British Prehistory Project
A soon as British Prehistory appeared on the Primary School Curriculum I knew there was work to do. For a start, I knew very little about this time period and I quickly discovered that many teachers were not too confident about tackling this remote part of our history. However, the Ashmolean has a strong collection of wonderful objects spanning the thousands of years from the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age (from as early as c300,000 years ago) to the Iron Age (c750BC – 43AD). So, it seemed crazy not to find a way of using these objects to help teachers and pupils engage with the lives of our ancient ancestors. Fortunately we also have an enthusiastic and approachable curator, Alison Roberts. So when I approached her with a plan to populate our web pages with a range of resources for teachers including zoomable images, downloadable PDF resources and films, I was delighted to find a keen collaborator.
Now all I needed to do was research the historical period, pick all the key objects from our collections, create a new taught gallery session for schools, write some notes for teachers, train my session leaders and plan all the resources. And, of course, I had to find funding as, without money, the films in particular would have not been possible. Again, the stars were on my side and I secured a discretionary grant from the Oxford University Museums Partnership.
With the funding secured, Alison introduced me to William Mills, a PhD student at Oxford who specialises in Palaeogeology. Will is also a member of the Oxford University Palaeotechnology Society. This group of experimental Archaeologists are skilled in a number of Stone Age crafts and technologies. Will was really keen to be involved with the project and he and four other members of the society offered to demonstrate four key techniques that our early ancestors developed to make their lives easier. Finally, my colleague Helen Ward enlisted the Oxford University Media Unit – she had worked with them on a previous project - to film the action. The sun shone on the allotted day and there were plenty of nettles to make cordage and dry material to make fires once the bow drill had created a spark. Will made a whole variety of flint tools and the whole group got stuck in painting an animal skin with pigments made from charcoal, chalk and ochre. The media team and the archaeologists were on a roll and four films became 11 by the end of the day. The only negative part of the day was when a dog appeared ‘on set’ and ate half our picnic. We never did meet the owner!
One of the biggest challenges in the project was finding quality original handling objects. I was determined to use original artefacts if possible as nothing beats the wonder of touching something that another human made and used thousands of years ago. Again, Alison was invaluable as we sourced a few handling objects that had been shown to her at an identification day at the museum. Her expert eye could spot the good from the very questionable piece of worked flint with ease. It was also helpful to work with a number of local schools when we piloted our new taught gallery activities. Through discussion with colleagues at the Ashmolean, teachers and children we were able to ensure that the session and the web resources would meet their needs.