Ancient history school: what's new with the old?

Archaeology camp!

Archaeology camp!

In January 2019, the University of Tasmania held an archaeology field school for teachers. This year, I attended and at the end of the first day, I was hooked.

The dig was in historic Oatlands, Tasmania, the centre of the military action against local aborigines and as such, has a dark history. It was a base for the 41st and 63rd regiments who were the roving parties that ‘dealt with’ local tribes during Tasmania’s ‘Black Wars’. In addition, Oatlands managed a number of convicts who were assigned to build the roads between Hobart and Launceston. The commissariat building and guardhouse were central to both these activities conducted by the military and recent restoration worked uncovered some interesting graffiti.

The dig site is that of the old guardhouse. The key questions of the initial excavation were determine whether the plans of the guardhouse match the remaining features and to determine whether this site is a ‘typical’ site for the time and purpose. We were an excited team of history teachers from all over the east coast of Australia. Our purpose was to get hands on experience at an archaeological dig, experience the excitement of uncovering the past and to determine how we could bring the experience to the classroom.

Day 1 was all about getting our heads around the incredible history of Van Dieman’s Land and Oatlands, courtesy of a local historian and legendary story teller. Here are a couple of book recommendations:

We then spent some time with the archeologists working out where to put our trench to maximise the opportunity of uncovering key features and finds. This involved looking at previous excavations that revealed some of the buildings foundations and then determining the best place for the new trench. While all of this was going on, we were battling extreme heat, wind and dust - not to mention checking on various bushfire warnings! Welcome to Australia in summer! The key lesson here is prioritising personal welfare and safety. This was good lesson for me as when I teach archaeology in the classroom, I do so in a climate controlled environment and the consideration of environmental factors are not fully understood from the comfort of air-conditioning.

After a tutorial about the basic tools and processes used to peel back the very top layer of soil, we were removing:

  • lots of bone fragments, including jawbones!

  • broken glass fragment - clear and brown glass

  • broken ceramics

  • metal nails

  • a button

  • marbles

  • modern rubbish: glass, bottle tops, plastic.

At the end of the first day, we categorised our finds, bagged and labeled them. This was a good activity as we can easily do this with students in a classroom. Categorising and sorting artefacts allows us to discuss continuity and change, evidence and perspective.

In the following days, we were fortunate to be in the company of some real experts in Tasmanian archeology, history and heritage conservation. We spent time in the artefacts lab, wallpaper conservation room and exploring conserved colonial buildings (see Twitter and Insta for full images and stories). We also got a lesson in photogrammetry from a geophysicist. This is the process of converting a series of photographs into a 3D image that can be studied from every angle - exactly the type of activity that would work in a classroom, as there is free software!

It has been an exceptional honour to work on this project and to be a tiny part of a larger vision for the site. Oatlands has some wonderful heritage and it is great to see such passionate professionals working to save it for future generations. The Commissariat building is just a taste of what is to come.

So what ideas are there for teaching archaeology the classroom? These are a few ideas that the team were tossing around and we think they could easily be applied in the classroom:

  • measuring and stringing out a trench - this could be done on the school oval using measuring tapes, graph paper, tent pegs and string. The purpose is not to dig (can you imagine the response from the PE Dept?!) but to learn how to mark out a trench and grid it into squares ready for digging.

  • if you can leave the trench marked out for a day or two: scatter various objects in the squares and students can plot their location within the square on graph paper. Collect the artefacts, categorise, bag and label.

  • categorising and sorting a selection of artefacts - old/vintage objects are easily purchase from second hand stores. Students could choose an artefact and tell a story about it.

  • bring in a sample of the oldest and the newest objects from home - what do they reveal about continuity and change?

  • plot objects from home on a timeline.

  • choose an artefact from a collection and experiment with photogrammetry using the free software (just google).

  • collect objects of a similar type (eg all kitchenware from a span of decades) and see if students can determine their use and comment on continuity and change - think about how much the knife has changed over time!

Feel free to email me or leave a comment if you have any questions or ideas to share. Otherwise,

Go forth and conquer!

Behold Bastet

Behold Bastet

The Buddhas of Bamiyan

The Buddhas of Bamiyan