Thames Explorer Trust, The Pier House, Corney Reach Way, Chiswick, London

Director and archaeologist Jason Finch with a collection tray of artefacts gathered from the shore of the Thames.

Director and archaeologist Jason Finch with a collection tray of artefacts gathered from the shore of the Thames.

I’d read about the Thames Explorer Trust (TET) and their innovative work on their website (see link below), but for me it left open so many questions about their education programs. The TET is an independent educational charity founded in 1988 that is concerned with promoting safe access and understanding of the great English river the Thames. It does this by running hands-on programs for families and schools. They run a number of ‘River education programmes in Geography, History, Science, Art KS 1 – 5’ but, not surprisingly, I was intrigued by the ‘Archaeology for All – Hidden Treasures of the Thames’ program to primary and secondary school students.

I was particularly interested in finding out how they go about collecting the artefacts from the river and the pedagogies they use to teach kids about archaeology. Did they have to ‘salt’ the site with artefacts? What do they do if the weather is bad? How many educators do they employ? How many kids participate in the programs each year? Are the kids walking through mud and how dirty do they get?

On Monday 20 May 2013 to help me answer these questions I met with Director Jason Finch, who is an archaeologist with extensive museum management experience, and Trust Manager Lorraine Contiero, who is a biologist and conservationist.

I found there are four factors that distinguish the TET archaeology programs from the others I observed:

1. Learning activities are conducted both outside in the field and inside in classrooms;

2. The archaeological site is the river Thames itself;

3. Students don’t dig or participate in simulated excavations; instead they participate in another form of archaeological artefact retrieval called ‘sherding’, or the collection of surface artefacts;

4. Artefacts are authentic – no replicas are used.

The learning activities operate at four different venues on the river: the Museum of London (London Wall), Museum of London Docklands, the Old Royal Navy College, Greenwich and Fulham Palace. The learning activities are simple yet effective, and require few resources.

Learning activities are facilitated by TET full-time staff and as-needed casual staff. The backgrounds of Jason Finch and Lorraine Contiero contribute to the integrity of the programs and they are also very committed to providing quality learning experiences for students. Educators actively teach students while at the same time encouraging them to draw their own conclusions and interpretations from the artefacts.

Visits must be scheduled according to the river tides and are conducted in all types of weather, sunshine, rain, snow and ice. There is no digging involved. Students work in small groups and gather artefacts that have been deposited on the shore of the Thames. Lorraine assured me that there are always plenty of artefacts available for the kids to pick up and they have never had to ‘salt’ the site. Students collect artefacts in trays then take them indoors to sort, identify, analyse and interpret their discoveries.

Students learn to identify specific types of material culture, such as Victorian clay pipes, Roman Samian pottery. They then classify them according to time periods (e.g. Roman, Medieval, Tudor and Stuart, Industrial Revolution and Victorian) so they learn about chronology and change and continuity over time.

The program has been operating for 25 years and is highly successful. Schools pay a small fee per class (£250 full day up to 30 kids, £150 half day), but TET also receives financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and property developer St George PLC. Testament to the popularity of the programs is that Jason reported numbers attending increased by a remarkable 30% last year. TET also caters at the four museum venues to the general public, such as families with kids and interested adults, and they are especially popular on weekends and public holidays.

The Thames Explorer Trust uses archaeology to demonstrate how the natural and built environments have changed over time, and looks at how the river ecology can be conserved and sustained for the future. It shows students that archaeology is not just about the past: it helps us understand our present and to plan for the future. Archaeology is all around us if you know how and where to look.

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