Active Learning on

The Riccall Mystery
How do we Carry out Historical Enquiry?


The main purpose of this activity is to introduce or consolidate the process of historical enquiry. The historical context – the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 – is therefore subsidiary although the activity could contribute to work on the events of 1066. And it’s also good for developing discussion skills, teamwork and understanding the kinds of activities that will take place in History lessons.

The activity takes place is in 3 stages:

Stage 1 - Digging up the mystery

Stage 2 - The Core Enquiry

Stage 3 - Debriefing – understanding the historical process

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

Or, a WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

Certainty/Uncertainty cards are also provided for the ends of the ‘washing line’. There are two alternatives – both options assume you use an A4 printer:

  • For an A3 card – i.e. sticking two A4 pages together [ click here ]
  • For an A4 card – i.e. a smaller, single A4 sign [ click here ]

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

The main purpose of this activity is to introduce or consolidate the process of historical enquiry, click here.

Setting Up

General - set up the room so there is space at the front to organize some students along a Certainty-Uncertainty continuum or ‘washing line’. Put a big notice saying CERTAINTY at one side of the room and another saying UNCERTAINTY at the other.

For Stage 1 you need the accompanying PowerPoint screen Clue A which shows some of the bones that were excavated at Riccall near York. Have this picture ready to be revealed on your whiteboard but hidden for the moment. You will also refer to trowels and brushes – but you don’t need them as they’re all in the imagination!

For Stage 2 you will need the additional (Clue A) information on the PowerPoint as well as Clue Cards B-H. Note that the clues are not revealed in one go but 3 groups. Firstly you’ll give out Clues B and C, then Clues D-G and finally Clue H (note this is also on the PowerPoint because the use of colour is important and showing it on the screen may be easier than printing it on a colour copier).

For Stage 3 (Debriefing), you need tabards for the historical process labelled:

  • First evidence
  • Ask questions
  • First hypothesis
  • More evidence
  • Revised hypothesis

The Activity - Stage 1
Digging Up the Mystery

Your first task is to conjure up the scene of the discovery, drawing your students in so they think they are there! It only takes a minute or two but it’s great for creating that ‘Wow’ factor – and for helping students forget the strains and excitements (?) of the previous lesson, break or lunchtime.

First get at least some of your students to come out to the front and kneel on the floor [if you’ve got space, get everyone doing it]. Next, everyone, not just those kneeling, must close their eyes.

Now you create the scene with a description something like this.

“You’re taking part in an archaeological dig, looking for evidence buried long ago. It’s early morning. The sun is starting to warm your back but it rained yesterday. You can probably feel that the ground’s still damp through the knees of your jeans. It’s time to start work.

Pick up the trowel by your right knee. Start to scrape away the soil where you were digging yesterday. Careful! Just scrape gently. That’s right, scrape carefully – Oh! What’s that?[sound tremulous and excited!] I think I saw something gleam in the sun.

Put your trowel down. You don’t want the sharp edge to damage what’s there. Pick up your brush and very gently brush the soil away, that’s it, very gently. I can see it now. Wow! It’s looking incredible – this is quite a find … you’ve done really well. This could be on TV!

Now when I count to 3, open your eyes and look up and see what you’ve found ..”

And that’s when you reveal the bones on your screen – hopefully to cries of ‘Oooh’ and ‘Wow’!

Now ask – ‘what questions do you want to ask about what you’ve found?’

This is an important task because asking questions is a much-neglected historical skill. Depending on your class you might

  • build up a list of questions from class suggestions
  • prompt students by providing a list of interrogative words – ‘Who?’ ‘Why?’ ‘How?’ etc for them to use in questions
  • use the ‘question dice’ to prompt questions, asking students to come up with a question or questions using the word that turns up when the die is rolled.

Next is the delicate part – manoeuvring the list of questions so that you then investigate the ones that the material leads into – ‘Who were these people and how did they die?’

Stage 2 – The Core Enquiry

The basic enquiry is: Who were these people and how did they die?

The following steps take you through the enquiry. While this activity has been published in book form (see Resources below) this stepped-approach is much more effective because (a) it allows you to feed in the sources in manageable groups, hiding the key Clue H until the very end and (b) it enables you to make explicit and discuss the process of the enquiry while the task is continuing.

1. Show students the extra (Clue A) information on the PowerPoint slide about other excavations, the number of skeletons and what’s been learned about them.

Now hand out Clue Cards B and C to each group. Give students a few minutes to examine and discuss this evidence, getting ideas about who the people were and how they died. [With some classes at least, give a clear time-limit and count it down to inject a sense of purpose and urgency.]

Then ask two groups at least what their ideas are about who the people were and how they died. [any groups not asked can be brought in when you begin using the ‘Certainty-Uncertainty’ washing line]. Stress to students that you’re not looking for certainty but for ideas. As students provide answers focus on their use of language – pick out and praise use of hypothetical language – ‘possibly’, ‘might be’ etc.

After a couple of replies from groups, start to use the ‘Certainty-Uncertainty’ washing-line. Get one pupil from each group to stand on the washing line, showing whether their group is completely certain about who the people were and how they died (unlikely at this stage), completely uncertain or somewhere in the middle. If you wish you can ask a couple more groups at this stage to explain why they’re standing at that particular point. Also introduce the word ‘hypothesis’ and explain what it means – after all, each group should have a hypothesis, however uncertain, after looking at Clues B and C.

