Archaeological skills and concepts


The worksheets attached to this package can be used as information sheets by teachers or by pupils. They are intended to help children become familiar with methods of investigating the past other than looking at historical documents. They can also be used with enquiry based worksheets looking at the archaeological remains left from each period. Below are short descriptions of what each worksheet aims to do and links to the full worksheet, should you want to use it.


National Curriculum Links

This package is intended to supplement historical knowledge, skills and understanding. Many archaeological skills also involve geographical skills.

History; Key Stage 2 & 3; Knowledge, skills and understanding

  • Develop, extend and deepen chronologically secure knowledge and understanding of British local and world history.
  • Develop the appropriate use of historical terms, using historical terms and concepts in increasingly sophistacted ways.
  • Understand the methods of historical enquiry, including how evidence is used and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed.
  • Construct informed responses that involve thoughful selection and organisation of relevant historical information.
  • Understand how our our knowledge of the past is constructed from a range of sources [for example documents, printed sources, the media, oral accounts, artefacts, pictures, photographs, music, historic buildings, ICT-based sources and visits to museums, galleries and sites].

Geography; Key Stage 2 & 3; Knowledge, skills and understanding

  • Use maps, atlases, globes and digital mapping and plans at a range of scales.
  • Use the 8 points of a compass, 4-and 6-figure grid references, symbols and key (includingthe use of Ordnance survey maps).
  • Interpret a range of sources of geographical information, including maps, diagrams, globes, aerial photographs and GIS.
  • Observe, measure, record and present the human and physical features in the local area using a range of methods including sketch maps, plans and graphs, and digital technologies
  • Use GIS to view, analyse and interpret places and data.
  • Describe and understand key aspects of human geography, including types of settlement and land use.
  • Understand how aspects of human and physical geography and land-use patterns have changed over time.
  • Collect, analyse and draw conclusions from geographical data, using multiple sources of increasingly complex information.


Archaeological words 

There is an illustrated glossary giving explanations of archaeological words used in the website. The glossary terms are not exhaustive but do cover some of the most common and more outlandish terms used in Buckinghamshire's Heritage Portal. Many of the glossary terms also have accompanying pictures as examples or to illustrate some of the more technical ideas.


They can be browsed by clicking on Special Features in the menu bar and then on Glossary Terms. There are also links from the difficult words so your pupils can easily consult the glossary to work out what a word means as they come upon it.


You can use the archaeological words worksheet with your pupils to help them get familiar with archaeological words before they do other work on Buckinghamshire's Heritage Portal. This helps towards literacy targets as well as learning words associated with history.


The first task involves finding definitions of some of the most widely used and jargonistic terms in archaeology. These are artefact; earthwork; monument; landscape; feature; BC and AD. They are all defined in the glossary. Your pupils may need a bit of help to get their heads around some of the concepts, others are easier to understand.


The worksheet continues with four types of monuments that represent different periods in archaeology: prehistory; Roman; medieval and post-medieval. This is a chance for your pupils to look in depth at what these monuments are and draw a picture of them (from the illustrations in the glossary term) so they understand them more fully. They have been given a definition of the monuments and they have to find the word that encapsulates all of the definition. The terms (in order) are barrow, villa, monastery and ha-ha. 


The following worksheets explain and set out activities to help your pupils understand some of the basic concepts and techniques of archaeological theory and investigation. They are all suitable for use in the classroom.


Looking at landscape:

Lumps and bumps in the ground

This worksheet outlines using plans and aerial photographs of earthworks, what to look for when out in the field. This will be a useful worksheet to do before visiting any earthwork sites.

Hedgerow dating

This worksheet gives some principles for hedgerow dating, which is useful for dating the age of field boundaries, and, therefore, the fields themselves. There is also a checklist of species you may find in hedgerows. You can then go out and date some of the hedges of the late Saxon, medieval and post-medieval period. See the Resources section for a website on hedgerow dating.


Map-based skills:

How to read a map

This worksheet starts with 2 figure grid references and there are options to extend the activities to 4 and 6 figure grid references for older or more able students. An optional extension activity would be to select an OS Landranger map of your area and ask the children to work out the 6 figure grid reference of archaeological features, like settlements, tumuli, hillforts and mottes. You must contact the Council Archaeology Service for the maps to accompany this worksheet.


This activity is for use at Key Stage 3. It enables the students to understand how contours are created on maps and also to transfer the contours on a map to a scale model.


Aerial photography:

How to interpret aerial photographs

This worksheet gives the principles for interpreting aerial photographs and some examples for the students to test their understanding of the concepts.

How to plot from aerial photographs

This worksheet should be used in conjunction with How to read maps. It outlines two techniques for plotting from aerial photographs. Sketch plotting could be done with most students whereas the network method could be used with older or more able students.


Building recording:

How to measure the height of a building

This gives a number of different ways you can measure the height of a building. Try them out on the school and then use the most successful to measure the height of an historic building to help with the next worksheet.

