Before becoming a mother, I have to confess, that I didn’t think a lot about what very small children would find entertaining on a day trip to a historic monument or a stately home. I just thought that babies would sit in the pram or on your knee having a jolly good time and not be much of a problem, and my little one did exactly that when he was still a baby. Now that I have a toddler on my hands its a different story. What I’ve come to realise over the last few weeks and months is that toddlers want to engage with anything and everything, and an active child like mine will not be fobbed off with a pram ride! What I didn’t realise is that most attractions had also struggled with the notion of an over excited toddler.
Its great that children in general are being thought of more and more and given ways to relate to history and enjoy our rich heritage, certainly there is much more for children to do than there ever was when I was a kid. However the multitude of glass, sharp edges and in one instance two foot drop on to a loosely fenced off mosaic floor did not make for a very relaxing day out when your small child is just getting the hang of walking! Displays were also generally too high and too complex to engage him. There are however some examples of museums and stately homes getting it so very right for our curious little explorers and I’d like to share those experiences with you.
On a recent trip to Swereby Hall, just outside of Bridlington on the North Yorkshire Coast, I was very impressed with what was actually a very simple way to engage a one year old in history. On the first floor of the house there was a very simple nursery display. The room contained a small bed and chest filled with period toys (minus the sharp bits and tiny bits to choke on!). My little boy was in his element playing with all of the lovely spinning tops and wooden horses, I’m pretty sure he thought he was at play group. It was however a lovely way to bring heritage into a language that he could understand and for a good half hour he experienced the world as a privileged child did over a hundred years ago. It had the added benefit of giving him somewhere to safely play watched over by one parent whilst the other zipped round the rest of the exhibition!
The second example was at Hull and East Ridding Museum, which houses the history and archaeology collections. At the beginning of the museum in the deep history part of the display is a representation of what it would have been like under the sea when the first animals where evolving. The room is filled with mirrors and fish hang from the ceiling creating the illusion of being under water. My child happily stared at this mesmerised by what looked like a vast expanse of water filled with fish. There was also lots of fossils for him to touch and feel the differences in texture and shape. Again although I know that the context of where he was and what he was actually looking at where lost on him being able to engage him, even a small amount, with history added to the enjoyment of the trip both for him and us!
These experiences begin to raise the question in my mind about whether engaging very small children should be given greater attention and if there are enough places providing multi sensory experiences which can cater for the very young (as well as be engaging for larger demographics). Do more of us need to get on our hands and knees and look around our exhibits and think about what dangers there may be to a toddler and what simple extras could be added to keep them entertained and informed? For example could more places provide toys and themed areas that small children can relate to? More objects that are baby friendly that out little monsters could craw/walk over to and pick up, chuck, chew on etc? Boards on the wall at ‘toddler hight’ that they could push buttons on, spin wheels on, put balls into? A lot of these things could be adapted to most family heritage attractions. I would be interested to hear other peoples thoughts and experiences on this.
Building the boat was an amazing experience….but we wanted to test it out! So we signed up for the Portsoy boat festival and precoded to have the time of our lives! For Katie and I the trip to Portsoy began with an epic mega bus trip from London to Aberdeen! for the bargain price of £1.50 each! From Aberdeen it was another bus ride followed by a taxi trip from a random village! To Portsoy, were we arrived in what was the middle of the night! As it was summer in Scotland we were far enough north to still have enough light to put up out little tent and get some down time before the festivities began!
The Portsoy boat festival is a celebration of traditional sea fairing and it was buzzing with excitement. The weather was fantastic with calm crystal clear waters in the harbour and a beautiful summer sun shining down on us. The boat had already been transported to the festival by Mark and his team from Archaeolink and we were ready to swing into action!
Archaeolink Neolithic boat moored in the harbour at Portsoy
Katie and I had also prepared for the event by painstakingly making some Neolithic style costumes to look the part!
Katie in her pig skin Neolithic costume! Well done Katie mine was made from some leather looking material from boyes!
