Book review. Pinning down the past: Archaeology, heritage and education today by Mike Corbishley

19th December 2012

Mike Corbishley The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2011, xvi+384 pp, ISBN 9781843836780

Reviewed by Craig Barker
Nicholson Museum A14,
The University of Sydney NSW 2006,

Of the broad research field that can be more or less indiscriminately described as ‘public archaeology’, it is the area of archaeological education, particularly that of primary and secondary education, which has generated a rapidly growing publishing industry in recent years. It is a significant and important area of study, as the earliest exposure to archaeology by students will impact upon the way they view, understand and value archaeological investigations for the rest of their lives. Studies have shown this even at the level of tertiary students who are engaging in archaeological studies at a university; often preconceived and incorrect notions of exotic adventurous romanticism, or the ‘Indiana Jones effect’, are difficult to combat even amongst those who should know better. The development of archaeology in educational curricula has been difficult across the world, often meeting resistance. At least considerable progress has been made from the era in which archaeological material merely existed to illustrate school history textbooks.

One problem is that it has often been difficult for us as a discipline conceptually to develop educational programs that actually work for children. Archaeologists themselves rarely have the resources or the training to provide curricula-based learning tools either for teachers or students, whilst educators, even with the best of intentions, rarely have any training in archaeological methodology beyond introductory levels. Traditionally it has fallen to either museums or educational programs run by heritage institutions to bridge the gap, providing kinetic learning experiences, or to the media (with its own inherent set of difficulties about communicating the truths of archaeological aims).

The author of Pinning Down the Past, Mike Corbishley, is in a rather unique position to write this book, the fifth volume in the ‘Heritage Matters’ series produced by Newcastle University aiming to address issues confronting the heritage sector in the twenty-first century. He lectures on heritage education at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, but, more significantly, he has a long background as both a field archaeologist and an educator. He was one of the founders of the Young Archaeologists’ Club, worked as a school teacher, was the Head of Education for English Heritage, and was involved in the development of education programs for archaeological projects in the UK, Greece and Turkmenistan. His more than four decades on the front line of archaeological education give him a special perspective on the worldwide development of archaeological educational outreach from both sides.

Although obviously aimed at a British audience and written largely from personal experiences, there is still much in this volume that is applicable to the Australian educational experience. This is particularly the case with chapters on the development of ‘Archaeology and Education’ that summarise learning resources available for educators, and present an overview of the inclusion of archaeology into school curricula from a global perspective. On the other hand, some chapters are perhaps too British- centric, especially the ‘Archaeology and the Media’ chapter, which is almost exclusively reviews of UK television programmes about archaeology. The chapter is not as useful as the rest of the volume in terms of direct examples of linking archaeology with learning experiences in the field, museums or the classroom. Corbishley emphasises at several points that the key message of this volume is that education should be looked at in its broadest sense, that is, to incorporate archaeology for the general public as well as in formal education. While both are important aspects of public archaeology in the UK, one wonders whether there is instead enough material to address the topics as two separate but more focused studies. The examination of the role of archaeology in formal educational settings is by far the stronger in this volume.

The role of archaeology in the Australian educational experience is varied; some states, such as New South Wales, have had a strong archaeological focus in the curriculum for many years now (albeit still more focused towards Egyptology and Classical archaeology rather than Australian archaeology). Other states have almost no archaeological components in history-based learning, thus depriving students of a more holistic understanding of the past. We await the new Australian National History Curriculum in its final form to see the future of pre-tertiary archaeological education in this country. The appearance of Australian archaeological stories in the media meanwhile remain, of course, incredibly rare compared to the UK experience (it still remains easier to see British archaeologists on Australian TV than their local counterparts). It is interesting to contrast our experiences with those described by Corbishley.

This volume is in many ways more a compendium than an instruction manual on archaeological education. It is not easy to read in its entirety, but works best when it is dipped into. As Corbishley himself writes, the book ‘takes in turns areas … present[ing] archaeology to the public and those in formal and informal education … Each section contains specific projects for teachers to use in presenting the evidence from the past as a learning opportunity.’ The sections are then divided relatively systematically: ‘Making Connections’ examines the major issues of public understanding of the past and ‘The Public and Past’ assesses the ways in which laypeople access the past. ‘Archaeology in Education’ is by far the most interesting section of the work, examining the history of archaeology in education in the UK and other regions, particularly focusing on the incorporation of archaeology into formal education curricula in several countries. ‘Investigating Evidence’ offers practical learning activities for educators, and the concluding section asks whether archaeologists can be optimistic that they are getting their message across (for the record Corbishley is generally positive about the British experience, albeit with some caveats).

The strength of Corbishley’s book is the detailed use of case studies for each chapter: family activities in the Roman Circus at Colchester, and education projects that ran in Athens and at Hadrian’s Wall. The Museum of London’s incredible public outreach program is described in detail, as are the initiatives developed at the Institute of Archaeology, such as wider participation programs designed to change the low levels of ethnic representation in the profession of archaeology in the UK. They provide a practical demonstration for the reader of situations where archaeological education does work, and good examples of interaction between archaeology and heritage and the general public, particularly school students. This makes the description of the funding cuts to education forced on the Council of British Archaeology (CBA) in 2010 all the more frustrating.

The examples presented in the volume of the use of archaeological material across non-history curricula areas are inspiring, and Corbishley rightly demonstrates that there are already sophisticated curriculum studies on areas of heritage management. One example is the pressure of tourism on sites, already being taught in schools around the world in a range of courses and curricula outside of traditional ‘ancient history’ subjects. The practical lesson resources designed to inspire younger students will give both educators and archaeologists some inspired ideas for explaining archaeological methodology to adults as much as children. They include teaching stratigraphy using sponge cakes, studying garbage from school dustbins, and the cataloguing of student’s own household items.

It is, after all, beneficial to all in our profession to develop stronger community relations and educational programs—to engage with students and to explain the aims, achievements and difficulties of archaeology. Corbishley’s book provides a valuable guide for how we can proceed based upon his own observations.

Craig Barker
Book review. Pinning down the past: Archaeology, heritage and education today by Mike Corbishley
Book Reviews
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