How to record the fabric of a building

This worksheet gives some principles for recording the exterior and interior of a building. You could either give it to your children to read or take them through the principles yourself before recording the exterior or interior of the school as a practice and then an historic building.

How to date buildings

This worksheet gives some principles of the history of architecture for both secular and religious buildings, along with illustrations of each item. This is to be used in conjunction with either the worksheet about dating your village’s church, buildings or doing a character assessment. There are many links to building and church architectural history websites in the Resources section below.


Artefact interpretation:

Rubbish bin excavation

This worksheet asks the children various questions about the rubbish they are going through. You can either arrange to bring in rubbish from home or from a friend and the children have to deduce something about the person from his or her rubbish, or you can use rubbish bins from around the school and the children have to work out which room they came from. This activity can also explore the idea of decay by getting the children to think about, out of everything in the rubbish bins, what would survive for archaeologists to find in 500 or 1000 years time. It is advisable that bins are vetted before use and any hazardous items removed. Children should wear latex gloves and aprons whilst looking through the rubbish.

What do archaeological artefacts tell us?

This worksheet is best undertaken with real and replica archaeological artefacts. These can be borrowed from the Schools Library Service. The worksheet asks the children questions about the material, colour, shape and weight of each artefact and then challenges them to work out what it was from and what kind of date it was. This is done through an illustrated glossary of similar artefacts; the children have to match up the objects and the pictures. Your students could also look to see what is in their garden and bring that in to compare with the illustrated glossary. More pictures can be found on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website, the website address is in the Resources section, below.


Archaeological site interpretation:

Decay and destruction

This worksheet invites the students to think about what types of things decay when put in the ground and which types of things don’t. They are then given the records of four archaeological sites and asked to work out how each site was destroyed, was it left to rot, burned, flooded or dismantled? They can then make a decision as to which form of destruction leaves the best-preserved sites. The archaeological site records are available under the Resources section below.

How to interpret archaeological site plans

This worksheet gives some examples of site plans for the children to interpret. The principles of site recording are explained so that the plans and sections of features and whole sites become intelligible. This will be useful when interpreting site plans in order to draw a reconstruction.

Understanding stratigraphy

Stratigraphy is a concept that has been borrowed from geology. Rock strata were laid down in sequence so that the oldest are at the bottom and the youngest at the top. Some of these strata have moved over the years and lower strata have sometimes risen above the upper strata but generally the principle is strong. The same is true on an archaeological site. Roman layers tend to be below Saxon ones. You could demonstrate this with a layered cake. If you cut through a cake, you can see several layers. With a Victoria sponge cake, the top layer of cake could be medieval, the jam Saxon and the lower layer, Roman. However, it gets more complicated on archaeological sites because humans have a tendency to dig into the ground, digging through earlier layers so that the strata get mixed up.


Reconstructing the site:

Draw a reconstruction

Once the students have learned how to interpret an archaeological site plan, they will be in a better position to draw a reconstruction of what they think a site looked like. They will also be encouraged to find out about predominant building materials for each period to incorporate into their reconstruction.

Evaluate a reconstruction

The children will be asked to evaluate the reconstruction of the Saxon site at the Orchard, Walton, which is accompanied by information about the site. There is also a link to the West Stow reconstructed Saxon village below to see how much the artists have drawn on previous reconstructions. Print off a copy of the reconstruction for each child and get them to create a spider diagram around it. Where different sources of evidence have been used for a specific element of the drawing, they can be written in different colours. When a report is written the colours are all grouped together. This helps the students form paragraphs.



Do a character assessment of your village or town

This worksheet introduces your students to the concept of Conservation Areas and doing character appraisals. In this way it ties in with Citizenship targets by explaining one of the duties of the local authority. It also develops the idea of dating buildings and can be done after the How to date buildings worksheet. Instead of characterising a conservation area your class could characterise their whole village or part of their town. The children will be asked to split the area you have chosen into character areas. Character can be defined by a number of things, such as the size, scale and style of buildings as well as things like the detailing on the houses, the provision of front gardens, front walls or fences, driveways and so on. The local authority often uses character appraisals to inform planning decisions. Perhaps you could contact the Conservation Officer for your local area and ask them to have a look at the character appraisals your class has done.

Giving advice on a planning application

The children are asked to think about an area you have studied in detail, such as your own village or town. Several thousand houses need to be built and the children have to figure out where they should be put, what they should look like and what the names of the streets should be. They will also need to think of ways of using any archaeological earthworks in a positive way so they contribute to the development but also so they are protected and conserved. Alternatively, the children can take a site like Quarrendon, which has Tudor garden earthworks, the moat of a great house, fishponds, the ruins of a church and three deserted medieval villages within a small area to the north of Aylesbury. Three thousand houses have recently been built in this area, so perhaps the children could use this as an example.

