooldays, when a teacher would present a ready-made interpretation of the area and ask the children accurately to represent that in writing, drawing and comprehension questions.

However knowledge and understanding is only one of the strands of the curriculum and the other processes which train children how to learn should have equal weighting. Strong memories of my teachers' stories of "primitive" or "savage" people could be completely erroneous. It may be that archaeologists have salvaged only primitive information about those people.

Environmental studies 5-14 is best done in the environment, the learning aspects mirroring the work of an archaeologist, and Kilmartin Glen is an ideal site for young history detectives to practise their skills. The stones, cairns and carvings are visible enough to wonder at, draw, measure and photograph. Yet very little is known about their purpose and use, so the mystery allows children to develop their own conclusions from their knowledge.

The children's ideas and theories can be matched with interpretations or experiments in the museum which include handling kits of finds from one site, designing fish traps, audio-visual presentations, playing "ringing rocks" music and role play.

Although Kilmartin museum has a prehistorical focus, the modern landscape is represented by other investigations. A link with the Argyll schools computer network, Argyll Online, allows the trust to provide environmental education for a wide audience. For example, a song thrush survey became the first project of the Young Ornithologists' Club to go on-line. Despite the remote location, the trust has every intention of being part of the IT revolution. It also has a World Wide Web site and is keen to develop links with other museums and universities.

The team includes archaeologists, an artist, a musician, a museum designer and a press officer. The trust has also appointed an education officer, Damion Willcock, who as well as facilitating studies for 5-14, is planning a series of experimental archaeology projects under the engaging title of "Practically Mesolithic". The intention is to involve adults and children in active environmental learning: making and testing coracles, designing fish traps and exploring ancient shell middens.

The directors have not been lax in promoting the museum with creative fund-raising. One event featured a sponsored count of midge bites, with a luckless victim baring his top to the elements and the insects in the middle of a stone circle.

Publicity has included an artist's impression of coloured cup and ring marks tastefully painted on a local bottle bank, giving depositors an opportunity to connect with the mysteries of Kilmartin. In their work to prepare the museum for opening this summer, Rachel and David Clough have already developed an informed attitude to what they consider is the most important area of the curriculum - the landscape.

Peter Dreghorn is an adviser for Strathclyde Region, working on materials for schools visiting archaeological sites.

Kilmartin House is a private museum funded by the European Regional Development Fund, Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland, Scottish Tourist Board, Strathclyde Regional Council and the Highlands and Islands Development Council. It can be contacted on 01546 510278.

Its E-mail address is: kilmartinhse @

Its Internet page is: Worldservicesdatabasekilmartinindex.html

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