Digging Up the Past

School pupils have been getting their hands dirty (virtually, that is) as part of series of free, fun online archaeology-themed workshops.

Dig School was launched to help teachers and home-schooling families inspire 8 to 15 year olds to explore history from their laptops and tablets, offering them the chance to develop new skills and knowledge and continue to enjoy learning during what has been a challenging time for both schools and their pupils.

The project was devised by Professor Carenza Lewis, well-known for her appearances on TV’s iconic archaeology series Time Team and now Professor for Public Engagement at the University of Lincoln. It has been developed in collaboration with the Council for British Archaeology and funded through Historic England’s award-winning Heritage Schools programme.

Dig School has been underpinned by Professor Lewis’ research into medieval settlements, which is transforming our understanding of the long-term development of apparently unchanging rural towns and villages by charting changes in the number of pottery sherds over centuries. Several of her recent publications have discussed one very topical event – the impact of the medieval Black Death plague pandemic.

“For the first time, the pottery data are showing that nine out of ten settlements shrank, on average to half their former size, after the pandemic,” explains Professor Lewis. “Like today, no settlement was left unaffected, although no evidence of this now survives above ground, just those tiny scraps of people’s long-discarded pots.”

Thousands of teenage school pupils had helped with the excavations, and when this 21st Century pandemic closed UK schools in March 2020, Professor Lewis was keen to see if an online programme could engage students in the same way that the actual digs had done.

She says: “I’d seen how the hunt for new discoveries in unexpected places, such as village gardens, enthralled even the most reluctant learners, and hoped we might be able to do the same online to help students, teachers, and carers during this difficult time."

Dig School is about learning how to use evidence to answer questions, and finding out how to make new discoveries in ordinary places without necessarily leaving your house, as nobody could during lockdown. Enquiries include Stone Age life and medieval murder, and pupils can examine evidence ranging from archaeological artefacts, historic maps, and ancient bones to scientific data and Google Earth.

Professor Carenza Lewis

The workshops feature videos and interactive activities in the shape of challenges, puzzles, games, and investigations. Assessment tools and certificates are also provided for schools and home-schoolers wanting to evaluate and recognise students' learning.

"Week by week, students have been able to enjoy developing new ideas, interests, and transferrable skills for life and learning, leading up to real excavations in places where they live, which have been carried out by students as far away as Colorado”, says Professor Lewis.

Dig School was launched as the new term started in late April 2020, with schools still closed to the majority of students. Within a month it had attracted more than 1,200 registered users responsible for 61,000 learners. The majority of these were in the UK, but others were from as far afield as Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, Australia, Peru, the USA, and Canada.

“The response from teachers and parents has been really positive, acknowledging how much they and their students are gaining from Dig School,” adds Professor Lewis. “Many have mentioned the animated discussions that have arisen, while feedback during the workshops has revealed the real impact that they are having on a wide range of learning skills.”

To find out more about Dig School, visit the project website.

Meet the Expert

Carenza Lewis
Professor for the Public Understanding of Research


Carenza Lewis

Carenza Lewis is Professor for the Public Understanding of Research.

She combines research and teaching in archaeology, history and heritage with public engagement, with particular interests in medieval rural settlement, demography and landscape; public and community archaeology; heritage; medieval history; and childhood in the past. 

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