Using individual artefacts to create a sense of period

What is this object from 80BC Greece?

Did you think it was part of a boat? A wheel of some sort? A winch device? If you did you share the ideas of most of my class. Additionally if you thought this was just a boring bit of rusty metal you’d probably be thinking the same as them too!

The object above is in fact the Antikythera Mechanism, an Ancient Greek object that has a series of metal cogs that can accurately predict solar eclipses. In essence, this is the world’s first computer, an astrological calculator built about 1500 years before astrological calculators appear in Europe. Now are you interested? The kids were!

Now this leads us onto the thinking bit. Why is this significant? What does it tell us about the Greeks? Hands up now.
– “It shows the Greeks were genius”
– “It shows the Greeks are interested in the universe”
– “It shows that the Greeks were asking questions and working things out”
– “It shows that the Greeks were logical”
– “It might show they still have supernatural beliefs as they are interested in the sun, like prehistoric man and the Egyptians were”

Sense of period is important and I have banged on about this before and probably will again. If our students have a sense of period they can contextualise their learning. If students have a sense of period they can visualise periods and thus improve their chronological understanding. Therefore this year I am trying out different strategies to teach this in my class.

The discussion above about the Antikythera Mechanism is just a snippet of the wider discussion we had about this object and illustrates that with just one, well chosen, object you can give students a sense of period, plus hook them in to their learning. I’ve been trying this with Year 10 this year to enliven my Medicine through Time lessons and so far its working a treat. With Prehistoric Man we looked at Stonehenge, where at least 90% of them how no idea that it was linked to the solstice and as a result very simply understood the importance of supernatural beliefs to this society. With the Egyptians we actually looked at a real mummy in Bristol Museum and discussed life and death. With the Romans I am going to use Barates Tombstone for his wife Regina (thanks to Chris Culpin for the suggestion!) where Barates, a Syrian, paid for a tombstone in South Shields for his freed slave wife from South England – how much does that tell us about the Romans! With these single objects and some good questioning I have been able to establish the themes for the lesson, give the kids a sense of the period we are studying and engage them in some decent history.

Now it’s my mission to create a list of these mystery objects to illustrate each period. Here’s where I’ve got to so far (with some much needed help from others – Chris Culpin, Donnie Houser at Bristol Museum and the brilliant 100 objects Radio 4 and British Museum project)

  • Prehistoric Man – Stonehenge
  • Egyptians – Mummy in Bristol Museum
  • Greeks – Antikythera Mechanism
  • Romans – Barates Tombstone
  • Dark Ages – Frank’s Casket in the British Museum (which shows both the Magi and an Anglo Saxon hero carved in whalebone)
  • Middles Ages – The clock in Wells Cathedral (the second oldest clock in the world)
  • 18th Century – The Coalbrokedale Blast Furnace (did a single fireplace start the Industrial Revolution)

If you have any other suggestions do let me know!

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2 Responses to Using individual artefacts to create a sense of period

  1. Ed Podesta says:

    Smashing post, and I’m really sad I missed your SHP conference workshop – next year eh?!
    I’d like to suggest a cup of tea for the industrial revolution 🙂 changes in world trade patterns, cultural value of the drink that does not intoxicate and the connection with sugar and slavery…. and you get to drink a cup of tea whilst teaching!

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