Tiny snail shells can tell archaeology students whether a landscape was once wooded, open or submerged. The way such evidence can reveal so much about the past is one reason why the subject is so exciting, says Neil Fleming, sixth-form archaeology teacher at Christ's Hospital independent school in Horsham, Sussex.
His students had received a collection of shells and data from Professor Mike Allen of Wessex Archaeology, one of the country's largest non-profit-making archaeological practices. The students' work was one example of the intriguing topics they can study in GCSE and ASA2 archaeology. It was also an example of the opportunities teachers have for forging links with the wider archaeological community and making the subject come alive.
Archaeology has enjoyed something of a boom over the past 20 years, a fact celebrated in the recent English Heritage report into the state of the historic environment. And while a great deal of the interest has come from further education colleges, there has been a steady growth in schools offering the subject at key stage 4 and A-level.
AQA is at present the only exam board with archaeology at GCSE and A-level, but the subject has come into its own particularly at AS. Last year more than 1,200 candidates sat the examination, though this growth has been offset by a loss in popularity of the GCSE as a one-year sixth-form option.
Neil Fleming says: "The exposure that archaeology currently receives on television is a big factor in its growth in popularity."
According to Dave Goulden, who teaches the GCSE at Southlands High School in Chorley, Lancashire, it is the opportunities for practical work outside that is the big pull.
"Farmers allow us to carry out fieldwalking activities on their land, which their Victorian predecessors fertilised using the human and domestic waste contents of middens. For students, finding anything more than 100 years old is fantastic."
That said, the opportunities for students to take part in real digs are few and far between these days, with professional archaeologists reluctant to let novices on to sites which usually have to be excavated very quickly.
Senior ASA2 examiner Jim Grant says: "It can be frustrating for students.
However, chances do crop up. Local archaeological clubs can be a great source of support."
Museums too are very useful, thanks to the artefact boxes they offer on loan or for hire. Dave Goulden uses a replica skeleton in a simulated excavation and is able to arrange access to real digs for his students during the holidays.
"The key thing is that if excavations occur it is done under proper supervision," he says.
The last GCSE examination report emphasised this point after a handful of centres submitted evidence gained from dubious digging.
For Ken Dover, GCSE chief examiner and archaeology teacher at the Walbottle Campus High School outside Newcastle, the importance of students getting out and doing real investigations such as surveying sites cannot be underestimated.
This is one of the reasons why the subject is seen by some centres as ideal for less academically minded students. This view may be a mistake though.
The subject is demanding and the shortage of school-friendly resources can put quite a burden on teachers, especially in the early years of offering a course.
It is not surprising that its presence in a school is often due to a single enthusiast on the staff, or one with archaeology as part of a dual honours degree. Currently, single honours archaeology graduates often have difficulty gaining places on PGCE courses, a fact criticised by the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group.
Talk to teachers about the benefits of schools offering archaeology and they soon mention its capacity to stretch students.
Ken Dover says: "Throughout the course at GCSE higher-order thinking is required."
"It is rare for a question to have a single 'right' answer," adds Jim Grant. "And the student who has a capacity for deduction and argument will benefit as much as the student eager to show off a wide range of knowledge."
Another great joy is the historic breadth of archaeology at a time when teachers have voiced concerns about an increasing narrowness in school history, especially the focus on Nazi Germany. The GCSE delves into British and Irish pre-history and the Roman and medieval periods, and the ASA2 contains special investigations of ancient Egypt, the Roman world and Mayan civilisations.
Neil Fleming says: "Archaeology is probably the only truly cross-curricular subject."
It's a point Dave Goulden echoes: "The surveying work puts maths into practice, science comes in when we discuss such things as the smelting of copper from malachite. Students also benefit from a knowledge of the relationship between human and physical geography and design skills are demanded when recording artefacts or mapping sites."
Drawing on this range of knowledge is clearly quite demanding, but it opens opportunities for inter-departmental working and students are likely to find something that excites their enthusiasm.
Neil Fleming says: "Some topics are sufficiently focused for students to become expert quite quickly."
This is where the practical projects at GCSE and ASA2 come into their own.
Every teacher has a tale to tell of students who have gone to town on their own investigations, often involving archaeological reconstruction and achieving, in Ken Dover's words "sometimes post-graduate standards". For Robin Wichard at West Somerset Community College there's the student who broke new ground surveying medieval coastal fish weirs. At Christ's Hospital, Neil Fleming has a student conducting original research with recreated prehistoric projectiles, and he has fond memories of the student who set about mummifying rabbits using techniques described by Herodotus in the 5th century BC.
UP TO DATE ON THE PAST
Channel 4 Time Team's site has a guide to archaeology on the web: www.channel4.comhistorytimeteamontheweb.html
Wessex Archaeology www.wessexarch.co.uk
All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group www.sal.org.ukappagindex.htm
The Archaeology Data Service http:ads.ahds.ac.uk
Council for British Archaeology www.britarch.ac.uk
Leaflet setting out guidelines on using metal detectors www.britarch.ac.ukcbafactsht2.shtml
Young Archaeologists Club www.britarch.ac.ukyacindex.html
Archaeology: an introduction by Kevin Green (Routledge pound;19.99). The book is supplemented by a website: www.staff.ncl.ac.ukkevin.greenewintro Practical handbooks in archaeology from the CBA (titles include Recording and Analysing Graveyards and Recording a Church)
Teaching the Past edited by Vicki Pearson (CBA pound;5.99) The Archaeology Coursebook by Jim Grant, Sam Gorin and Neil Fleming (Routledge pound;15.99)
Shire Books publish a wide range of archaeology titles www.shirebooks.co.ukArchaeologyarchaeology-bl.htm