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The legacy of ancient Greece: a community curriculum project

Written by Sally Waite |

In this week’s guest post, Dr. Sally Waite (Newcastle University) tells us about a public engagement project which was recently supported by the ICS’s small grants scheme.

the legacy of ancient greece

The Legacy of Ancient Greece is one of six ‘pop up’ events for a larger research project led by Professor David Leat and Ulrike Thomas (Centre for Learning and Teaching, School of Education, Newcastle University). The project is centred on enquiry based learning with an emphasis on community curriculum making. A community curriculum involves pupils undertaking projects using community assets and resources with the aim of encouraging student curiosity, creativity and responsibility. Key to the community curriculum is some kind of end product with a public audience, underlining the emphasis on connecting with places and people outside the school. These connections, and the emphasis on an end product, raise aspiration, increase engagement and enhance the quality of the work produced. A community curriculum promotes different kinds of learning experiences, foregrounding creativity and hands on approaches.

The Ancient Greece ‘pop up’ is a collaboration between academics from the Centre for Learning and Teaching and the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle University, curatorial and learning staff from the Great North Museum and Belsay School. The ‘pop up’ delivered an intensive introduction to Ancient Greece for Year 3 and 4 children (aged 7 – 9) at Belsay School, a small primary school in rural Northumberland. It took place in the Great North Museum, on the Newcastle University campus and in Belsay School over 6 weeks (February – March 2018). The focus of the ‘pop up’ centred on the theme of Greek legacy and the children worked with a potter and artist (funded by the ICS) to create original art works for an exhibition.

The central premise of the project was that we would organise the curriculum around key objects from the Shefton Collection and these would form the starting point for lessons and creative activities. The Shefton Collection of Greek and Etruscan Archaeology, named after Professor Brian Shefton who established the collection, has been housed in the Great North Museum since 2009. The use of the collection by local schools is well established; the Museum’s education team run two successful workshops centred on Ancient Greece. Our project aimed to embed the collection in a new curriculum, and we focused on five topics pertinent to the theme of ‘legacy’:

  • Herodotos and the writing of History
  • Coinage
  • Superheroes: Perseus and Herakles
  • Architecture
  • The Olympic Games  

We launched the six week project in school by thinking about what archaeologists do and testing our new archaeocube. The archaeocube is a specially designed, portable box to be used indoors, which creates some of the features of an archaeological excavation. This allowed the children to understand the concept of stratigraphy as they uncovered the different layers of the cube. Moving down through modern layers the children discovered coins, pottery sherds and spindle whorls from an imagined Greek house, a mosaic floor and finally a grave.

In the second workshop the children had the chance to handle more ancient Greek artefacts and were encouraged to think about what materials they were made from and what survives archaeologically.  The children worked in groups to research the five legacy topics.

potted history

In the third week the children came to the Great North Museum where they were encouraged to look at any objects which interested them and then ask their own questions. They learned about Greek history and worked with Graham Taylor of Potted History. Graham demonstrated ancient Greek pottery making techniques and then helped the children to produce a clay model of the god Pan, who features in Herodotos’ story of the Athenian athlete Pheidippides who ran from Athens to Sparta during the Persian Wars.

In the fourth week the children came to the University Library where we looked at Greek coinage and superheroes.  They made replica Athenian coins with Fimo modelling clay and silver powder. We thought about how Greek heroes could be compared with modern superheroes and listened to the story of Perseus and the Gorgon. The children then made gorgon faces from Plasticine, inspired by a gorgon antefix in the collection; the also learned about the Greek hero Herakles and then tried decorating a fragment of pottery with an excerpt from one of the twelve labours. They looked at an Athenian red-figure fragment showing the head of Herakles from the Shefton Collection.      

For Belsay Primary School, the biggest local asset for the teaching of Ancient Greece is the magnificent Greek revival Belsay Hall. In the fifth week, working with the artist Mina Heydari-Waite, whose own practice is informed by Greek antiquity, the children designed their own Greek revival homes inspired by Belsay Hall, linking this activity to the theme of architecture. The children also worked with Mina to produce watercolour paintings of the goddess of victory Nike taking as their starting point a marble statuette once in the collection of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and now in the Shefton Collection. This tied in with the Olympic Games topic and the children were able to handle an oil pot used by a Greek athlete and encouraged to think about other objects associated with athletes.

We have selected a range of the best artistic works relating to the five topics for an exhibition and in the final week, working with a graphic designer, the children created a small guide which will accompany the exhibition.

(All images © Sally Waite)

Editor’s note: The ICS is currently offering small grants (up to £500) to support public engagement activities run by UK-based researchers in classical subjects. The deadline for the current round is 15th June 2018. For further information visit our grants page.