Advocating Classics Education in the North East

ACE at Hadrian's Wall

By Dr Rory McInnes-Gibbons

During the Easter break, Durham University Classics and Ancient History Department hosted a two-day event for local sixth form students in collaboration with Classics for All (CfA) and English Heritage at the University’s Oriental Museum (OM). Welcoming 23 students from the Durham Sixth Form Centre, Durham Johnston Comprehensive School and St Anthony's Girls' Catholic Academy in Sunderland, day one was museum-based and day two was a trip to Housesteads and Chesters Roman Fort.

On the first morning we met at the Oriental Museum where co-organisers Laura Hope (CfA) and Ross Wilkinson (OM) greeted everyone and outlined the itinerary. Rory McInnes-Gibbons gave an introductory presentation on the history and diversity of Hadrian’s Wall and its popular reception in the twentieth century with an emphasis on research conducted during Professor Edith Hall’s impact project, “Classics and Class in the North East”. With over 6000 performers, the Historical Pageant of Newcastle and the North staged at Leazes Park in 1931 demonstrated to students how Hadrian, and the Wall, have exerted influence over the region’s identity. 

We then split into two groups for the workshops hosted at the Archaeology Department and at the Oriental Museum on the theme of Classical Worlds. Karl Racine (Archaeology) led an object handling session with a collection of Roman artefacts from Pompeii to the Severn Valley which saw students select an object and explain what they thought it was. We all enjoyed coming up with our own creative theories and close analysis of the sherds before Karl told us what they were, and their original function in antiquity. It was a great opportunity for students to preview the opportunities Durham University provides for undergraduates in the department. 

Meanwhile, Ross Wilkinson was leading a session at the Oriental Museum which saw students darting across the collections in pursuit of the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra VII. Her portrait was located by one keen-eyed student on a contemporary coin next to a denarius showing her infamous lover, the Roman general and triumvir Mark Antony. We also looked at some X-rays and discussed the practices (good and bad) of previous curators and professors who mistreated these magnificent mummies, before some more object handling with the Greco-Roman collections. One student surveyed said that their “favourite part was the tour of the museum” and that because of the event “there are new topics that I am now aware of that I will actively explore more about.”

Day two started early as all were on board the bus for an hour’s drive to Housesteads where we met Helen Klemm, Education Officer for English Heritage. We viewed and examined further artefacts including a wonderful miniature spoon for earwax removal which left most of us dumbfounded, before we discussed what life was like for the average Roman soldier living on the wall. Exploring the ruins was done at a frenzied pace as we set off in pursuit of some murder mystery clues (trialling one of English Heritage’s experiences for school groups) after two ‘bodies’ had been discovered in one of the houses to the south of the fort. Fortunately, we were almost two thousand years late to catch the culprit, but the students enjoyed piecing together the motive, weapon and murderer. Good practice for anyone heading into the world of ancient history!

Helen accompanied us to our final stop at Chesters Roman Fort and we’d like to thank Helen for all her help on the day and making the trip possible. Our thanks also extend to the teachers involved across the two days from the respective schools, the funding provided for the event from Durham University’s Impact fund, Widening Participation fund and the Classical Association, and the time invested by the team of organisers. We achieved 100% positive student feedback and hope to see the success of this event continued and expanded in the future, bringing closer together diverse stakeholders within the Classics community in the North East.

ACE in the North East

Visiting the Roman North East