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Children, Archaeology and Unexpected Interpretations

Below is the edited transcript of a presentation I gave at Dearne Valley Archaeology Day in 2012.  I’ve also uploaded it as a PDF document onto

Children, Archaeology and Unexpected Interpretations

The Teletubby House

I recently read a book, Unquiet Pasts (Koerner & Russell 2010), which focussed on how different people engage with and use archaeology and heritage in today’s world.  In a chapter discussing a long term project involving children in archaeology, Thomas Kador and Jane Ruffino, describe the day they took a group of school children to see Four Knocks passage tomb in County Meath.  On first seeing it the children exclaimed, “This is the Teletubby house!” (Kador & Ruffino 2010, p340).  A brief glance at the images will be enough to say why (Fig 1 & Fig.2).

aerial photo fourknocks

Fig. 1: Four Knocks Passage tomb, County Meath. Photo courtesy of


Fig.2: The Teletubby house. ©Ragdoll Worldwide Ltd 2012.

 This occurrence is used by the authors to illustrate their view that:

“[Children’s interpretations] served as eye-openers to our archaeologically trained and often narrowly focussed ways of thinking… and thus helped broaden our horizons to equally valid alternative interpretations.” (Kador & Ruffino 2010, p340)

As an archaeologist and educator, whose time is spent delivering archaeology workshops to school and home education groups, there was much here that resonated with my own experiences.  In my teaching practice, I ascribe to a child-centred, constructivist view of education and thus value children’s opinions.  I also believe in an archaeology of multiple interpretations and not one where we can find out absolute truths.

Alternative Interpretations?

However, on reading this assertion, I wondered in what way can describing Four Knocks passage tomb as the Teletubby house be a ‘valid alternative interpretation’?  I recalled similar situations in which I had been where children’s unexpected interpretations of archaeological objects and sites were, let’s say, less than ‘sensible’, simply exposed misconceptions or did not seem to mean very much at all.  What did I do in these circumstances?  What did I say to the children involved?  I wondered what the archaeologists had said to the children at Four Knocks passage tomb after their ‘revelation’.  Were they inspired?  Did they reconsider their views on the purpose of Four Knocks passage tomb?  Did the children leave thinking it might actually be the Teletubby house?

Surely what the children did in this case was simply make a superficial comparison between something with which they were familiar and something about which they knew very little – a commonplace occurrence and an example of the schemata with which everyone approaches new situations and the acquisition of new knowledge (Bartlett, 1932).  If this was the case, how could this be taken as anything more profound?  Should it be taken as anything more profound?  Are such unexpected interpretations not just a mildly irritating by-product of working with children on our way to instilling them with knowledge about our past?  Some archaeologists may think so.  In fact this may be reason enough why some archaeologists avoid working with children at all.

Given my background, it perhaps comes as no surprise that I think involving children in archaeology is beneficial and is so in a multitude of ways.  However, what may be more surprising is that I would also argue that it is, in fact, precisely because children often come up with unexpected, seemingly ‘silly’ or ‘wrong,’ interpretations that it is so beneficial, especially for the archaeologists involved.

The benefits of involving children in archaeology

Leaving aside unexpected childish interpretations for the time being, I would just like to highlight some of the general benefits there are to engaging children in archaeology.  Of course, they learn about the past and, although I may be preaching to the converted, knowing about the past is crucial for societies – not in the same way as a food supply, sanitation or medicine might be, but in the sense that societies and people live in the context of what has gone before.  What we do and think is as a direct result of what has happened previously on many levels, and knowing that can aid an understanding of the present and in a real sense help plan for the future.  As human beings, our identity is important and the past plays a great part in developing this for individuals, groups and nations.  This sometimes creates great suffering and conflict, but this in itself makes understanding the past, and in such cases how it is created and used, even more crucial.

However, not only are children learning about the past, children are also becoming engaged in the past and, if focussed as such, children can become particularly engaged in their local past, an engagement which will hopefully stay with them as they grow into adulthood.  This has certainly happened whilst working with children in Buxton, Derbyshire.  In fact, one group I worked with were previously unaware that people had lived in Buxton in prehistoric times.  In English Primary schools, learning about the past (i.e. History) usually begins with the Romans effectively omitting, in the case of Buxton, 10,000 years of local ‘history’. [1] Once the children found out, there was a definite sense of wonder, a ‘wow’ factor that made them see their home town in a new light.

