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Musings on the Discipline of Archaeology

Think of a subject and I’ll show you where it fits with archaeology.

When planning our new ‘Archaeology from the Stone Age to Iron Age’ workshop, I wasn’t surprised to find that it could very easily address National Curriculum Learning Objectives in English, Maths, Geography, History, Science, ICT and Religious Education. This session, like others on offer, is also well-placed to attend to ‘life skills’ associated with Citizenship, PSHE and/or Functional Skills. You would be hard-pressed to find another discipline that could do this across the key stages without a certain sense of manipulation and superficiality.

Archaeology is also enjoyable. Perhaps it is the sense of mystery, of puzzles to be solved, but teachers and parents have discovered, and still are discovering, how archaeology engages children whatever the ability of the child. Low ability in literacy and mathematics is no indication of how well children will apply themselves to unravelling the mysteries of the past yet, such activity provides a vehicle for putting literacy and numeracy to the test in ‘real-life’ situations. It also allows Gifted and Talented individuals a chance to develop their higher-level thinking skills through addressing epistemological questions such as “how do we know what we know about the past”? Thus, archaeology caters for everyone.

However, archaeology is more than a means to fulfil curriculum objectives, albeit in an enjoyable way. Once, during a conversation with Professor Julian Thomas from the University of Manchester, he explained to me why he was so fascinated by the British Neolithic rather than the Ancient Civilisations of Greece or Egypt. He said the attraction was in the attempt to understand people who had lived in the landscapes in which he now lived, but who had done so in such very different ways.

Often, the focus is on the ’sameness’ of the past, and certainly highlighting connections to today and our own experiences can engage learners but, as argued by King (2003) and echoing JP Hartley (“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”), we should not forget that the past was, in many ways, fundamentally unlike the present. Whilst an understanding of these differences (as well as the similarities) can be seen in terms of curriculum objectives, they can also, and just as importantly, be an opportunity to for children to gain an understanding of peoples who are different from us. Understanding breeds tolerance and, in our growing global society where ‘difference’ is increasingly colliding, surely this must be welcomed.

Refs: Hartley, JP (1953), The Go-between,  London: Hamish Hamilton King, M (2003). Unparalleled Behaviour: Britain and Ireland during the ‘Mesolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’, BAR British series 355


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