20 February, 2015

Lessons in the field

Christina O’ Regan ponders the benefits of practical site visits when teaching archaeology


Communicating archaeology to the general public is perhaps the single most important aspect of our careers as archaeologists, and community projects are central to this goal. In 2012, while working on the Ulster Scots Archaeological Project with our colleagues in URS and Northlight, IAC availed of the opportunity to engage primary and post-primary students in fieldwork.

The Ulster Scots Research Project is a three-year project formulated by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure which aims to raise awareness of Ulster Scots history, heritage and culture. It is hoped that the work undertaken during this project will provide a clearer understanding of the impact that the Plantation had on the landscape, peoples and architecture of Ulster.

The project involved several strands of fieldwork and research including a major survey of all known Plantation-period archaeological sites, the preparation of teacher resource packs and a landmark publication detailing the results of the field survey. Three archaeological excavations were also undertaken at sites either known, or thought to date from the Plantation period. During the course of each excavation the IAC team was assisted by a large number of enthusiastic, energetic and talented pupils from local primary and secondary schools. The pupils, aged between 6 and 17, had a unique opportunity to dig in our archaeological trenches, have hands-on experience with artefacts and learn how to use some of the survey equipment commonly used by archaeologists.

During each annual excavation over 200 pupils visited us and it was as much of a learning experience for the IAC team as it was for the students, not to mention the teachers! A series of activities was devised and the school visits were carefully structured so that each pupil got the opportunity to participate in each of the activities.

Our first excavation took place in a green field outside Bangor, Co. Down. Here we had been hoping to find evidence for tenants’ houses as depicted on Thomas Raven’s 1625 map of the Hamilton estate. As there were no actual ruins for the children to engage with, we focussed our activities on the everyday work of the archaeologist – trowelling, washing finds, laying out grids (Pythagoras’ theorem went down a storm on that one!) and using the dumpy level. They even got to experience the joys of working through the rain – though strangely they didn’t seem to mind.

The second excavation took place at Derrywoone Castle, Newtownstewart, Co. Tyrone. For the first time, the children had a substantial ruined building to explore and investigate and we were able to supplement our school visits with a tour of the castle.

By the time of our third excavation at Monea Castle, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh we had the process of pupil engagement down to a fine art. Each school group was divided into four and rotated between activities which included surveying, sieving, trowelling and art. As we had one of Northern Ireland’s most impressive castles to draw inspiration from, we encouraged the children to let their imaginations run wild and illustrate elements of the castle or how they imagined it might have looked in its heyday. Monea Castle possesses several interesting architectural features including a latrine chute and a dovecote – the latrine chute was a particular favourite during the guided tour.

For IAC, the most rewarding aspect of this work was the feedback received from the pupils and teachers. This demonstrated that they learned a great deal about our shared heritage through active participation in archaeological fieldwork. We hope that these experiences were helpful to the pupils as they explore archaeology through the national curriculum but also that it will sow the seed of appreciation for archaeology that goes beyond what could be gleaned in a classroom.

Christina O’Regan, Senior Archaeologist, coregan@iac.ie