Another great benefit is that archaeology addresses a number of learning objectives often found in school curricula.  I know this is the case for the English National Curriculum, but is no doubt the case for any primary and secondary curriculum, in any school, in any country, whether it is nationalised or not.  Through taking part in archaeology workshops, children address ‘chronological understanding’ and learn ‘about characteristic features of the periods and societies studied’ and ‘how to find out about the events, people and changes studied from an appropriate range of sources of information’ (History 1a, b, 2a, 4); they can be taught ‘to identify and describe reasons for historical events and situations’ and ‘to recognise that the past is interpreted in different ways’ (2c and 3); and address how to ‘recall, select and organise historical information’.  I could add more.  In fact, archaeology not only addresses objectives concerned with ‘history’ it is also an excellent medium for cross-curricular activity as it touches on subjects as wide-ranging as geography, literacy, numeracy/mathematics, religious studies, design and technology, art, music and science. In terms of literacy and numeracy, the bugbears of many children, archaeology provides an arena in which to develop these core skills, almost without children realising it.  In addition, as children learn about different ways of doing things in the past, such as the way people can be buried, how the landscape was used and the different tools and objects utilised, they are given a starting point for understanding difference in the present.  This understanding can surely breed a tolerance needed in our increasingly, multi-cultural, global societies.  In addition, by happy accident, this understanding and tolerance of others covers aspects of ‘Citizenship’, another subject found in the English National Curriculum.

Engaging in archaeology also often takes children outdoors or at least away from typical classroom learning activities.  Archaeology involves task-based, experiential learning, which can appeal to different types of learners, intelligences and abilities and is much esteemed in theories of learning (e.g. Pritchard 2008; Waite 2011).  Children who are streamed into low ability sets in schools, usually based on competency in literacy and numeracy, can truly engage with archaeology and, as mentioned above, begin to make progress in the very areas in which they struggle by having a meaningful context in which this can take place.  If facilitated correctly, children engaging in archaeology workshops or archaeological fieldwork can also begin to understand how knowledge is created and take an active part in that process.  I have lost count of the number of times during workshops that teachers have stared in surprise and mouthed across to another member of staff that yes, indeed, it was that pupil who usually causes trouble/stares out of the window/never says anything etc. who just made that deeply profound observation.

Unexpected interpretations

All of these are the more obvious benefits children gain from learning about and taking part in archaeology, but it is not these that concern me here.  What I want to convince you of now is that children’s unexpected interpretations, far from being irritating and inconvenient, are actually the reason why working with children is so beneficial for both the children and archaeologists involved.  To do this I will draw on two case studies from my own experience of working with children, before returning to the Teletubby house.

The Case of the Murder at Solomon’s Temple

Solomon's Temple

Fig. 3: Solomon’s Temple on Grinlow, Buxton, Derbyshire, UK. (Photo by author).

I once took a group of forty children, aged 10 years, to Grinlow in Buxton, Derbyshire (Fig. 3).  We were not there to see the Victorian folly named Solomon’s Temple nor the 18th century quarrying surrounding it, but to consider the Bronze Age barrow; for the ‘temple’ is built on the site of three Early Bronze Age burials (Fig. 4).  After contemplating the position of the barrow with the children and discussing how it was typical of an Early Bronze Age burial, with the bodies lying in a crouched position and with flint tools and the remains of a pottery vessel, talk turned to what might have happened at the funeral of these people.  What did we know and what didn’t we know?

Well, we knew where the bodies were buried, we knew approximately when they were buried and we knew some of the things with which they were buried (allowing for organic material that would not have survived).  However, what we did not know was the process by which the bodies and the objects entered the graves and what else may have happened at this time.

Plan of Grinlow burials

Fig. 4 Early Bronze Age Burials on Grinlow, Buxton, Derbyshire, UK.

