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UCL Public Engagement Blog



Handling History with Sarah Dhanjal Part 3

By Caroline Francis, on 15 July 2020

As 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 working with objects from Ancient Greece, taking a close look at one of them, as well as what it’s like being the special visitor at school.

A long time ago, students in the Institute of Archaeology designed an Ancient Greek resource to be kept in a school for part of the topic, with accompanying material to help teachers structure a range of lessons. It was large and heavy, and included more objects than a one hour session could possibly need. I worked on the development of a new session and set of objects with the collections manager. We now have a pared-down collection to handle that leads to discussion of topics such as writing, gods/goddesses, food and drink/trade, the Olympics and warfare.

Booking a session in is part of my work. I’ll get an email to say a school are interested, so I will contact the teacher and take it from there. Finding dates and times that work can be a challenge as I work freelance, so have other commitments to balance as well. I will tell the teacher about the session and try to get a little more information about the classes.

Arriving at the school on the day I start to get more of an idea of what it will be like. The sounds from the playground as I walk up, what sort of work is on the walls, how the children react to me as a visitor. I’ll sign in and await my staff contact. I’ll usually ask a bit more about the class, what they have done so far and what they are like. This is really helpful as I can think about how I might need to begin the class. Do I need to be strict to start off with? Are there children with hearing impairments who need assistive technologies? If so, I might be asked to use a microphone pack when I am speaking. If there are children for whom English is a second language, I need to be aware of trying to use appropriate language so everyone can understand. Most of the museums I work for try to get this information on booking, but teachers don’t always have the time to be able to provide it. I am used to adapting.

I love all the objects I get to use as they all tell different stories. One of my favourites is this piece of Greek pottery.

A Greek pot sherd from UCL’s archaeology collection.

It’s great to work with because it sparks so much conversation. The Greek session doesn’t focus on what objects are, more on what stories they can help us tell, or the process of interpretation. One of the least helpful questions we can ask is, “what is it?”, but it is the question we all naturally want to start with. Once it is answered it doesn’t feel as important to understand what other things the object tells us. If we start off looking for clues first, there is a lot more to talk about and learn from.

Have another look at the object and see what you notice.

One thing the conversation always includes is the love hearts. It’s been suggested that the love heart image originates in the Medieval/Renaissance period and that these are actually stylised leaves. I always feel as though that disappoints pupils: maybe it’s an idea that brings the Greeks a bit closer and makes them seem more human, so it is a lovely idea that is a little hard to let go of. They do help us orient the image, they’re at the bottom.

The main image is a man in helmet and a chariot wheel. The image would have been painted onto the pot once it had been air-hardened and polished or ‘burnished’. The paint was actually clay of a different type to the pot. Once that was dry, details could be scratched in and highlights in other colours added. The final colours would have only been seen once the pot was fired. It was a skilled job and we even know the names of some Ancient Greek potters because of this.

So, my main question to pupils is, what do you think happened to the person in the image? I’ve had some great suggestions, based on the evidence they can see. He has been run over, in a war, or a chariot race. He is fixing his chariot. He is hiding!

Primary school students engage with items from the archaeological object boxes Sarah has developed.

Can we know for sure? Well, having the rest of the pot would help tell the rest of the story, sadly we don’t have it. It’s not uncommon for pupils to tell me they want to be an archaeologist, because of this sense of unsolved mystery. It’s what inspired me too.

You can’t tell from the picture, but the object has a slight curve; it is almost flat but the image is on the convex side. This suggests that rather than a plate, it might be a lid. Did that add to your understanding, knowing what it ‘is’? I always discuss what archaeologists think, but the classroom conversation that has come before is always more exciting and rich.

Read part 1 and part 2 of the Handling History series by Sarah Dhanjal on the UCL Public Engagement Blog.

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