Three Days with the Vikings

How 300-plus East Anglian schoolchildren experienced Britain's Viking heritage and culture through art, drama, immersion and the British Museum.

The children, dressed as Viking settlers, sat along the walls and on the wooden floor of the dark hut. Smoke wafted from the cooking fire at the centre of the room as slaves - a Rus, a Byzantine and Anglo-Saxons among them - bustled about the room, serving food. At the top of the hall, a badly battered messenger prepared to give news of the war King Guthrum was waging against Alfred, the exiled Saxon king.

The children watched with rapt attention. They were completely immersed in the Viking history coming to life around them.

Peter Cornwell, shown in bloodied rags and surrounded by costumed children, tells children from Redcastle Family School that Guthrum has been defeated - and that peace has come to the British Isles.

At the conclusion of each day in West Stow, all the children were gathered into the Great Hall to hear a saga from Lord Thorkild, who fought alongside the Viking king Guthrum.

"They couldn't possibly have a more enthralling opportunity to learn about and relive their past", says Ian Agnew, a teacher at Abbey Meadows Primary School in Cambridge. "Throughout the week the children have been buzzing about their activities."

The Year 3 children from Abbey Meadows were among more than 300 Key Stage 2 children who received an immersive taste of Viking life as part of "Exploring Britain's Viking Heritage with East Anglian Schools", an education project organised by Cambridge charity Civilizations in Contact and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project, which took place with five primary schools throughout the region in May 2014, exposed the children to Viking culture through art, drama, role play and immersion.

The purpose of the project was multi-dimensional, says Dr Sally K. Church, the charity's director. The obvious outcome was that the children had an enriched learning experience they will remember for the rest of their lives, she says.

But the group also hopes to inspire teachers to experiment with similar imaginative teaching techniques in their classrooms, especially now that the new national curriculum has taken effect in the 2014-15 school year.

"For the teacher who generally thinks of learning in straight lines, we hoped to show that there are other ways of working", says Peter Cornwell, a retired educator who, as a CiC board member, served as one of the programme's architects. "For the teacher who is fearful of straying outside the national curriculum, we hoped to show that there is a richness in multi disciplinary, multi sensory education which adds so much to our lives."

Civilizations in Contact team members Biljana Savikj and Shadia Taha, shown in Viking costumes, portrayed slaves captured and brought to Britain by the Vikings. They helped visiting schoolchildren learn about pottery and beeswax.

Children participating in the project weren't just exposed to the Vikings - they also learned about other cultures the Vikings interacted with, including the Rus and peoples from Northern Africa.

In addition, the charity - which focuses on the interconnections of world cultures throughout history - hopes to offer a different perspective on the Vikings, who are often portrayed solely as blood-thirsty marauders, Church says. In fact, the Vikings traded widely throughout the world.

"The Vikings are an excellent example of how different cultures were intertwined in history", she says. "Through them, Great Britain was linked to not only Scandinavia, but also Russia and the Middle East."

Viking Heritage in England

The Vikings had a presence in East Anglia for roughly 300 years, with their last battle for control of the island coming just weeks before the Norman Conquest, according to Eleanor Heans-Glogowska, a CiC researcher who wrote a brief history for the group. The Vikings legacies are far-reaching, ranging from language to place names to even the location of today's Cambridge south of the River Cam (the once-Roman village was north of the Cam until the Vikings moved it).

Learn more about Britain's Viking heritage >>

To introduce the children to this heritage, CiC devised a three-day programme for each of the five participating schools - Abbey Meadows Primary School in Cambridge, Colville Primary School in Cherry Hinton, Middlefield Primary Academy in St Neots, Orchards Primary School in Wisbech and Redcastle Family School in Thetford. Each day's activities were designed to build upon the previous day's lessons.

A Tale of Two Villages

On the first day, the children worked with specialist teacher Jane Bower to create the fictional Danish village of Hedeby in their classrooms. Using their imaginations, drama, dance and art, the children explored the Vikings' origins, their reasons for traveling and the dangers faced during their journeys. They also created their own art based on Viking artefacts, including making clay models of the Viking era-game pieces known as the Lewis Chessmen.