I split the class into three groups and gave each group laminated pictures of a number of items from the Amesbury Archer Burial near Stonehenge.  These included arrow heads, daggers, gold personal adornments, and beakers.  (I am aware that the Grin Low burials are not quite comparable to that of the Amesbury Archer, apart from the date, but using material from the latter gave us a good deal more artefacts to play around with than the few flint tools and broken vessel found in the Grinlow barrow).  The task I then set the children was to think about how the items might have been deposited in the grave, nominate someone to be the deceased and lie in a crouched position, then re-enact the funeral or burial rites as they saw fit.

The results were varied.  One group split themselves further into three subgroups.  One of these subgroups danced, one chanted and the other placed objects in the grave, and then they swapped roles.  Another group was much more sombre; they cried, knelt, tore at their hair and placed objects individually as and when they wanted to, some speaking as they did so, whispering such things as, “this was my favourite dagger you can have it now” or “here is your precious beaker, you will need it for the afterlife.”  The third group was quite different.  Their take on the whole thing was that the people buried had been murdered – a triple murder in fact.  They began their exploration by re-enacting how the people may have actually died, chasing each other around the hillside with pretend daggers.  However, after some encouragement, they did go on to think about what may have happened at the funeral of these three people in the Early Bronze Age.  Interestingly, this largely entailed one boy nominating himself as leader and ordering the others around, only allowing certain individuals to approach the grave and only when he said so.  Some, however, he did not allow to approach at all.  I asked these people how they felt about it.  Unsurprisingly, they felt it most unfair, at which point they rebelled.

The case of the Victorian Rocking Horse

The second case study is that of the Victorian Rocking Horse, which started with an exercise I often use to introduce and explain stratigraphy and the Law of Superposition (Fig. 5).  In this exercise, children are asked to place images of objects on painted soil layers according to the age of the object – the older items lower down, the younger items closer to the top.

On one particular occasion, after considering the images in her possession one girl took an image of a Victorian rocking horse image and put it towards the top of the layers alongside an image of a mobile phone and a Royal Wedding mug (Fig. 6).  Although this is not where I had intended it to go, I did not tell the girl she had put it in the wrong place, that she should have put it lower down in the ‘Victorian’ layer.  Instead, I asked her why she had decided to put it there. She answered that she had put it there “…because I have one just like it at home.”  This stopped me short.  I had certainly not expected this. I had expected to talk with her further until ‘we’ agreed that it could go lower down.  Although this girl had not put the image where I had expected her to, I didn’t tell her that she had put it in the wrong place because she had not: she had put it in exactly the right place.  What we then went on to do was discuss her rocking horse– was it really Victorian or was it in a Victorian style?

stratigraphy exercise

Fig. 5: Stratigraphy exercise. (Photo by author).


Fig. 6: The Victorian Rocking Horse with other modern objects. (Photo by author).

What benefits?

Now, you may ask, how is all of this beneficial to the children or to me, the archaeologist, involved?  Surely, in the case of Solomon’s Temple, these children were just play acting and having a good time running around the hillside.  They certainly were, but I did not simply stand back and watch: as the groups explored and acted and re-enacted, I questioned them, about what they were doing and why they had decided to do things the way they had.  In the case of the boys, they stuck fast to their murder idea.  I found it difficult to counter their determination, especially as there is little evidence regarding the bones – for instance whether they showed any signs of trauma, such as a hole in the cranium or an arrowhead stuck between the shoulder blades.  The arguments I used were along the lines of – the burials were of a type and if we began to say these had been murdered then you might have to say that all EBA crouched inhumations were murder victims – but in the end I found I was unable to say they were not murder victims. I certainly did not know for sure.

I began to think I really must be better informed and start to improve my arguments, particularly for my work with children, and here then is surely one benefit: working with children means that as an archaeologist, I need to know what I am talking about.  Children are not ‘clouded’ by the same assumptions that we as adults are, they don’t take things for granted.  They ask the basic questions – think of the toddler in his or her ‘why?’ phase. I relish that phase, because it makes me think and it makes me question what I think.  For the children at Solomon’s temple, the fact that I was, in turn, questioning them, making suggestions and asking them to consider the evidence, meant I was encouraging them to be critical, certainly a skill that will be of lasting benefit to them, even if their conclusions were not to my liking.

The benefit in the case of the Victorian Rocking Horse was that, for the girl, her choice was vindicated.  For me, it was that I was sharply reminded of the fact that objects can be curated and in use for a long time after they were initially made – a fact of which all archaeologists need to be aware at all times.

