Communicating archaeology to children through books

Last week, I wrote about the significance of unexpected learning, and drew upon my archaeocake ‘Death (and burial) by chocolate’, which was my entry for the Heritage Jam. Kindler and Darras summed it up best:

…learning is sometimes most effective when it is unexpected and informal’ (Kindler and Darras 1997: 125)

I want to continue on with the theme of communication of archaeology to young audiences by looking at the way books treat complex past peoples. Now, I tend to specialise in the way that the Viking Age is treated in popular culture and so a lot of my posts draw on Viking-themed case studies. The Viking Age is an excellent resource for this type of study – it’s generally known by popular audiences, attitudes have changed a lot over the last few decades, and it’s really popular at the moment. Witness my Viking rubber duckie, from the British Museum: Eirik Bloodbeak (I also have a Roman one, whom I call Quackus)

 Communicating to young audiences

‘Eirik Bloodbeak’, my Viking rubber duckie

Thirty years ago, the Viking Age was communicated to children by focussing on warrior culture. New titles tend to focus on a story involving men, women and children who were not professional ‘Vikings’. How archaeological evidence is presented to children is a really important topic, as it determines how they, as adults, will respond to new evidence and information about the past:

…as children, scientists would have read illustrated books, visited museum displays and watched films relating to the past; all of which would have created impressions that influenced them and fuelled their desire to pursue studies in the area. (Moser 2003:4)

In this post, I’ll examine three books that are aimed at young audiences and are part of the popular Ladybird History series and the Horrible Histories series.

The Vikings in 1976

The 1976 edition of the Ladybird book 'The Vikings'
The 1976 edition of the Ladybird book ‘The Vikings’

The 1976 edition on the Vikings, part of the Penguin Ladybird Great Civilisations series, stressed the violent nature of Viking culture. The first chapter is actually titled ‘The Viking Raiders’ and begins:

If you had lived ten or eleven centuries ago in a village along the coasts of northern Europe, the most terrifying thing in your life would have been the sight of a large square sail on the horizon. (Lewis 1976: 4)

The author wants the child reader to draw on their senses, and imagine the scene. References to the environment, sounds, lighting and movement are made in order to help the reader clearly picture what is described.

The Viking raiders are described as:

fierce-faced warriors sitting in the ship with their spears, swords and axes.

It’s written in the present tense to allow a sense of urgency, dread, and horror. A theme of uninvited violence pervades the description of men who have come without provocation to wreak havoc without mercy. The book, which had a large readership and was part of a series widely recognisable to children and adults, goes on to say that:

It is not really surprising that between the 8th and 11th centuries…the victims looked on the Vikings as merciless savages and bloodthirsty murderers. (Lewis 1976: 6)

Although material culture is discussed throughout the various passages about Viking life, the view of the Vikings is aligned with the written accounts of Viking raids by Anglo-Saxon chroniclers. After establishing the contemporary view of the Viking Age, however, the book goes on to say that if the native English population had possessed the insight into Scandinavian culture that we now have, a sense of empathy might have been created (Lewis 1976: 7). Interestingly, the themes highlighted in the book display elements of a post-processual approach to the past, with the significance of the landscape and environment as a shaping factor for cultural identity noted (See: Bender 1993):

The type of country people inhabit and the sort of life they live there, often have a great effect on the sort of people they are. (Lewis 1976: 7)

The Vikings in 2014

The 2014 edition of the Ladybird book 'The Vikings'
The 2014 edition of the Ladybird book ‘The Vikings’

A new edition of the Ladybird Vikings book came out this year and is a radically altered interpretation, much more in line with current approaches to education and values. The changes start on the cover, with a change of the series title from ‘Great Civilisations’ to simply ‘Ladybird Histories’.

The book has been written to highlight:

…their famous leaders, what people wore, how they lived, their fascinating myths and legends and how they shaped Britain today. (Ladybird Books website 2014)

This new edition moves away from a focus on warrior culture and delves into family life, gatherings such as feasts and events, food and everyday life. It actually starts off by totally reversing the earlier edition’s platform:

Most people think of the Vikings as raiders. They picture armed warriors seizing treasure, killing innocent people and setting fire to homes. But this is only part of the picture. (Ladybird Books 2014: 6)

Like its predecessor, it’s written with visual language and helps the reader to really imagine every aspect of Viking culture. The reader can relate their own family to the figures described in the book and create a personal connection through empathy.

Two of the pages in the 2014 edition, from the book's website
Two of the pages in the 2014 edition, from the book’s website
Two more pages from the 2014 edition
Two more pages from the 2014 edition

Horrible Histories: Vicious Vikings

The cover of 'Vicious Vikings', part of the Horrible Histories series
The cover of ‘Vicious Vikings’, part of the Horrible Histories series

The amazingly popular Horrible Histories series has an edition on the Vikings. The series (in its book and tv form) is very direct in its communication of violence to a young audience. I thought it was really interesting that they make a point of the way that young people will only accept the violence when it’s deemed to be necessary, or if the person on the receiving end of the violence deserved it.

Now young people, they enjoy a bit of horror… They love a bit of pain and suffering…as long as the sufferer is a teacher or the nasty grown-up next door who keeps your ball when it goes over the fence! (Deary and Brown 2007: 7)

The way this book draws on the ‘us versus them’ historical narrative is not a new concept and follows on from a long tradition of binary opposition (See, for male/female, nature/culture binary opposition: Ortner 1974).

Despite a focus on violence that may be deemed by some archaeologists as counterproductive, the book does actually address the problematic nature of stating a cause for the Viking Age. It’s possible that explicitly stating a cause for the Viking Age, particularly one involving a ‘push’ factor for migration could bring out an empathetic reaction for the visitor. I mentioned that in my review of The Rocks Discovery Museum in Sydney, which identified the collapse of the American penal colony as the reason for the establishment of Australia as a British colony.

Ten possible causes are given which actually draw on recent theory and also introduce the reader to the problems with isolating a single cause for a historical event. The reasons given include:

  • overcrowding,
  • desire for quick wealth,
  • food shortages,
  • over supply of goods requiring greater trade,
  • primogeniture,
  • political tensions,
  • climate,
  • increased opportunity for piracy and,
  • a love of the sea (Deary and Brown 2007: 11-12).

One topic I’ve become really interested in is Viking women. There are fascinating stories to be told about Viking women, and Vicious Vikings begins to deal with some of them. Women are depicted as being (somewhat) independent and having rights with regard to divorce and finance. The book focuses on women, family life, rights, and a strong focus on everyday life (Deary and Brown 2007: 67).

Next week: what can historical food tell us about the experience of the past? And, what place does it have in a museum?

Works cited:

DEARY, T. & BROWN, M. 2007. Vicious Vikings, London, Scholastic.

KINDLER, A. M. & DARRAS, B. 1997. Young Children and Museums: The Role of Cultural Context in Early Development of Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors. Visual Arts Research, 23, 125-141.

LEWIS, B. R. 1976. Great Civilisations: The Vikings, Loughborough, Ladybird Books.

MOSER, S. 2003. Representing archaeological knowledge in museums: Exhibiting human origins and strategies for change. Public Archaeology, 3, 3-20.


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