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Bits & Pieces: Using Clues to Reconstruct the Past

Introduction

Breaking things can be very satisfying. Here’s your chance to break some pottery in a good cause – helping students to learn about the process of doing history. Andy Harmsworth, who teaches in Kent, takes you through this activity – you might even want to go further than Andy and take your class out to ‘discover’ and dig up the bits of pottery you’ve carefully broken and planted – but make sure it’s a site you can easily find again!

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Support

A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section).

Or, a WORD version of this activity can be downloaded, click here.

This activity is based on the ’Archaeology & Mystery’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.

Objectives

This context-free activity is intended to help students understand the process of history and in particular:

  • how historians and archaeologists use clues to reconstruct the past
  • how they find evidence from the clues to support their conclusions
  • why it is possible to study the same clues and still reach different conclusions about the past.

It can be used, mainly for discussion, with students of any age (including adults!). Here it is suggested as an introductory activity to be used early in Yr7 when pupils are studying a topic which focuses on different interpretations of the past.

Setting Up

You will need two exact copies of several inexpensive, breakable objects. Pottery is ideal! For example, two cups, bowls, jugs etc. The more decoration and complicated the design the better. You could use old household objects in your attic or buy some from a jumble sale or boot fair, like this cheap pottery bowl:

A suitable piece of pottery

Smash up one of each object into several pieces; go on enjoy yourself, but don’t pummel them into dust! Then choose three or four pieces which contain different clues about the complete object, like the ones in the picture, for example:

Pieces of pottery that provide good clues

Save the broken pieces in a plastic bag, together with the complete object. For a class of 30 you will need at least six bags. Each should contain:

  • one complete object
  • and three or four broken pieces of it

IMPORTANT: Health and Safety Note

Before you use the broken objects with pupils, make sure that there are no sharp edges which could cut their hands. Use sandpaper or a file to smooth any sharp edges.

The Activity

Inform pupils about the objectives of the activity. Then divide them into groups of about three or four.

1. Give each group one piece of a broken object. Ask them to examine it carefully to work out what the complete object looked like. You could give them a series of questions to answer like the ones below:

 

Questions about the whole object:

Your answers:

Evidence which supports your answers:

1. How big was it?

 

 

2. What shape was it?

 

 

3. What colour was it?

 

 

4. Was it decorated or plain?

 

 

5. What was it made of?

 

 

6. How old is it?

 

 

7. How was it made?

 

 

8. What was it used for?

 

 

 

Alternatively ask them to produce a reconstruction drawing showing what they think the whole object looks like. Whichever approach you use, make sure that, before they move on to the next stage, pupils can support their ideas with evidence and discuss how certain their conclusions are and why

2. Now give pupils another piece of the same broken object. It should contain some further clues for them to identify. For example extra decoration, part of a rim or spout. Repeat the process explained in stage 1 above. Ask them to discuss if they want to change some of their original answers to the questions, or their reconstruction drawing, – and why? Are their new ‘answers’ better than their previous ones – and if so why?

3. Now give pupils a final piece of the same broken object. It should contain at least one final clue for them to assimilate into their thinking. Repeat the process explained above. Ask them to produce their final answers or reconstruction of the complete object. They should discuss if they want to change some of their previous answers to the questions, or their reconstruction drawing and, if so, why? Are their final ‘answers’ better than their previous ones – and if so why?

4. Now show each group of pupils their complete object. Ask them to discuss how accurate their final answers or reconstruction drawings were; draw their attention to size, shape, colour, decoration, materials, age, method, and use. Then ask them to discuss why their ‘answers’ were not completely correct.

Debriefing

Tell your pupils not to worry if their reconstruction drawings were not very accurate or they didn’t get all the answers to the questions right. The most important thing is that they have used incomplete clues to work out what something used to be like. This is what historians and archaeologists do all the time!

Archaeologists often find just a few pieces of a broken object or parts (usually the foundations) of an old building. Then they try to work out what the complete object or building was like. Historians too can only look at the clues which have survived to work out what the past was like. Just like your pupils, they can never be sure that their ideas are totally correct!

Use the follow-up discussion to help pupils understand that archaeologists and historians:

  • use ‘bits and pieces’ (sources) to investigate the past
  • examine them to find clues
  • use these clues to reach conclusions
  • can never be certain if their conclusions are totally right!
  • AND that finding out about the past isn’t easy but it can be fun!

Notes & Variations

1. If you can find enough copies of the same object to use with the whole class (at least 12 : six to keep and six to break up), you can investigate the concepts even more effectively ; you can easily demonstrate how different groups of pupils have reached different conclusions about the same object ; and ask them to explain why.

2. Alternatively, you can easily adapt this activity into a short whole-class starter for a lesson which focuses on different interpretations: show pupils pictures of the broken objects on an OHP or interactive whiteboard. Follow the same procedure as above, but bear in mind that using pictures will not have the same impact as pupils actually handling the objects, especially for kinaesthetic learners.

Reflections

  1. Was this a motivating and enjoyable activity and how effectively did the groups work as groups?
  2. What did pupils learn from this activity that they don’t normally understand so well?
  3. Where else might you use this technique to build on what pupils have learned?
  4. Did you enjoy the activity yourself? If so, why

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Feedback

Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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This Page

Introduction

Support

Objectives

Setting Up

Health & Safety

The Activity

Debriefing

Notes & Variations

Reflections

Feedback