Schools - our recent collaboration with St Michael’s Catholic College
We’ve been working with pupils and teachers at St Michael’s Catholic College to learn more about the Thames foreshore in Bermondsey. In this FROG Blog, trainee Teacher Christine Moxey explains how we used foreshore archaeology as part of their history programme.
In May 2022, Year 7 at St Michael’s Catholic College investigated the lives of women in medieval London, through a study of Thames objects and then finally venturing to the foreshore in search of historic objects.
In this history unit, pupils learnt about preservation as they handled objects from the Thames Discovery Programme loan boxes, and experienced mudlarking. This was part of a unit focusing on the enquiry question ‘What can we learn from the Thames about the lives of women in medieval London?’, each lesson focused on a specific object within the context of women in pilgrimages, the wool trade, laundry work and the brewing industry. This was a local study as it focused on Southwark, which I planned as part of my teacher training with the support of St Michael’s Catholic College, UCL tutor, and collaborating with Thames Discovery Programme.
Through our collaboration with Thames Discovery Programme we gained permission to mudlark on the foreshore and collect objects for Year 7’s mudlarking school exhibition. Our trips to the foreshore were led by members of the Thames Discovery Programme team who were able to share their knowledge about the objects that we found.
Getting hands on
The loan boxes were used in the first lesson of the enquiry to introduce pupils to Thames objects and mudlarking. The loan box was a collection of assorted Thames objects, ranging from pieces of red ancient Roman pottery, vivid green Tudor ceramics to white clay tobacco pipes and animal bones. The collection of objects provided two main activities for the lesson. The first was a material sorting activity to show pupils the common objects found on the Thames (e.g., pottery, plastic, and glass), and the second was a pottery sorting activity in which pupils learnt how to distinguish between the different characteristics of pottery through time and understand how people’s preferences in colours and styles changed.
It was rewarding to witness how highly engaged pupils were in handling objects and ‘figuring out’ which period each pottery belonged in. It was a valuable experience for pupils to learn about objects through hands-on experience and reasoning, as this type of kinaesthetic learning helped students see the value of the Thames in learning about the past. Holding and inspecting the objects naturally aroused many questions from pupils, e.g., one student asked, “Is this the neck of a bottle?”, while holding up part of a pipkin (cooking pot), which then facilitated a class discussion on whether a neck designed for pouring would have a covered base, and therefore what other function this object may have had.
After the following lessons on what a pilgrim’s badge, spindle whorl, death of a laundress and a jug can reveal about women’s lives in the Middle Ages, it was time for Year 7 to do their own ‘mudlarking’. As anticipated, mudlarking along the foreshore, searching for objects, was a highly engaging and enjoyable learning experience for all pupils and many expressed that this was the most interesting part of the topic for them. Students were astounded by the quantity of objects that they found from different historical periods. There were many pieces pottery (some Roman!), bones, shells, clay pipes and industrial pieces. One pupil exclaimed, “You can find anything from 100 years ago to 2 weeks ago!”. It seemed that many came to understand the value of the Thames as an archaeological site that can provide an insight into the lives of people through time.
This unit showed how objects and fieldwork can engage and motivate pupils as tangible learning experiences to investigate the past. I hope more pupils can work with the loan boxes to learn about objects and experience the excitement of mudlarking. For the pupils at St Michael’s Catholic College, the learning was particularly meaningful as they investigated the history of local women. Mudlarking during the summer of 2022, with such inquisitive and promising young historians, is a memory I will cherish forever and one that I hope they also look back on.