Children from Abbey Meadows Primary School gather in a large circle in the school hall as Jane Bower teaches them to steps to an interpretive dance about the Vikings.

Specialist teacher Jane Bower used art, drama and dance to help children explore the fictional Danish village of Hedeby.

"By far the most effective way of learning and of retaining knowledge is by experience, Bower says. "My aim is to steep children in first hand knowledge and understanding - they don't simply know about the Vikings; they become the Vikings."

Explore Jane Bower's lesson plans for use in your classroom >>

On the second day, the children - travelling by coach, not longboat - followed the Vikings' journey from Denmark to England as they resettled in the fictional village of Vestenby. The village, created within the historic surroundings of West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village near Bury St Edmunds, allowed the children to explore everyday life for the Vikings in the year 878 with help from history immersion group History Off the Page. The children were able to try their hands at a variety of historic crafts - including pottery, weaving and cooking - while the uncertainties of Viking life unfolded around them.

Roger Yaxley of History Off the Page shows children from Middlefield Primary Academy how to create designs in clay that can then be used to cast pewter.

At West Stow, groups of children worked their way through various stations where they could try crafts from Viking culture such as pewter casting (shown), jewellery making, rune making, cooking, illuminated writing, pottery and weaving.

"We wanted to create an atmosphere that gave the impression of traveling to the past so children can experience what it was like", says Phil Cooke, History Off the Page's managing director.

See how to bring the Vikings to life in your classroom >>

A Greater Understanding of the Vikings

The biggest test for the project came on the third day, when organisers hoped the children would be able to relate what they had learned to what they would see in the "Vikings: Life and Legend" exhibit at the British Museum. Participating teachers later reported that most of the children did indeed make the intellectual leap.

"They said, 'Look at that weaving - that must have taken MONTHS!'" says Lynda Smith, a teacher at Abbey Meadows. "They were comparing the details in the artefacts that the Vikings had made to what they had made at West Stow."

The artefacts that drew the most attention, however, were beheaded Viking skeletons found at a mass grave near Weymouth in Dorset. Based on the children's fascination, Andrew Wrenn, former history advisor for the Cambridgeshire County Council, has used the skeletons to create a Year 6 transition unit for the Historical Association on behalf of CiC. The unit begins with the archaeological discovery of the skeletons and asks children to think through what they might be as more archaeological evidence is uncovered, Wrenn says. The children can then compare their conclusions to those of archaeologists.

Use the Weymouth Skeletons as a transition unit for Year Six >>

A Benefit to All

Ultimately, Church says she hopes CiC's Viking project can inspire more than just those schools who participated. To that end, CiC hosted two public days during the summer and autumn - one at Wolfson College, Cambridge, and another in connection with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit during the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. Volunteers recreated the Viking environment from West Stow to allow the public to explore period clothing, food and crafts.

A young girl, her painted face barely level with the table, works intently to sculpt a piece of Viking pottery with a stick and a lump of clay.

At the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, the CiC team shared with the general public some of the ambiance and activities from Viking life they had created at West Stow.

"It was great to have a peaceful raiding party of Vikings 'invading', and they added greatly to everyone's experience with the colourful costumes, potage, horn blowing, sagas and range of craft activities on offer", says Sara Harrop of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

The charity has also created this website to house photos, research and lesson plans that Church says she hopes will be of use to other schools across the UK and around the world.

"For teachers in Britain and other parts of the world, I hope that the History Transition Unit on the Historical Association website will be a resource they find useful, and that the academic articles on our website will answer some questions while also raising others, to inspire discussion, debate and study in the future", Church says. "I hope that teachers will be reminded of the Vikings' international role and be inspired to include in their teaching the part that the Vikings played in global history and the interconnections among cultures."

To learn about CiC, visit its website at www.cic.ames.cam.ac.uk. You can also see the results of CiC's previous education project, "Bringing Pompeii and Herculaneum to Cambridgeshire Schools", at www.schools1.cic.ames.cam.ac.uk.