History Around Us


The popularity of of archaeology on television (Time-Team etc) makes it very much a part of 'history around us'. However, it has wider cultural significance a) as an aspect of the way that new discoveries can change the way we look at the world and b) as a reflection of the uses people make of the past in politics, the media and fashion. Archaeologists themselves come in many different guises. There are the adventurers of fiction like Indiana Jones and meticulous forensic scientists such as the Oxford team who have carbon-dated objects like the famous Turin Shroud Time-Team gives us both extremes. Whilst it's headed by the academic Mick Aston it makes good use of the self-taught Phil Hardinge who demonstrates the skills and crafts of the past based on his own background as a self-taught flint-knapper.

The most famous archaeologist of all time, Howard Carter, mixed a sense of adventure with a total dedication to the past. Meticulous in his recording and conservation of artefacts he was not afraid to confront armed looters or drunken tourists in order to protect the achievements of the past from damage. To ensure that the excavation of Tutankhamen's tomb could be properly carried out he was even prepared to take on the Egyptian government and its nationalist supporters.

Origins of archaeology

Carter was trained by William Flinders Petrie, himself the first really professional archaeologist. Before that time digging was very much an amateur occupation and usually undertaken in search of treasure or curiosities. The scientific investigation of the buried past really starts with the discovery of Herculaneum in 1757 - a huge underground treasure chest of buried antiquities commandeered by the king of Naples. All the gentry of Western Europe received a classical education, i.e. they grew up with a knowledge of Greek and Roman authors and history. Here was that past come to life.

Everyone knew about the Romans but what about northern Europe where the Romans hadn't been but which - thanks to the Industrial Revolution - was now overtaking Mediterranean Europe as the centre of the world's commerce and industry? There were no Roman towns to excavate in countries like Denmark or Germany but there were megalithic structures and mounds. A Danish scholar called Christian Thommsen saw how different types of object appeared at different levels in the ground and invented the 'three-age' system - Stone, Bronze and Iron - to describe these layers. The 'Iron Age' was partly contemporary with Romans (Roman objects were sometimes found in Iron-Age layers) but how did this north European system relate to the chronologies being established for civilisations like Ancient Egypt?

The answer is it didn't. We still have two separate conceptual frameworks for literate and non-literate societies and very few people - even archaeologists - think of the Egypt of Tutankhamen as a Bronze age society. Still less do we consider the Egypt at the time of its first unification (about 3000BC) as a Stone age society. This is because 'Stone Age' carries with it notions of 'wild', 'primitive' and 'disorganised', which we owe to the early illustrators of books on prehistory. In fact, a chronology based on the survival of material remains in the ground can give a very warped idea of social development of society. What physical evidence would the Aborigines we saw in 'Desert People' leave behind at a camp-site?

top of this page

Archaeology changes our way of looking at the past

Its very rarely that the buried past matches the written past. There's no trace in archaeology of Moses or the Ark, Romulus and Remus or Robin Hood. Very well documented figures like Henry VIII leave strangely little behind them (of Henry's 55 houses only one - Hampton Court - still exists in a form he'd recognise). Very often our only tangible link with a famous person is their tomb. By contrast there are some quite insignificant people who have become famous through archaeology e.g the 'Ice Man', Lindow Man. However, the wish to verify what the written sources tell us has inspired some of the most famous archaeological expeditions and still continues to do so today.

top of this page

An Indoor Archaeology Game (Key Stage 2)

Divide a square sheet of card into 64 squares and draw the outline plan of a buried building on it (prehistoric village, Roman villa or medieval castle). You can complicate the game by making different parts of the building date to different periods (eg the bath suite of a Roman villa might have been built 50 years after the main structure). Cut a second sheet into 64 numbered squares to lay on top of the plan. Most will be blank underneath but some will say 'Find' on them. Place these in appropriate locations. Make up a set of finds cards (see below) with numbers to match those with 'Find' on them. Each 'find' will supply either a clue about the date of the building, or the use of the area where it is found. The Finds cards will require a bit of research but they provide the information which gives the game its teaching value.

N.B. it will be easy for a gust of wind or accident-prone pupil to ruin the game by blowing away the top cards. It is recommended that these be stuck on to heavier grade card.

Finds for a prehistoric village Finds for a Roman villa Finds for a medieval castle
  • Human bones
  • Flint arrow heads
  • Antler picks
  • Pieces of pot etc.
  • Stone axes
  • Pollen grains (wheat)
  • Black earth (hearth)
  • Coins (with names of emperors)
  • Pieces of glass (windows, vases)
  • Pieces of Samian-ware
  • Oyster shells
  • Pieces of cooking pot
  • Pieces of mosiac
  • Hypocaust tiles
  • Roof tiles
  • Black earth (evidence of burning)
  • Floor tiles (chapel, hall)
  • Pieces of pot
  • Timber (doors, floors etc.)
  • Carved stonework
  • Iron arrow heads
  • Swordblade
  • Cannon ball
  • Pieces of stained glass
  • Coins

The children play in groups of three or four. Each child throws the dice. He or she can then move his or her counter in any direction, square by square (not diagonally), according to the number on the dice. He or she turns over the card on which s/he has landed, revealing either a section of wall or a find. The winners are the first group to draw a complete plan of the building, identify its age(s) and guess the use of each of its rooms.

top of this page