Connecting past and present: sharing research on prehistoric Britain

Researchers at the School of Archaeology have helped to illuminate issues in later prehistory through public engagement.

Roman coinsIron Age coinage in Britain.
‘Archaeology is not just about studying life in the past, such as in the Bronze or the Iron Ages,’ explains Courtney Nimura. ‘It can also be hugely important in helping us approach modern challenges or understand current ways of living, so its important that its made accessible to as wide an audience as possible.’

Researchers from the School of Archaeology have helped illuminate later prehistory through two public engagement projects focused on ‘coins’ and ‘rivers’, sharing their research with audiences across England.

The team worked with commercial partners, local communities, and independent artists to develop novel approaches to share archaeological research. These included pop-up exhibitions of original paintings on public noticeboards, oversized 3D-printed replicas, an online virtual gallery, and hands-on workshops to reproduce ancient artefacts.

The More than Money project focused on Iron Age coinage in Britain, building on the department’s digitisation of the Celtic Coin Index, which holds information about 68,000 coins. The activities included a gallery display, in-person events, and a legacy of resources and learning materials, particularly aimed at pupils at Key Stage 2 (age 7-11) as prehistory is included in the National Curriculum.

‘The introduction of coins was a major innovation in the Iron Age,’ says Nimura. ‘Teaching in schools tends to emphasise their role as currency, but in a society where there was no writing, they tell as us a great deal about identity, belief, and power – as well as potential links with the Roman Empire. We wanted to give young people the opportunity to explore these aspects of ancient coinage in our activities and enhance their understanding of the complexity of Iron Age societies.’

In a different project, The Ripple Effect built on research from the Ebb & Flow project which seeks to understand the many pivotal roles rivers played in later prehistoric societies, how prehistoric communities used rivers, and how rivers shaped and influenced life in the past.

The project developed during the COVID pandemic and was purposefully created to engage with people who would now be spending more time outside. It utilised existing public noticeboards near archaeological sites around England, including rivers and paleochannels (rivers that are now lost), to share factsheets about prehistoric rivers and host original watercolour paintings by Artist-in-Residence, Miranda Creswell. An online exhibition reached users further afield and enabled access for those unable to leave home.

‘Archaeology helps us to understand the present in many ways. Studying rivers in prehistory, for example, provides insight into how climate change impacts the environment and the people living around them, while studying coins can teach us how societies – including our own – express power and beliefs,’ says Nimura.

‘We were delighted with the audience reaction to our activities, which illustrates that one of the most important roles of archaeology is to stimulate curiosity and change the ways we think about the past. Feedback from activities showed that people of all ages engaged with our resources, enjoyed exploring these aspects of prehistory, and in many cases went on to share their experiences, learn more, or develop activities of their own. A legacy of resources and learning materials, including kits of replica artefacts, will ensure that our research will continue to reach new audiences over the coming years.’

Dr Courtney Nimura is Curator of Later European Prehistory at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford

Project Team
Miranda Creswell, Artist-in-Residence, School of Archaeology; Ian Cartwright, Photographer, School of Archaeology; Peter Walters, 3D Printing Engineer, Engineering Sciences; Molly Masterson, Research Assistant, School of Archaeology

Funders: Oxford University Public Engagement with Research Fund, Leverhulme Trust, Royal Numismatic Society, British Numismatic Society, Barclay Head Fund, University of Oxford.