We were also really lucky at the boat festival as we were joined by master coracle maker Dave Purvis who brought with him some spectacular modern and traditional coracles. And Kaite and I were straight on with our first lesson! Now paddling a coracle is a relatively easy thing, but there is a trick to it. Coracles are really stable as long as you don’t lean from side to side! Best to sit upright, paddle out the front in a figure of eight motion and only rock back and forth!
Getting the hang of it now!
Katie getting her first lesson from Dave
Modern coracles waiting to go out intot he harbour
Katie out in the saucer traditional coracle
Helen and Elenor taking the Coracle for a spin
Helen floating in the harbour in a modern coracle
After we’d mastered the coracles it was time to see if the large Neolithic boat that we spent all of Easter building could actually float! So we’re all loaded up, paddles in hand shoes off and headed out into the harbour! I’m pleased to say it did float and we made it round the harbour a few times! I’m not sure if we would have made it across the North sea or the Irish sea as we did have to have one sat in the back bailing out! One of the unexpected nice things about the cow skin of the boat is we took our shoes off to protect the boat and had a lovely fur carpet under our feat while sailing!
Off we go!
After our successful boat trip round and out of the harbour we managed to find ourselves some traditional Scottish smoked fish and sat by the side of the harbour in the sand enjoying a very sea side meal. One of the lovely things that came out of our trip to Portsoy was the enthusiasm for the coracles that was generated by seeing us take them out round the harbour. We soon had lots of families and children coming up to us and wanting to have a go at sailing them round the harbour. The kids really enjoyed it and it created a wonderful atmosphere. We had a ‘safety coracle’ out in the deeper water keeping an eye on people and making sure that no one left the safety of the harbour. A great time was had by all!
One of the best things about the festival was the relaxed atmosphere, traditional Scottish music floating over the port, still waters, beautiful weather, friendly people and free time on the water. It was lovely to feel close to nature and very close to how our ancestors would have travelled around the waters!
End of the festival after having a great time!
The first step to covering the boat was to get the basket out of the ground and tidy up its edges!
Pulling the boat slowly out of the graoun
Turning the boat over for the first time
Adding supporting beams and edges to the boat to give it strength
Adding a few seats for the rowers
Lifting the boat back onto stilts to be covered
Traditional boats were covered in animal skins that were applied white they were still wet, fresh from the body! they would then shrink during the drying process to create a hard water tight covering for the boat. The cow skins that we used were washed and cleaned prior to handing. How many cow skins does it take to cover a Neolithic boat?
The larger skins had to be sown together using traditional methods, but first the smaller skins had to be cut into strips so that the skins could be tied onto the boat.
Katie Marley cutting strips of cow hide
Katie Marley modeling some lovely cow hide strips
The next step was to stitch the large cow hides together to make enough to cover the whole boat.
Two cow hides being stitched together
Blanked stitch was the method of choice
And in some cases the hides were quite touch to get through! I can imagine Neolithic people needing some quite strong needled to get through it.
Now it wasn’t easy getting those cow hides to come together! We had at least one needle go through a finger! and a had to take turns getting the stitching done. At first the cow hides were also quite smelly (not in a bad way but smelt a bit like a butchers!). Luckily the smell clung to everything so you soon got used to it!
Now to cover the boat!
Skins going on the boat
Sewing up the last bits and pieces
Master coracle maker, Peter Falkner, myself, the lovely Katie and Ellen
Part three? what we did when it was finished!
It was approaching the 2006 Easter break and me and my fellow undergraduate friend, Katie Marley were about to set off on an epic adventure into the Scottish wilderness. Well to an archaeological prehistoric park at Oyne, Archaeolink! Our mission, to build a replica Neolithic boat to find out what it would have taken to make a boat that could have brought Neolithic farmers into Scotland.
