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What the ancients did for us

Archaeology is being used to bring history to life and act as a springboard for other activities in some Glasgow classrooms.Not every history lesson requires fluorescent jackets, hard hats and Wellington boots. But then, not every history lesson offers the chance to travel back in time and take a peek at life in a previous century.

So it was with mounting excitement that P7 pupils from Glendale Primary in Glasgow, arrived at the site of an archaeological dig on the edge of the city to begin their journey into the past. They came in search of dinosaur bones and buried treasure; they were not disappointed. Relics from the Jurassic era were thin on the ground, but what they did discover, 15 feet below street level among the newly unearthed cobblestones and foundations of long-demolished 19th-century city tenements, proved equally memorable.

The site, off Devon Street, 15 minutes walk from Glendale, was once home to a diverse 1,200-strong population of newcomers from Ireland, the Highlands and eastern Europe. It is one of six urban excavations led by Headland Archaeology and Pre-Construction Archaeology (HAPCA), taking place over eight months along the five-mile route of Transport Scotland's pound;500 million M74 Completion project, ahead of the construction.

The Glendale pupils, from P2 upwards, have been offered unique access to get hands-on experience of an active dig, and the school is making the most of it. Archaeology will not just be used as a tool to bring history to life, but will act as a springboard for other activities across all year groups, spanning history, maths, language, science, the arts and ICT. The programme has been designed with A Curriculum for Excellence focus on "active learning" firmly in view and will be the schools enterprise project for the year.

The P7s' site visit was structured around a series of workshops which included a controlled dig for artefacts; an exercise in cleaning the finds with water and toothbrushes, before sketching them and speculating on their origin, age and use; and a chance to work with archaeologists measuring and making scale drawings of the excavation brick by brick.

Chloe McKerrow, 11, found a threepenny piece while rummaging with her trowel and excitedly rubbed off the mud to reveal a 1937 date stamp. "Wow, that's really old," she said. But her find was quickly trumped by classmate Arron Sangray, 10, who was rendered speechless by his discovery of an old penny marked 1907.

The hands-on exercises were enlivened by some facts about the Victorians who believed "cleanliness is next to godliness", but only washed on average three times a month and were fairly "smelly", the pupils were told. They also used chimney soot to clean their teeth with toothbrushes made from horsehair - a 120-year-old example found on site was duly produced.

Once the dig is over, the learning will continue. P7s will work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra interpreting their discoveries in musical compositions, and P2s will produce a play with Hopscotch Theatre Company, to be performed in January at the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow.

P5 and P6 pupils will work on a visual arts project for an exhibition at the M74 Discovery Centre at Scotland Street Museum, and P3 and P4 will make a video diary and DVD of the dig. The DVD will be included in a special history education pack, with resource boxes featuring genuine artefacts, which will be rolled out to 1,000 primary schools in Glasgow, South Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire in January.

Liz Laird, Glendale's head, said the project was more than just a history lesson and demonstrated to pupils the worth of the maths and language they learn in the classroom: "This is about giving them a voice and the confidence to ask questions, about developing their sense of citizenship. This is their history and they can be proud of it."

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