In both cases then, after giving their opinions and ideas, the children were prompted to think further, to think critically: their ideas were not dismissed, but neither were they simply accepted.  The children were questioned and directed to think about and explore why they thought the things they did, through conversation and through action, and as a result were constructing and creating their own knowledge. If the boys at Solomon’s Temple decided the bodies had all been murder victims after this then so be it!

For us archaeologists, we can have our eyes opened, as Kador and Ruffino suggest. Indeed, I was delighted with the considered responses I received from the Solomon’s Temple trip and will ponder on many of these ideas regarding chanting, dancing, and placing of objects as I take part in fieldwork on prehistoric sites.  In addition, children’s explanations can cause us to reflect on established ideas, such as in the case of the murder at Solomon’s Temple when the boys held true to their original belief.  This does not mean to say that I agreed with them, or that I changed my mind, but it certainly taught me not to rest on my laurels.  As such, archaeologists can be pushed to reassess accepted interpretations, if only to hone their arguments for whenever a different view is encountered.

Sometimes we, as archaeologists, can also be reminded of basic principles: in the case of the Victorian rocking horse, I was sharply reminded that objects can be curated and in use for a long period of time before entering the archaeological record.  In my work with children I have also been acutely aware of the fact that children and indeed all people have pre-existing knowledge and assumptions which they bring to bear on archaeological material, which they must fit into existing schemata and in order to understand it.  This is important for me as a teacher, certainly, but also as an archaeologist: I become aware of my own assumptions and I become aware of the assumptions of other archaeologists too.

Nonetheless, having recognised that there are indeed benefits, there is a caveat.  These benefits do not just happen by chance.  For both children and archaeologists, benefits only occur if we engage in meaningful dialogue.  It is through the language we use, the questions we ask, and those that we answer, that they are realised. As Vygotsky (1986) and Fisher (2009) demonstrate, it is through language that we share ideas, shape knowledge and learn.  Children’s interpretations are not inherently enlightening: if all we say is “oh, that’s interesting” and walk away, little is gained, but they can be taken as a starting point from where they, and we, can develop ideas.  Even where children’s surprising views on archaeology may touch on the ridiculous, the opportunity to develop their critical and reflective thinking (and ours) is made available and through this comes, hopefully, a real engagement in the past, a past that they believe is worth exploring.  I asked the archaeologists at Four Knocks Passage Tomb what they said to the group of children they were with.  They answered that they simply allowed the children to explore the place, during which time they realised for themselves that no Teletubbies lived there.  In the conversations that followed, using language that was in tune with their audience, Thomas Kador and Jane Ruffino enabled Irish school children to become engaged in their past.

There is one final thing I would like to say about a benefit of engaging children in archaeology: through this process we are reminded that children lived in the past too.  When they tell us their views of the past – such views as the Teletubby house or the murders on Grinlow – we get a glimpse of how children see things.  If children’s views differ now, how would their views on the world have differed from the adults, from whose point of view the past is mainly, if not always told?

© Dr Catherine Parker Heath, September 2013.


Bartlett, F.C. (1932). Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Fisher, R. (2009). Creative dialogue: talk for thinking in the classroom, London: Routledge

Kador, T & Ruffino, J, (2010). ‘Teletubby landscapes: Children, Archaeology and the Future of the Past’ in S. Koerner & I. Russell (eds.), Unquiet Pasts: Risk Society, Lived Cultural Heritage, Re-designing reflexivity, Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd. pp 320-343.

Koerner, S & Russell, I. (eds.). Unquiet Pasts: Risk Society, Lived Cultural Heritage, Re-designing reflexivity, Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Langley, S (2011). ‘Local archaeology services at risk’, CBA Information [online]. Available at: <>. Accessed: 8th March 2012.

Pritchard, A (2008). Ways of learning: learning theories and learning styles in the classroom, London: David Fulton

Vygotsky, L (1986). Thought and language. Rev. ed., Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Waite, S. (2011). Children learning outside the classroom: from birth to eleven, London: SAGE


[1] Although this now seems to have been addressed in the new Primary National Curriculum, due to come into force September 2014.5


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