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UCL Public Engagement Blog



Handling History with Sarah Dhanjal Part 2

By Mohammed Rahman, on 10 June 2020

The second part of a series looking at museum work that happens outside the public eye, we asked one of our longstanding workshop leaders about their experiences using different collections with primary school children. Sarah Dhanjal was an undergraduate and graduate student at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology and went on to a career working in engagement with many of London’s museums and collections. Here she talks about developing and running a workshop about the Stone Age, including using a handaxe from Walthamstow. Words by Sarah Dhanjal.

Sarah Dhanjal in action at a primary school.

When prehistory finally made the National Curriculum in 2013-14, archaeologists were simultaneously pleased and worried. It is the only topic that can justifiably be taught using archaeological evidence alone – it’s not really ‘history’ until the Romans start writing about Iron Age peoples. But the suggested structure of the curriculum meant it was likely to be taught at the beginning of Key Stage 2, in Year 3, when children are aged 7-8 years old. Prehistory is complicated, people made so many amazing developments. How was it going to be possible to get that complexity across to such young minds?

Popular images of prehistory are common: that people were “cavemen”, they lived with dinosaurs, “looked like monkeys” and “said “ugh!’”; these are all things children have told me are ‘true’ multiple times. Whilst archaeologists don’t believe any of these ideas to be true, prehistory, in many ways, exposes how much of what we ‘know’ about the past is interpretation. Interpretation is based on sound evidence and reasoning, but all too often it can sound like we don’t really ‘know the truth’. Concepts like real/fake, true/false are pretty important to Key Stage 2 pupils.

A Palaeolithic hand axe- an object used in the outreaches.

The National Curriculum talks about “changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age”. The UCL Institute of Archaeology collections did not have anything from the Bronze or Iron Age. However, we knew we could demonstrate technological changes from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic and that this could easily fill an hour’s workshop.

In the introduction to the session I focus on what evidence there is for the Stone Age, trying to answer the question which underpins history early in primary school: how do we know? The objects in the session show us that there is evidence missing as well, more on that later.

A polished Neolithic axe- an object used in the outreaches.

The chronology element of prehistory is a big challenge. One part of this is stratigraphy – that is, where the object was found in the ground in relation to things that are older (usually below) and newer (usually above). I explore this with the children through an imaginary dig, which is supported with an animated slide of a diagram of the things we might find in a trench, each lower than the last. I ask for volunteers to show us how to dig, the rest of the class copy them. Elements of interaction and theatre are really important in keeping this engaging.

The main handling activity revolves around putting the objects in order based on comparison of the tools. We talk about what sort of tools you would make if you hadn’t had much practice and if you needed them for hunting larger animals (Palaeolithic). We then talk about how tools would change with practice and the kind of tools you might need as a farmer (Neolithic). The pupils have the chance to explore all of the objects, which move round the class and in pairs so that they see objects from each period at the same time.

A Neolithic sickle- an object used in the outreaches.

We then discuss how objects were used. First the pupils tell me which they think are Neolithic and we explore their uses together, we then look at the Mesolithic and the Palaeolithic in turn. We talk about what they noticed about the tools, whether they are, or would have been, sharp and good for cutting. How they could be held for use or if they were hafted (attached to a handle or strap). We also talk about whether they would be effective if thrown, observing that the objects are generally too heavy to have been throwing tools. One of my favourites, a pointed handaxe from Walthamstow, is very heavy and always gets a collective “Woah!” when I first show it to the class.

In response to my earlier question, yes, it is possible to give children as young as 7 or 8 a hint of the complexity of prehistory. Our workshop supports the teaching of chronology, the use of evidence to ask and answer questions. It gives teachers and children the chance to handle objects from London that are thousands of years old. And they get to meet (and ask questions of) a real-life archaeologist!

Read part 1 of Sarah’s blog.

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