I organise a lot of events and classes on topics related to the ancient world for school pupils. But when two of my colleagues asked for my help in organising a one-day Technologies of Daily Life in Ancient Greece event for 140 pupils (90 primary and 50 secondary) at Swansea University, even I hesitated momentarily. Tracey Rihll (Swansea University), one of my colleagues who specialises in day-to-day technologies used by the Greeks, and Laurence Totelin (Cardiff University) who works on ancient medicine, wanted to organise an academic conference on technologies in ancient Greece, but were determined to reach a wider audience. And who better than children? We had a very enthusiastic response from six local schools (all from largely deprived areas with high unemployment and low education levels) and decided to give pupils a real flavour of antiquity.
In the morning, we focused on basic activities with primary school pupils who were coming especially from the Afan Valley to the north of Swansea: pupils learned how to make rope with nettles, create magical curse tablets, do basic astronomy, grind wood, concoct a chamomile potion, and make bread. For the secondary school pupils who came for the afternoon from two schools in Swansea and Carmarthenshire, we exchanged the grinding workshop for something even trickier: inscribing gems, which only the bravest attempted. The other workshops were delivered at a more in-depth level, but the topics remained the same.
The day was abuzz with excitement, in spite of the chaos of two buses arriving late. The workshops were delivered in three different rooms, and pupils could choose two workshops out of those on offer. They were spoilt for choice and many told us in the feedback that they would have liked to have done more. Laurence led a workshop on making a chamomile potion. Pupils used a pestle and mortar (for most, this was the first time they had ever used this kind of equipment) to grind chamomile and other herbs and spices. The recipe even included a hint of myrrh and frankincense! The pupils wondered at the exotic spices and loved getting their hands dirty.
Hands were also dirtied in the bread-baking workshop, led by the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon. Here pupils learned about ancient baking techniques, ground grain on an ancient stone, and used a kiln to bake the bread.
It was an intense day but we had immense fun. Teachers reported that the pupils were now really excited to find out more about the Greeks. In the anonymous feedback, all the pupils said they found the workshops both enjoyable and informative. While some didn’t think the bread was tasty, they thoroughly enjoyed making and baking it. As one pupil said: ‘it’s given me a better understanding and respect for ancient Greek stuff’. And that’s all we wanted to do.
Dr Evelien Bracke is Lecturer and Employability and Schools Liaison Officer in the Department of History and Classics at Swansea University. You can find out more about the Department’s schools’ work at www.ltlresources.weebly.com and www.swwclassicalassociation.weebly.com. A Spotify narrative of the Swansea University and Hellenic Society schools’ day can be found here: https://storify.com/nimuevelien/technologies-of-daily-life-in-ancient-greece-559aef57b572c28d0ebdcaa6.