Blog Pathways and resources

Creating a teaching resource with the Avebury archive

[Editor’s note: Kiri completed a student placement with the Avebury Papers as part of her masters’ programme at University of Southampton. The team are so happy to publish one of the key outcomes of the placement here. You can more about Kiri’s experience in her first blog post. The downloadable teaching materials may be found at the bottom of this post.]

I am almost at the end of my placement at Avebury Papers this term. During my placement, I worked on a very interesting project: creating a teaching resource for high school students based on the Avebury archives and excavated artefacts. The main objective is to take them on an exploration of how 20th century archaeologists worked on Avebury.

My key inspiration for the teaching resource was this illustration:

A pen illustration by Stuart Piggott, 1935. Alexander Keiller Museum Accession Number 20004597-001.

This drawing was a gift from Stuart Piggott to a friend in 1935. Many of the elements in the image are related to archaeology, such as the skull, pottery, books, maps and working tools. It reveals to some extent the daily work of archaeologists: maps represent archaeological field surveys, working tools signify archaeological excavations, skeletons and pottery are finds from excavations, and books indicate records of archaeological discoveries.

In my previous placement tasks (which I discuss in this blog), while checking photographs and creating catalogue information, I explored hundred of items in the Alexander Keiller museum collection. I observed that many of the items relate to archaeological work carried out by archaeologists at Avebury. They thoroughly documented the survey and excavation of Avebury, producing beautiful maps and plans, and drawings of the artefacts, as well as interpretive drawings.

Inspired by this exquisite drawing by Stuart Piggott, I decided that the key question for the teaching resource would be how 20th century archaeologists worked on Avebury. Using the digitised archives from the Avebury Papers as a starting point, I created a teachers’ introduction, presentation script, and powerpoint slides to introduce a range of archaeological activities by 20th-century archaeologists at Avebury including fieldwork, mapping, archaeological excavation and artefact analysis. 

“How 20th Century Archaeologists Worked on Avebury”, a resource for teachers and students

In my design, the pedagogy of this resource is divided into four main parts.

The aim of the first section is to help students understand what archaeologists do. This section covers the process and purpose of fieldwork, the purpose and elements of mapping, the main stages of archaeological excavation, and the recording and drawing of artefacts.

Secondly, after students understand the basic steps of archaeological work and the methods of drawing artefacts, they are encouraged to choose artefacts that interest them and then try to draw them. Hands-on practice can give students a deeper understanding of how archaeologists observe and record artefacts.

Thirdly, after the indoor activities, students could be taken on a tour of Avebury to explain the archaeological features, historical significance and cultural background of Avebury. Previously learnt theoretical knowledge can be translated from this step into practical experience. With a site visit, students would be able to see the megaliths for themselves and interact with the landscape, touch the stones, listen to the sounds of nature, and observe the changes in light and shadow on the monuments. Students would be able to gain a fuller appreciation of Avebury from an archaeologist’s perspective.

Finally, at the end of the research and investigation of Avebury, a seminar could be organised to allow students to reflect on what aspects of the site interested them most. Students would be guided to use the Avebury archive and other resources to explore a wider range of Avebury-related topics and then freely present their findings.

Avebury artefacts

As the main teaching element involves artefact drawing, photographs of artefacts excavated at Avebury are essential. Ben Chan has provided some very clear and useful photos of the artefacts for this purpose. 

A pottery bowl from Avebury.

For example this pottery bowl comes from the burials at the foot of stones of the Avebury complex. It can be observed to have a relatively curved line with outwardly sloping edges, a slightly inwardly tapering neck, widest at the shoulder, and then an inwardly sloping belly. It also has a hand-carved geometric pattern on its surface. These rich details provide very helpful examples for practicing artefact drawing. 

Reflecting on the placement

The process of producing this teaching resource has also been a rewarding experience for me. My understanding of the archaeological process and the importance of the Avebury site has been enhanced through in-depth study of the Avebury archive. The designing of teaching resources has also honed my skills in educational pedagogy and curriculum development. The design of engaging and informative lesson plans requires careful consideration of the target audience (high school students), their learning needs, and the best ways to effectively communicate complex archaeological concepts.