Meet the team! Ellen, David, Peter Faulkner (master Coracle maker), Katie and me
The idea behind the project was to make a willow and hide boat that would have been big enough to carry cargo over to Scotland during the Neolithic. Although there is no direct evidence that Neolithic people would have used this type of boat, as it would only have survived in areas where there is exceptional organic preservation, we wanted to see if it could have been a possibility. Now apart from the wonderful Peter, the rest of us had no experience in making coracles! so it was a great learning experience for us! The first task was to trim the willow that would be used to make the boat.
Katie Marly getting to grips with trimming the willow
Helen Williams getting the hang of it!
Next job – making it pointy!
A coracle (which is what our boat was based on) is basically a very large basket covered in hide and sealed with tree sap and tar to make it water tight. The next step was then to weave the structure of the boat, basically into a very large basket!
The boat begins!
Pointy sticks in the ground!
Master Coracle maker who guided us through the whole process!
One to work….five to watch!
Masters at work!
The rest of us get stuck in!
Making the shape of the boat
Bending the stems over!
Looking a bit more boat like now
Making the bow
All hands to the pump to get those last thick willow stems to stay in place!
Ready for the skins!
View from inside the boat at dusk
Part two….covering the boat!
Well I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while! I really want to share with everyone the wonderful efforts of my friend and colleague Emily Hellewell in educating children about the Mesolithic. This was a project that came to fruition with a free activity day for children to learn about the Mesolithic in our own home institution at Kings Manor York University. The small part I played was the creation of the feedback tree.To find out more about Emily’s Mesolithic click here
Its always great when someone wants to talk to you about your research. Its even better when its also a chance to engage the general public. I had such a opportunity a few months ago when myself and my colleague Carol Lang were invited to speck on Elly Fiorentini’s drive time show! So there were were cup of tea in one hand, clutching micromorphology slides and blocks in the other. I had no idea what to expect as neither of us had ever been involved in anything like this before. After a lovely chat with the producer we were up for our half hour slot! I’m not sure who was more nervous me or Carol, but Elly soon put us both at ease and it was easy to forget about the microphones that were looming in front of us! As Elly was a pro it was easy to get into the rhythm of chatting to her about our respective PhD projects and having both the micromorphology block and the thin section close at hand were a great help in explaining what I was actually using to conduct my research! It was also very funny when she dropped one of the resin blocks! Not to worry they are very hard to break!
As part of my continuing work with the ‘Life in the Mesolithic project’ I was really happy when Emily Hellewell asked me to do some drawing for the kids worksheets. I was commissioned to draw the inside of a hut or dwelling so the kids could colour it in! and camp site for the kids to find flints in. I knew it was going to be a bit of a challenge with lots of interpretive traps that I desperately didn’t want to get caught in! So I stuck to what I thought were the ‘safe’ bits of the Mesolithic! I really like the end result and I hope the kids do too! These drawings will now form part of an activity pack, developed by Emily Hellewell and a team of students from York University, that will teach 8-16year olds all about the Mesolithic. The resource pack will be freely available to download, and links to this resource will be posted once it has been fully published. Can you spot all 15 flints around the camp site???
Who lives in a hut like this?
Can you find the 15 flints scattered around the camp?
My first experience of practical archaeology was at the wonderful site of Silchester. Which is an amazing excavation. It is also very rich in gravel. For the first two weeks of my archaeological experience I was digging a court yard area which was all various shades of gravel. I’m sure you’re feeling my pain. I’ve used this poem, which I wrote whilst on excavation, in a few presentations and so I thought it is time to unleash it on the world! Its just a bit of fun which I wanted to share!
One of the projects which I have been involved with here at the University of York is the Life in the Mesolithic activity days which are being run and organised by Emily Hellewell a fellow PhD researcher here. On Saturday the 28th June we had the first Life in the Mesolithic activity as part of the festival of ideas fringe activities. I was manning the Mesolithic fish trap making table and we had an amazing response from members of the general public. Both adults and children were really enthusiastic about making fish traps (and the other activities which were being show cased) and all had a go! For more information about further activity days and to meet the rest of the team please visit the Life in the Mesolithic blog.