3. Interpreting evidence from artefacts

History is always about balancing subjective claims (peoples’ personal accounts and opinions) against objective (independent) evidence. When exploring artefacts, rather than oral or written evidence, the same balancing applies. There are definite things that can be said about a pot for example, i.e. its shape, what it is made of etc. Something like ‘what it was used for’ can only be speculation, based on what we use such pots for now. By looking at the pot carefully, consulting old drawings and paintings and talking to others, we can build up a more certain picture of how it was used.

This part explores ways of helping pupils question their thinking and understanding about artefacts.

Case Study 3: Interpreting historical events using letters as artefacts

Mrs Sichande decides to use a video tape of how freedom fighters remember the events of the last days of the struggle for independence. She plans to use the video tape prepared by Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation during the lesson. She chooses a few parts of the video tape to show to the class some freedom fighters’ experiences of the independence struggle. After watching and listening to these accounts carefully, Mrs Sichande realises that they are based on subjective evidence, and thinks that it would be a good idea to compare them to more objective historical evidence in the lesson. Therefore, Mrs Sichande gathers a range of documents and books written by historians that examine the events leading to independence in 1964. She makes a summary of the key ideas to use in class.

First, she asks the class to watch the tape carefully as it plays and then asks them to look at her chart of key events and thoughts by respected historians. Do they see any similarities or differences in these accounts of the same event? They discuss whether the subjective accounts in the tape can be supported by the objective historical evidence put forward by historians. They agree that both give insights. The tape is people’s perceptions and can vary according to their beliefs, but the chart just has facts.

At the end, Mrs Sichande summarises for her class the difference between subjective and objective evidence when looking at the past.

Key Activity: Displaying some of our history

  • Ask your class to bring in any old items they have in their homes, such as traditional dress, old cooking utensils, woodwork, masks, bead and craftwork, pots etc.
  • Remember that for your pupils things that are only 20 or 30 years old will seem very old. The important part of the exercise is for them to gather evidence about the artefact and, by looking at lots of old objects, to develop some idea of how to make sense of life in the past. If you can, make sure you have also collected some items, so that you can give to those who are unable to bring in anything.
  • Ask your pupils, in pairs, to produce a sheet (see Resource 3: My artefact) to display with the artefact.
  • When the display is complete, ask other classes to visit your exhibition. You could even ask parents and the local community to come to see the exhibits. You may find out more from your visitors about some of your artefacts.

2. Welcoming visitors to enhance the curriculum

Resource 1: Using artefacts in the classroom