I have become more acutely aware of the value of experiential learning and hands-on activities to attract students and develop deeper understanding. Although time was short and there was no opportunity to put this teaching resource to use, I hope that in the future it will help more young people to learn about archaeology, inspire interest in archaeology, and develop a sense of stewardship, preservation, and appreciation of archaeological sites among students and the wider community. I hope that teachers will use this resource in history or even arts classes, as archaeology as a subject is no longer available as a qualification in secondary schools. This experience not only broadened my knowledge, but also inspired me to learn more about my profession and apply it in practice. 


You may freely view, download, reuse, and remix the teaching resource below. This introduction is designed with History teachers in mind, however, it can be used by anyone. We’d love to know if you do use it, please leave comments below.

Part One: an introduction

This introduction explains how the resource was designed, and how you might use it to learn more about archaeology.

Part Two: presentation script

This script accompanies the presentation slides, linked below. It may be used by teachers, or read by anyone with any interest in archaeology or history.

Part Three: presentation slides

These slides accompany the presentation script, linked above. It may be used by teachers, or read by anyone with any interest in archaeology or history.


How to build Avebury: with Denis Grant King

I’m volunteer Kiri, studying for a Masters in Cultural Heritage in Southampton. My job for now is to check the photos and catalogues that have been captured so far. The first step is to check that the photos are clear, complete and standardised. Then make sure the description of the photo and other information in the catalogue matches the photo. I have also been creating catalogue information from scratch when needed. This work is a nice experience for me because it is usually very difficult for people to have access to and view all the archives in a museum’s collection. And the Avebury archives often have some interesting pictures.

This hand-drawn picture is from archaeologist Dennis Grant King, and caught my eye while I was checking the catalogue. The title is ‘Methods employed for transporting and the erection of megaliths’, and unfortunately it is undated, but possibly produced between 1940-1950. In fact this piece caught my attention because it is so exquisitely composed, simple but not simplistic. And I’m sure many people who come across Avebury have similar questions about how the ancient people moved and erected these huge and heavy stones during the Neolithic period. This drawing by King gives a reasonable speculation.

Here is an image of a watercolour drawing by Denis Grant King. It is on cream paper, in red, blue, green, and black inks, showing neolithic people erecting a stone at Avebury.
‘Methods employed for transporting and the erection of megaliths’ drawing by Denis Grant King, Alexander Keiller Museum accession number 20000577-008.

King suggests that Avebury’s megaliths were moved by wooden rollers. People put wooden rollers on the ground and used the rolling of the wooden rollers to keep the megaliths moving. The use of ropes can also make it less difficult to manoeuvre giant stones. When lifting heavy objects, the use of ropes allows the lifting force of multiple people to be combined, reducing the amount of weight each person needs to carry.

The erection of the boulder depicted in the picture was carried out by means of ramp and lever. Inclined planes reduce the force required to move heavy objects, and wood placed on a slope lessens the friction between the object and the ground. Due to the force of gravity, the megalith could slide down the ramp into the stone hole. Plus the use of long wood for leverage saves the force needed to erect the megalith. The friction stakes standing at the other side of the Stone hole helped to keep the megalith balanced without falling over towards the far side of the stone-hole, whilst also preventing the stone from damaging the edge of the stone-hole as it slid into it.

In Smith’s edited volume ‘Windmill hill and avebury: excavations by Alexander Keiller, 1925-1939’, reference is made to evidence of construction techniques found by archaeologists at Avebury in the 1960s. The archaeologist Richard Atkinson suggested that the most efficient way of transporting monoliths was sleds and rollers, although these two methods may not necessarily have been used. And the process of erecting the stone vertically probably used levers and ropes.

Smith explains some of the evidence found in the holes at the base of the megaliths. Sometimes varying numbers of stakes have been inserted against the back side of the base of the stone hole to reduce the friction between the megaliths and the edge of the stone hole. In addition, some smaller stones have been found at the bottom of the stone hole, perhaps acting as another anti-friction device and also providing support for the megaliths. After the megalith was erected, the space around the megalith would have been filled with earth and sarsen packing stones to support the stone and keep it standing.

King’s suggestion of how the megaliths were moved and erected is partly similar to Atkinson’s and Smith’s views, including the use of wooden rollers, levers and ropes. And archaeological evidence proves that when erecting boulders, Neolithic people used ramps and stakes to reduce friction.


Windmill hill and Avebury: excavations by Alexander Keiller, 1925-1939, ed. by Isobel Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp. 218-222.