Why use the washing line? It’s to show that uncertainty is OK in History, it’s a stage in any new piece of work or enquiry and that, especially early on, it’s OK to be close to the uncertainty end. This ‘it’s OK to be uncertain’ may well be quite different from students’ expectations of what happens in History and from what’s expected in other subjects so it’s critical to make this explicit. You can also scatter the vocabulary cards [‘may be’ ‘probably’ ‘opinion’ etc] along the washing line to reinforce the kind of language students should be using.

2. Now hand out Clue Cards D-G and ask the pupils to reassess their initial ideas. Does this evidence support their ideas or does it contradict them – do they need to completely re-think their hypothesis? Again give the groups time to look carefully at the clues, making sure they’re aware of how much time they have. Then ask one or two groups about their revised hypothesis and whether their level of certainty has changed. Having done this, ask one person from each group to again take up their group’s position on the washing-line. Discuss their ideas, focus again on vocabulary and which clues have led them to shift their positions (Typically pupils become more certain – though not completely so - and they can see this explicitly by their movement along the washing line).

3. Finally look at Clue H on the screen (see PowerPoint slide) or hand out Clue Card H (if you can print it in colour). This clue reveals that the six people whose skeletons were examined grew up in the areas shaded blue on the map – you will need to explain this carefully before asking students to re-assess their ideas for the final time. Are they all now standing at the Certainty end of the line – or do some still have doubts?

[The probable answer is that the skeletons belonged to members of Hardrada’s Viking army, defeated at Stamford Bridge, killed during the flight back to their ships at Riccall. However we can’t be completely certain. Doubts might be based on the fact that only a few of the skeletons were examined by scientists or on the female skeletons. Archaeologists suggest that the female skeletons belong to family members of the warriors who came to settle in England (Hardrada was claiming the crown, not simply raiding). [See below in Resources for further notes on this].

Stage 3 – Debriefing – Understanding the Enquiry Process

As noted above, the main purpose of this activity is to identify the stages of the Enquiry process so that students can use it again with increasing independence later in their History courses. Therefore it’s important to take time to identify these stages and relate them back to the activity just completed.

Stand 5 pupils in a cluster at the front of the class, each wearing one of the tabards labelled to show the process – make sure they’re in a random arrangement, not the correct sequence! The 5 labels are shown below in (3).

Now ask the class to say which of the tabards describes the first task in their enquiry (first evidence). Get this pupil to stand at the start of the Process-Line. Consolidate this by referring back to the skeleton activity – what did we do at this stage?

Then get the class to identify the next part of the process and then the next, till all 5 pupils are standing in the correct order on the Process Line.

First evidence

Ask questions

First hypothesis

More evidence

Revised hypothesis

Other points to make in the debriefing:

a) It’s OK to be uncertain in History! Students often expect everything in History to be certain but this activity has demonstrated that it’s normal, part of the process, to move from uncertainty along a line towards greater certainty – and it’s easier if you have the vocabulary to explain the extent of your certainty/uncertainty.

b) History is repetitive! This is a process you’ll use again – a lot! It may be helpful to make a comparison to another subject with its own commonly-used process (Science?). Emphasise that History isn’t just a lot of different things but a lot of enquiries – and knowing how to tackle an enquiry will give students more confidence and help them learn more easily and effectively (and so it helps if they re-use the enquiry fairly soon!)

And for next time ...

You could use the PowerPoint on ‘Remembering the Enquiry Process’ as part of the Debriefing (see this PowerPoint in the Developing Enquiry Skills section of this website) but it would work much better if you replace the photos to show your own students undertaking the activity.

This PowerPoint will be most useful when you next carry out an enquiry to remind students quickly of the process.

And finally …

This activity works well with teachers at CPD courses so if you’re ever doing whole school CPD on learning styles or looking at similarities and differences between subjects (or even showing parents what happens in History lessons) then this activity is worth trying. Just one warning – make sure those colleagues who kneel down to excavate can also get up again without help!


This activity is also available in What is History? Year 7 by Ian Dawson, Hodder Education.

This activity was developed after watching the last programme in The Blood of the Vikings TV series, programme 6 “The Last of the Vikings” (often re-shown on UK History channel) which contains a section investigating these skeletons. It’s 8-9 minutes long and can be found c.10 minutes into the programme. It creates a genuine sense of puzzle and investigation and shows the scientific tests on the teeth and the results, the wounds on some of the bones and also addresses the issue of the skeletons of the women and children. The archaeologists on the programme seemed convinced, therefore, that the skeletons belonged to Viking soldiers who had been at Fulford and Stamford Bridge. Most teachers I have used this activity with have been a little more sceptical about the certainty of the conclusions, often suggesting they may be the bodies of peaceful settlers.

Strangely, the book of the TV series (Julian Richards, The Blood of the Vikings, BBC, 2001) scarcely mentions Stamford Bridge or these skeletons, concentrating instead on skeletons from the battle of Fulford.

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

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Setting Up

Activity – Stage 1

Activity – Stage 2

Activity – Stage 3

For next time

And finally