New uses for old buildings

The class are asked to choose an empty building in your village or town. The class should visit the building and be split into pairs. Each pair takes notes and photographs of the building and writes these up into a report on the state of the building. They are then encouraged to ask local residents what they know about the past history of the building and what they would like to see done with it (see our suggested residents survey questions). Finally, the report and the residents survey can be put together into a planning application to your local planning authority. You can contact a planning officer for your local area who may be willing to check the ‘planning applications’ and give feedback to the students.


Virtual excavation

This interactive game is based on Whiteleaf Hill near Princes Risborough. There is a chalk-cut cross, Neolithic barrow, medieval or post-medieval windmill mound and First World War practice trenches up there, amongst other things. Several investigations have happened up there over the past few years. This game is set at the start of those investigations, so your pupils have to find out the date and function of these sites. The main challenges are:

  • Find the age of the chalk-cut cross
  • Find out how much of the Neolithic barrow was dug in the 1930s
  • Find out whether a mound is a Bronze Age barrow or a windmill mound
  • Find out the state of the practice trenches

Your pupils will have to decide on which method of archaeological investigation would be best in each case; this is to highlight the fact that there is more to archaeology than just digging. Your pupils can see a definition of each method and can ask the Virtual County Archaeologist for advice on which to choose. Basically the choices should be:

  • Cross = desk-based assessment (research - in the virtual library).
  • Barrow = excavation (though you are prompted to look at the earlier excavation results first).
  • Windmill mound = geophysical survey (electrical/magnetic underground prospecting).
  • Practice trenches = topographical survey (surveying the upstanding remains).

It may be good to split the class up into groups with one or two looking at each project. Alternatively you could use the game on the interactive white-board and run through all the projects over several lessons. You will be prompted when you can print out the screen to draw or label a plan etc...

After the first task is done each project then carries on to look further:

  • Cross - 2nd step is to look at the snails from the site and find out what the environment was like in the past.
  • Barrow - 2nd step is to look at what has been excavated and draw it - you can print out pictures and label them as well.
  • Windmill mound - 2nd step is to excavate as the geophysical results are not conclusive. Then you can compare the results to other barrows and windmill mounds.
  • Practice trenches - 2nd step is to go into town and talk to locals about what they remember about the trenches, and you can look in the virtual library for cuttings from local newspapers.

The game then ends with information about how to write and draw up the results. This is where it would be good to have the class working in groups so different people are doing different parts of the report, e.g. someone is drawing the pottery, someone is drawing the flint, others are drawing reconstructions of each part of the site, others are writing a report. All the text and images can then be used by each pupil to create their own leaflet and/or interpretation board about the site.


You can borrow a box of reconstructed items from the Whiteleaf excavations, mainly from the Neolithic barrow, to support this game, especially at the drawing and recording the artefacts stage. This is available from the Schools Library Service.

The game is available on Buckinghamshire's Heritage Portal.


Building history online: is the website of the reconstructed Iron Age village at Butser Ancient Farm. There is also a reconstructed villa there now and you can take a virtual tour around the villa and compare the style of building between the Iron Age and the Roman periods. . This is the website for the reconstructed Saxon village of West Stow in Suffolk where you can see images of the houses they have rebuilt to compare them with the reconstruction of houses at Walton and later medieval houses.

The following websites have information and activities based around architectural history and how it can be traced in the styles of building and decoration in houses and churches:


Map reading:

This is a link to the BBC Teach website to a map-reading video that may help when teaching that part of the package: .

The Ordnance Survey have developed a series of education and interactive resources to help teach map-reading and other geography skills


Hedgerow dating:

This link takes you to an online book on hedgerows, for more background information on hedgerow dating:



The Portable Antiquities Scheme is a scheme to encourage members of the public to report the archaeological artefacts they find. The website has a database of objects and many images to browse through:

Spoilheap is a website that goes into a little more detail about archaeological artefacts and has a gallery of images of pottery and building material:

You can hire boxes of real and replica artefacts from Buckinghamshire School's Library Service.


Case studies

A site destroyed by decay - Saxon settlement in the Orchard, Walton.

A site destroyed by dismantling - sixteenth century house at Temple End, High Wycombe.

A site destroyed by fire – thirteenth century building in Wing cemetery

A site destroyed by flooding – Bronze Age bridges at Dorney


Further reading

Aston, M 2002. Interpreting the Landscape from the air. Tempus Publishing Ltd.

Bowden, M 1999. Unravelling the Landscape: An Inquisitive Approach to Archaeology. Tempus.

Griffiths, N, Jenner, A & Wilson, C 1990. Drawing Archaeological Finds – A Handbook. Archetype.

Robinson, T & Aston, M 2002. Archaeology is Rubbish: A Beginner’s Guide. Channel 4 Books.

Zarmati, L & Cremin, A 1998. Experience Archaeology. Cambridge University Press.


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