‘Researching the Ancient World’ in South Belfast Schools

In this week’s blog, QUB lecturer Dr Laura Pfuntner discusses the development of the School University Partnerships Initiative and its ‘Researching the Ancient World’ project:

The study of the ancient world is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, as historians and archaeologists take advantage of technological and scientific innovations to uncover new information and to gain fresh insights into long-debated historical questions. The remarkably well-preserved classical Greek shipwreck on the floor of the Black Sea recently surveyed by state-of-the-art ROVs,[1] and the Mayan cityscapes buried under dense vegetation but now revealed by aerial LiDAR,[2] are just two discoveries that illustrate the vast potential of the application of new scientific tools and methodologies to historical and archaeological research.

Such headline-grabbing finds also offer university researchers from across the sciences and humanities exciting opportunities to engage with the public, including school-age audiences. This year, ancient historians Laura Pfuntner and John Curran teamed with Prof Chris Allen of the School of Biological Sciences, Prof Eileen Murphy of the School of Natural and Built Environment, and Patricia Hampson of the Widening Participation Unit to develop the School University Partnerships Initiative (SUPI) project ‘Researching the Ancient World’. The project was inspired by Prof Allen’s involvement in an interdisciplinary effort to identify the precise route that the Carthaginian general Hannibal took over the Alps to invade Italy in 218 BC, in the course of the Second Punic War with Rome. Prof Allen’s examination of microbiological evidence (namely, animal dung) from soil samples taken in the Col de Traversette helped to confirm that Alpine pass as a likely stop for Hannibal’s troops and animals on their famous trek.[3]

The SUPI project’s goal was to provide Year 9 students in the South Belfast Area Learning Community (ALC) with hands-on experience of the complementary methods that university researchers in Ancient History, Archaeology, and Microbiology use to answer questions about the ancient world. As a first step, the SUPI team presented a day-long programme of interactive activities at Methodist College in June. Dr Pfuntner and Dr Curran, with the assistance of MA students David Green and Barry Trainor, guided students through a selection of textual and visual evidence for Roman family life, entertainment, food and diet, and attitudes to death.

Dr Curran discusses Roman family life with Year 9 students from the South Belfast ALC at Methodist College.

Students made a follow-up visit to the Queen’s University campus in September, at the beginning of their Year 10, to get a taste of university teaching facilities and to continue their exploration of the three disciplines. The ancient history team, with the additional help of former History undergraduate Rachel Newell and Stranmillis University College student Amber Taylor, led group discussions aimed at giving the visiting students the experience of conducting historical research by using textual and visual evidence to answer questions about the Roman world. Students used a variety of documents, ranging from historical narratives to graffiti and price lists, to identify unusual objects from across the Roman empire, including a set of surgical tools from Pompeii, a statue of a snake-god from the coast of the Black Sea, and a silver pepper pot from Britain. During their campus visit, students also gained practical experience in Microbiology, by extracting DNA from a strawberry; and Archaeology, by classifying and labelling different animal bones. In feedback collected after the event, most of the students agreed that they enjoyed their time (74%), that they had learned new information (80%), and that they would come to a similar event in the future (80%). Most participants agreed that they now knew more about the research that takes place in a university (65%) and that they would like to attend university when they were older (68%).

Dr Pfuntner and Stranmillis University College student Amber Taylor discuss textual and archaeological evidence for Roman surgery with Year 10 pupils in University Square.

To consolidate what they had learned throughout the project, students were then invited to create posters that answered the question ‘How does investigating the past help us solve future problems?’ The posters were submitted for judging by Queen’s researchers and a representative from the South Belfast ALC. The top three entries were announced at an event at the Whitla Hall in early December, with a poster submitted by students from Rathmore Grammar School receiving first prize.

The winning poster, submitted by students from Rathmore Grammar School.

The posters submitted at the project’s conclusion offer further evidence that students came away from ‘Researching the Ancient World’ not only with a taste of university-level research in Ancient History, Archaeology, and Microbiology, but also with an appreciation of the relevance of the distant past to understanding and solving the challenges we face in the present. In the words of one of the winning poster entries, ‘It is important to study our past because it can tell us how we evolved. It can show us what mistakes our ancestors made and how to learn from these mistakes to have a better society today’.

For further information on Dr Pfuntner’s research, see her QUB research profile.


[1] ‘Shipwreck found in Black Sea is “world’s oldest intact”’, BBC News, 23 October 2018 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-45951132).

[2] ‘Sprawling Maya network discovered under Guatemala jungle’, BBC News, 2 February 2018 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-42916261).

[3] Marguerite Holloway, ‘Searching for Signs of Hannibal’s Route in DNA from Horse Manure’, The New Yorker, 8 May 2016 (https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/searching-for-signs-of-hannibals-route-in-dna-from-horse-manure).


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