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The virtual dig

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By Rhona Dick independent education consultant

Access your exclusive free online software and launch your own classroom archaeological dig of a Roman villa!

virtual dig

Channel 4’s Time Team has raised the profile of archaeology enormously over the last 15 years or so, debunking the image held by some of an arcane and dusty (metaphorically as well as literally) subject practised by elderly academics. It has brought reality into our living rooms. Time Team is not just popular TV, it has served an educational purpose by clarifying what archaeology involves, from locating sites, to digging trenches, excavating, cleaning and identifying artefacts.


To maximise the potential of this online resource, it is really important that teachers spend a little time familiarising themselves with all its features before introducing it to the children (see Your FREE interactive software, overleaf). Photocopy and laminate enough Artefact and Expert Opinion sheets (see back of A2 poster) for each group. Children should not be given the Expert Opinion until they have completed their record sheets. You will also want to display the artefact photos on the A2 poster. For group work, it would be more effective for these to be cut out into separate cards. Also photocopy enough record sheets for the class.

The National Curriculum for England requires children to learn about history partly through enquiry – incidentally the Greek meaning of history is enquiry – involving, among other sources, the use of artefacts. However, do we always teach children where these artefacts come from? Yes, they see them in museums, they handle them in the classroom from LEA or museum loans, but do they appreciate the origin of these objects and how they have been found?

Taking children to visit an archaeological site is largely impractical, but you can do virtual archaeology in the classroom. The Virtual Dig provides an opportunity for children to consider how archaeologists work, to use artefacts as part of an historical enquiry, and to interpret evidence. This will take more than one lesson to complete, depending upon the availability of computers and adult help.

Prior knowledge

Children should have some background knowledge about the Roman invasion and settlement. They should know:

  • When the Romans invaded Britain.
  • That the Romans built straight roads wherever possible.
  • That we can identify settlements through place names. (For example, -caster, -chester and -cester are well-known derivatives of the Roman word castrum meaning ‘camp’. Perhaps less well known is the fact that ‘street’ is derived from the Roman phrase, via strata, meaning ‘a paved way’. Hence towns containing the word ‘street’, or variations on that, are possibly evidence of Roman settlement).

Children should also have experience of using a range of sources of information, including pictures, and be aware that history can be interpreted in different ways.

Your FREE interactive software

The classroom activities are driven and supported by the Virtual Dig online software – especially designed for this project. This can be accessed below. The program itself is fully interactive, and provides a number of screens that can be easily navigated using the forward and backward buttons at the bottom of the screen.

To view the software you will need Flash installed on your web browser. To ensure you have the most up-to-date version visit software/flashplayer/ and hit the ‘download’ button.

As well as viewing the Virtual Dig program in your web browser, you can also download it onto your computer hard drive by right clicking and choosing ‘save as’. To run the program from your computer simply right click and choose ‘open’ and then select your web browser from the list. The Virtual Dig software will allow children to excavate their own Roman Villa. By using the mouse to explore the screen, children will uncover evidence to help build a picture of who might have lived there. By digging further, children may discover even more finds that will give them vital clues.

Setting up the Virtual Dig

Ideally, for the topic to be introduced to the whole class, you will need access to an interactive whiteboard – so that everyone can view the program. Later, you can work with smaller groups of children at a standalone computer. Children should work in pairs when studying the individual artefacts.

What is archaeology?

Begin by establishing what the children already know about archaeology.

  • Archaeology is a way of finding out about how people lived long ago by looking at remains found where they lived.
  • There are a number of ways of identifying a site. In the case of this Virtual Dig, the walls of the villa can be seen due to the poor growth of vegetation on top of the remains. This creates a visible outline.
  • Archaeologists have to work very carefully with small trowels and brushes.
  • Artefacts are cleaned, studied and photographed. The exact location of the find is recorded.
  • After a site has been excavated the artefacts may go to local museums.
  • Most sites are not preserved.

Further information on archaeology can be found at

Artefact hunters

The culina

There are two finds in the culina.

  • Why are there pieces of pottery, and not whole pots?
  • What might the pots have been used for?
  • Would pots found elsewhere in the villa have had a different style or function? Why?
  • Why is the floor made of different material in the culina than the other rooms?
  • Who would have worked in the culina?

The triclinium

There are three finds in the triclinium.

  • What does the colourful mosaic floor tell us?
  • Why is there a wall painting? What does it show?
  • What are the brick columns for? Is it important that they are below floor level? Would all rooms be like this?
  • Can the children suggest what the artefacts might be?

The peristylum

There are four finds in the peristylum.

  • Why is the mosaic only found around the edge? What might have been in the middle?
  • Why is there a painting on the wall?
  • What were the columns for?
  • What was the altar for?
  • Can the children suggest what the artefacts might be? Does the location give any clues?

Starting the dig

Open up the Virtual Dig program and click ‘start’ to access the wide-view map of the area. Click ‘mouseover off’.

Ask the children to identify the clues that might suggest this was an area of Roman settlement. The main indications are straight roads and the town names. Click ‘mouseover on’ and check the children’s ideas. One of the mouseovers suggests a possible location for a villa. Ask the children to say why they think this might be a suitable location. Are there any alternative sites that would be just as good or perhaps better? Are there places where perhaps they wouldn’t want to build a villa? Why was a source of fresh water important?

From this point the dig is best undertaken as adult-led group work. The children who are not working with an adult can use resources in the classroom to complete Activity sheet 1, ‘My plan of a Roman villa’.

Investigating the site

Click ‘next’ and ask the group to describe what they can see. How could the whole outline have been identified? Perhaps from an aeroplane, or a farmer might have noticed that crops didn’t grow as well in one area as another, and anyone who has watched Time Team will know all about geophysical surveys! Explore the site using the ‘mouseover’ and read the Latin words with the children, but don’t explain their meaning. In the culina ask the children if the object against the wall might give any clues as to the function of the room. What are the columns for in the peristylum? Why are there columns under the floor in the triclinium?

Excavating the villa

Click ‘next’ and choose an area to excavate. If time allows each group should have the opportunity to explore each of the three rooms, but if not then groups could focus on one location and be asked to report back on their finds.

Explore the chosen area, explaining any unfamiliar vocabulary and challenging children to offer their opinions, for example:

  • What is it used for?
  • Why was it built here?
  • Why was it made like this?

Click next to go to the final level of the excavation where the artefacts have been unearthed. Talk with the children about the different finds (see Artefact hunters).

Examining the finds

Each artefact in the virtual dig has an associated letter that links it to the photographs on the A2 poster and poster backs. Once children have explored one section of the site, distribute the artefact and record sheets (see back of A2 poster) and the relevant photographs. A magnifying glass might help to clarify details on some of the pictures. Working in pairs, the children should study one of the artefacts and complete their artefact sheet. Finally, they should draw a picture of their artefact and, if appropriate, include a detailed drawing of any decoration. When the children have completed their record sheets they should look at what the experts have to say (using the Expert Opinion sheets). More able children could be encouraged to reflect upon the similarities and differences between opinions.

The final session

When the site has been fully excavated, children can role play a public meeting in which archaeologists are questioned about their work, their finds, expert opinion and what they have learned about Roman settlement from this excavation. Some children could be encouraged to identify what they still want to find out.

Finding out more…

Further information about different aspects of Roman life can be found at The text is aimed at primary children and is supported by photographs of Roman artefacts found in Sussex.



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