Newcastle-Upon-Tyne’s history stretches back a long way. Labour and movement in and around the North East, and cultural integration, are prominent features of its history, and Newcastle is now host to a number of immigration and refugee services. This kind of movement is, of course, not new. People travelled widely in the ancient world and landed in the big cities for strikingly similar reasons. Flight from war and its aftermath, political turmoil and religious and other persecution was not uncommon, and mobility for economic reasons was a huge part of life across the ancient Mediterranean. Its impact and influence on families – and children in particular – would have been vast, either negatively or positively.
So how can we use the ancient world to help children in Newcastle frame their own experience of meeting other children and families in circumstances like these? And, of course, vice versa: what can children’s perspectives on mobility today tell us about likely patterns in the past?
Where better to explore this locally than with children in West Jesmond Primary School? A school which teaches pupils from an extraordinary wide range of ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, and works hard to bring the University and local community into its pupils’ education (see their Twitter account!).
For a research contribution to Newcastle University’s new Beyond Frontiers project, I created two workshops for Year 4 pupils. Our research on the Children in Oxyrhynchos project (Pudsey and Vuolanto) seemed like a good opportunity to test the waters: how do children in modern-day Newcastle think about movement to a new city and all that it entails? Beyond Frontiers provided a chance to ask that question of children, using role play scenarios based on the lives of their ancient counterparts — and to use ancient historical research to do so. The pupils were of course enthusiastic about the workshops (and not only because it got them a few afternoons off school…), and I learned a good deal about what sorts of perspectives children can take on cultural diversity.
After some introductory family-tree-building with Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits, each class of Year 4 pupils was set the task of exploring the city of Oxyrhynchus (specially set up in their classroom with the help of inflatable crocodile and ‘nile boat’, and a weaving loom) in search of their missing neighbourhood cat, Sarapis. The pupils had to set themselves in the role of the city’s children and ask questions of the people they encountered in order to find out why Sarapis the cat had visited each location…
On their travels, our intrepid young adventurers met Stephanos, a Greek man who had travelled from Greece to become a mummy embalmer in the village of Tebtynis, and then moved to the city of Oxyrhynchus. The pupils were guided to ask questions about why Stephanos was embalming a crocodile in the first place, and thought about the importance of local and regional beliefs and customs. How important is this sort of religious worship to people who practice it? Why had Stephanos become an embalmer and moved to Egypt, and then this city? What was different here for him? What animal would they embalm and use to represent Newcastle?
Next stop, they met the owner of the local weaving workshop, who asked if they wanted to sign a contract to become an apprentice in his workshop. The pupils cautiously examined an adaptation of an actual contract from second century A.D. Oxyrhynchus, and asked questions about the experience of working there (see our previous posts on these pages, on Romano-Egyptian apprenticeships).
How many other children were there? Where had they come from? Would they all share the same language and play the same games? Did they have to live together? I was surprised by how many of the pupils were so keen to sign a contract which had them working from ‘sunrise to sunset’ largely, it seemed, out of intrigue and excitement for talking and playing with other kids from different places…
After a brief visit to the ancient city’s theatre and markets, our explorers finally met Marcus, a Nile boat driver and Roman citizen searching for his brother who had fled from war in Dura Europos. Marcus’ missing brother had gone ‘somewhere with a river’ — was it the Nile? Or the Tyne? Marcus carried with him an amulet which his brother had given to him as a memento, and the pupils thought about what kinds of objects from their homes they would give to family members and friends travelling away. They shared drawings and discussion about objects of their own they would like to keep with them if they left home (ranging from cuddly toys and kitchen implements, to super-soakers and smartphones with the family photographs on them). This tied in nicely with one of the other workshops the pupils had done on the biography of objects, based on one of our undergraduate Archaeology modules.
As it turned out, Sarapis had been hiding out on Marcus’ boat all along with vague hopes of catching sight of the elusive and eponymous ‘Sharp-Nosed Fish’ of Oxyrhynchus. She’d been following our young explorers around the city and listening in to each encounter they had, hoping to find clues of her own. Ultimately, leading them a merry dance around the city…
I ran follow-up sessions as part of the project, in the Great North Museum: Hancock. In these sessions the same pupils in groups of three or four used sample mummy portraits to think about creating their own characters and then to paint portraits of them onto canvas. Each portrait character needed a back story, for which the children used those role play encounters as a guide. Who was their character? How had they come to be in the city? What cultures, dreams and attributes had they brought with them? As I was shuffling around the small groups (ensuring some of the paint hit the canvas!) I overheard pupils compare these experiences with friends in their class, or people they knew about on t.v. or in their street. We learned about these made up characters’ likes, dislikes, fears, hopes, families, friends and travels — and it was clear the children had associated with these imagined situations in Roman Egypt, their own school, neighbourhood and city.
This idea of using an ‘imagined contact’ is a widely acknowledged theoretical approach to the question of how, psychologically, social prejudices can be addressed and reduced. You can read about Richard Crisp and Rhiannon Turner’s work on this, here.
The Children in Oxyrhynchus activities made up the research element of the Beyond Frontiers project. Colleagues in Classics and in Archaeology at Newcastle (Dr Joseph Skinner, Dr Sally Waite, Dr Mark Jackson and Rose Mockford), along with those in the Great North Museum: Hancock, ran workshops in tandem, based on our undergraduate teaching: coinage and local identity; and on important and significant personal objects – object biographies.
An Inspector Calls…!
All Year 4 pupils had the opportunity to participate in the full range of activities, and to think and talk about cultural diversity in the ancient world, applying it to their own modern-day life in the city of Newcastle.
The theme was prominent in the Year group’s work for the year, and the success and innovative nature of Beyond Frontiers activities were mentioned in the school’s ‘outstanding’ Offsted report (we were lucky enough to meet Offsted inspectors on a day when these workshops were happening!).
In addition to the workshops in the West Jesmond Primary School and the Great North Museum: Hancock, the Beyond Frontiers project also held an exhibition for parents in West Jesmond Library, an exhibition for parents and teachers in Newcastle University, and a public exhibition in the gallery of the Great North Museum.
For more details on the whole Beyond Frontiers project, you can watch this two-minute Video documentary featuring both myself and Dr Joseph Skinner, who co-ordinated the BF project.
You can email the project on BeyondFrontiers@newcastle.ac.uk The website for the project will be updated with material soon.