Smashing! Taking experimental archaeology to sixth-form students

Part-time Archaeology PhD student Yvette Marks led an experience day for sixth-form students in experimental archaeology at the Ecclesall Woodland Discovery Centre. The day was designed as an opportunity for sixth-formers to get hands-on experience of practical archaeological research, and to demonstrate the multidisciplinary nature of archaeology and material sciences.

On the day Yvette had assistance from MSc Archaeological Materials students Matt Lester and Patrick Cropper as well as recent undergraduate Nicholas Clark. The day was also made possible by generous funding from Arts Enterprise.

The day began with an introductory talk on the related courses offered by the department and background into how experimental archaeology helps us study the past. Often during excavations the material evidence can be unclear. Archaeologists piece together the material evidence in an attempt to interpret the form of technology and methods used in the past. By conducting experiential trials with reconstructed technology we can establish whether hypothetical reconstructions are plausible. We can also analyse the manufacturing product and waste material produced during the experiment and compare it to the analysis of similar excavated deposits.

"Getting involved in the physical processes rather than just hearing about them theoretically and seeing the end product after having been part of its creation made the day enjoyable - as well as just having the opportunity to be outside rather than stuck in a classroom!"

Sixth-form student

A selection of pictures from the day

A selection of pictures from the day. Photography by Andy Brown, images used with consent and permission.

Having an understanding of the motives behind experimental archaeology, the sixth-form students were soon out of the classroom and working outside with a reconstructed iron smelting bloomery furnace. The history of bloomery furnaces stretches back centuries, and they were the precursor for the steel industry of Sheffield. The sixth-formers were split into three teams: the iron crushers, the bellowers and the administrators (responsible for loading the ore and charcoal as well as recording observations). All of the students had a go at all of the roles. Whilst operating the furnaces, the sixth-formers also had to consider the furnace efficiency, charcoal consumption rate, ore usage rate, iron production rate, the impact of opening and closing tapping hole, and the robustness of the furnace structure. All of which help shape our understanding of past smelting technologies.

"It was fun and very interesting to be able to get involved in 'hands-on' archaeological work"

Sixth-form student

By all accounts the sixth-form students found the day tremendous fun and highly informative. Yvette noted the brilliance with which they handled the time-pressure and risk-management, and how engaged they were with the experimental process. Some of the results also came as a surprise to the students, such as the how much charcoal the furnace used during the smelting and how much iron was produced in relation to ore put in.

What was the highlight of your visit today?

"The final result - getting to see our iron being 'smashed' and cooled. Also, it was very helpful and useful to get to talk to the post-grad students"

Sixth-form student

As well as getting hands on with the experiment, the students enjoyed the opportunity to talk to current students, asking them about their University experience.

If you would be interested in bringing this kind of experience to your students please contact Linda Billam, Schools' Outreach Support Officer (, or get in touch via the Archaeology School Outreach Team website (

"A most informative and enjoyable experience for all concerned. Working in teams helped to develop co-operation and communication skills and our students were genuinely appreciative of the chance to do something practical and 'hands-on' outside the usual classroom environment. The chance to talk to recent graduates was also really useful to them as they start on the whole university application process for themselves. Many thanks to all concerned."

Sixth-form school teacher with the group