Last week I began been looking at very early impressions of the ancient peoples of Britain so thought I’d share some initial thoughts. This is a subject I’m hoping to look at in more detail during the course of the project. As adult participants in the world, we each draw on our own individual experiences, circumstances and ideologies when we engage with our heritage. But what about those who have yet to develop a sophisticated understanding of their personal place in society, and who are encountering the past for the first time? What messages are we presenting to pre-school and primary age children, either directly or unintentionally. How are these received, interpreted and built upon?

Recollections from the 1970s

First impressions often leave a strong and enduring image that colours all subsequent learning and experience. How often have you had to ‘re-learn’ something that you were previously sure of? Something picked up or subconsciously absorbed during childhood? My own image of Hadrian’s Wall has certainly been substantially re-worked since I first heard about it at primary school, although, as I do seem to have had a good early grasp of basic round house construction!

‘Now men could build huts…’ My First History Book by Kate Sharpe, aged 8. (Mrs Shore’s Class, Stramongate School).

A few years later I was fascinated by the ground-breaking (for its time!) fly-on-the-wall documentary Living in the Past. For those too young to remember, it followed a group of volunteers as they faithfully recreated an Iron Age settlement based on archaeological interpretations of evidence from nearby sites. They spent an entire year there, with minimal outside intervention. The nation was gripped, despite the fact that the format included no public votes and no competitive element. The programme depicted a non-hierarchical, egalitarian community, with no chieftain. This was despite the 1970s focus in academic literature at the time on warrior elites (e.g. Cunliffe’s Iron Age Communities in Britain). The approach was oddly prescient, as later studies became much more focused on rural communities and the ‘sustainable’ Iron Age (e.g. Gwilt and Haselgrove’s Reconstructing Iron Age Societies).

Iron Age idyll or ‘Hell on Earth’ at Butser Farm. Image by Midnightblueowl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] vua Wikimedia commons.

And the Romans?

We meet Roman soldiers and emperors in very different contexts as we grow up. Roman acts of control and persecution lie behind the two major Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter with Herod and Pilate clearly the villains. Do children hear about these ‘bad guys’ and their ‘mean’ soldiers even before they are taught about invading armies or, indeed, all the ‘good’ stuff the Romans did for Britain (e.g.

“Then they began to laugh at Him and spit on Him and hit Him” . Image from

Geographical variations?

I suspect that just where about in Britain (or, of course beyond) you grew up may also have a strong bearing on your early impressions of Romans and of Iron Age communities. School children in Carlisle and Newcastle are perhaps more familiar with ‘border control’ issues than those in, say, St Albans and Colchester – who may be better versed in the Boudiccan Revolt. How many Scottish pupils have visited a Roman villa or bathhouse? How many from eastern England understand the difference between a legionary fort and a hill-fort?

Hill fort distribution: geographical variance in understanding of ancient identities? Image from by Jean Manco, adapted from Konstam &Bull, The Forts of Ancient Britain.


Current media: dramatic licence?

In the digital age there is, of course, a plethora of TV and websites featuring the Roman and Iron Age periods. These include the entertaining, informative, and hugely popular Horrible Histories series of books and TV shows that features the Rotten Romans and Cut-throat Celts. One (very) special episode is devoted to the story of Boudicca. No-one comes out of this particular account very well! But perhaps Boudicca wasn’t exactly Disney princess material – as noted by the Rejected Princesses website. How far do popular shows use drama to engage their young audiences? What messages are they conveying by using terms like ‘cut-throat’?

Horrible Histories uses dramatic alliteration to engage young readers. No ‘Insipid Iron Age’ or ‘Reliable Romans’ here!


Back to school…

The current primary curriculae in England, Wales and Scotland have some guidance on what should be covered at Key Stage 2 or 2nd Level (age 7-11) but lack much detail. The BBC assists with its BBC Bitesize, although here the focus is heavily on the Romans, with just one web-based ‘Learner Guide’ and 11 ‘Class Clips’ (short videos) for the Iron Age compared with 6 Guides and 37 Clips for Roman Britain. The British Museum also has an active education programme which is using a live link up from the classroom to the Museum. I’ll be talking to Lizzie Edwards, part of the Schools and Young Audiences team, about this to find out how they decide what to cover and how to present it. During the IA&RH project I hope to talk to other outreach workers, teachers and museum guides and to take a look at the many education packs available, to try and unpick some of these issues and find out what ‘first impressions’ kids get in 2017.

If you have any strong memories of childhood encounters with Roman or Iron Age places or people I’d love to hear from you!