Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

Notes and references

In academic writing there’s a kind of machismo about bibliographies… Some are so long that – in a single lifetime - no individual could have found time to read all the books and articles listed. It is pointless and dismaying to hand students such extended lists. What they want and need are references to works that can answer specific questions whilst acting as entry points to the literature. For this reason I’ve often myself recommending books written for children. To simplify faithfully requires a high order of understanding of the original material and I have found both children and students to be pretty smart at sorting out the good from the poor. This applies to illustrations too. What follows therefore is not a bibliography in a classical sense but a series of notes intended to check for themselves whether I have truthfully reflected what the real experts have to say.


For a pedagogic view of learning as a universal activity see Sotto E., When Teaching Becomes Learning (Continuum, 2007). Sotto provides no formula for ‘filling heads’; instead he shows that the processes of learning and teaching often have little to do with one another, with teachers defeating their own objectives through the methods they use. For the construction of personal narratives see Damasio A., The Feeling of What Happens, (Heinemann, 2000), a difficult book which suggests that the formation of memory circuits within the brain is the equivalent to the writing of stories. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is an alignment of external and internal realities eg ‘this pattern of brain activity equals the thought of fish and chips’. It will happen and when it does torturers will no longer need terror to extort information: they will simply be able to read it off the scan.

For the notion that knowledge is most easily acquired when survival is at stake check your own experience. The Egyptian schoolmaster who got his pupils to copy out the following text – ‘a boy’s ear is on his backside, he hears best when he is beaten’ – understood the point. I was introduced to Professor Torrance’s tests by the thinker and broadcaster Tony Buzan at a conference in 1990 entitled Realising Human Potential, organised by the Association for Educational and Training Technology (proceedings published by Kogan Page, 1991). Tony is not however responsible for the use I made of them. The sabre-toothed tiger is my own invention.

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1. The difficulty with History

My remarks about the difficulty of teaching history are drawn from experience. Tosh J., The Pursuit of History (Longmans, 2002) provides an expert summary of the different kinds of history currently being written. Husbands C., What is History Teaching? (Open University Press, 1996) raises many useful questions about history’s place in the school curriculum whilst Haydn T., James A., and Hunt M., Learning to Teach History in the Secondary School (Routledge, 2001) offers practical advice in relation to this most problematic age group. Changing views of the Maya are summarised in Drew D., Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1999) pp 99 – 110. For the continuing controversies surrounding Lindow Man see Joy, J., Lindow Man (British Museum Press, 2009). The social side of Roman defecation is shown in Crow J., Housesteads (English Heritage, 1995) where the remains of a communal necessarium are illustrated. The Martian exercise was developed to show how much we take for granted in our understanding of the present and to illustrate the distortions that are inevitable when evidence is taken at its face value.

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2. History and ‘History’

For the historical background to the introduction of compulsory state education and the changing relationship between teachers, schools and the state see Batho G., Political Issues in Education (Cassell, 1989). Much of my thinking at the start of this chapter was inspired by the late Joslyn Owen who appointed me as Schools’ Museum Officer in Devon in 1979 and who – against his better judgement - allowed me generalise a service he thought sufficiently pure in its philosophy and scope. He was right and I was wrong: it is his original concept that survives today. Joslyn supported teacher-autonomy which was very different from the school autonomy that the Tories thought would re-vitalise the education system. In 1988 they introduced social-darwinism into a system which could not – by its inclusive nature – allow the weakest to go to the wall. For an account of the discussions leading to the 1988 history order I am indebted to Dr Robert Guyver who was a member of the original working party, though he is not responsible for my misuse of the information. As will be obvious from the text I agree with working party’s identification of five key skills as the basis of ‘active’ history, subversive as they were of the Conservative government’s determination to teach the ‘national myth’. For Mrs Thatcher’s view of history see the television programme ‘Remember, Remember,’ first broadcast on BBC2 in 1989.

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3. Inventing ourselves

For the latest theories relating to human evolution, see Stringer C., and Andrews P., The Complete World of Human Evolution (Thames & Hudson, 2005). I have also used Wells S., The Journey of Man (Penguin, 2002) and Silvertown J.(ed), 99%Ape (Natural History Museum, 2008). Alan Walker’s account of his 1984 discovery of a more or less complete homo erectus skeleton in The Wisdom of Bones (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1996) led me to attempt a reconstruction of the creature’s appearance and to the conclusion that we are all the descendants of brainy cowards. Robin Dunbar’s short but thought-provoking book The Human Story (Faber & Faber, 2004) contains the interesting suggestion that the development of language owed as much to our ancestors’ love of gossip as it did to the more practical needs of the hunt. The truth of my experiment to prove the power of self-control was demonstrated again and again by the good-natured undergraduates who I subjected to the ordeal described. The complete text of the law code of Hammurabi, translated by L.W. King, is available from Kessinger Books (2004).

For my view of the Neanderthals I relied upon Stringer C. and Gamble C., In Search of the Neanderthals (Thames & Hudson, 1994) which has a valuable series of illustrations showing how widely interpretations of their appearance have differed over time. Initially seen as hairy monsters (hence the adjective ‘Neanderthal’ to describe primitive and brutal behaviour) they are now portrayed as victims of their smarter, more manipulative cousins from Africa – us. The television series Neanderthal shown on Channel 4 in 2000 provides a good example of this treatment; copies are still available on VHS through Amazon. A book to accompany the series was written by Douglas Palmer (Channel 4 Books, 2001). For good illustrations of the cave paintings referred to in the text see Bahn.P., Journey Through the Ice Age (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997).

The wonderful black-and-white film Desert People made by Ian Dunlop for the Commonwealth Film Unit in 1967 provides the best possible introduction I can imagine to the hunter-gatherer way of life. Copies of the film are available from Screen Australia (www.screenaustralia.gov.au). For a greater understanding of the ‘Dreaming’ and its representation in art see Caruana W., Aboriginal Art (Thames & Hudson, 1993). For ‘Otzi’ see Spindler K., The Man in the Ice (Phoenix, 2001) up-dated by Fowler B., Iceman (Pan, 2002). For the skeleton found at Stonehenge see Pitts M., Hengeworld (Century, 2000).

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4. Inventing ‘society’

For the influence of climate change on the development of culture see Fagan B., The Long Hot Summer (Granta Books, 2004) and for the rise of the state in Egypt in particular Kemp B., Ancient Egypt – Anatomy of a Civilisation (Routledge, 2006). For an Egyptologist Kemp takes a surprisingly jaundiced view of the achievements of ‘civilisation’, arising as they do from the concentration of resources in the hands of an elite, yet – as is shown in the text - the invention of agriculture made such a concentration inevitable and without it we would not have had the Pyramids, the Parthenon or the Sistine ceiling. For a summary of the various interpretations of the Narmer Palette, see the British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (BM Press, 1995, recently up-dated) pp 196-7 and Kemp pp 83-4. For the concept of ma’at and way in which the Ancient Egyptians understood their past see Tait J.(ed), Never Had the Like Occurred (UCL Press, 2003).

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5. Inventing the past

There are several good introductions to the reading and writing of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. I found Bridget McDermott’s Decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs (Duncan Baird, 2001) best for teaching. As its title suggests Barry Kemp’s 100 Hieroglyphs – Think Like an Egyptian (Granta Books, 2005) shows how the objects represented by the hieroglyphs reflect many different aspects of the Egyptian way of life. Harriet Crawford’s Sumer and the Sumerians (Cambridge University Press, 2004) offers a comprehensive introduction to the early civilisations of Mesopotamia, whilst the superb catalogue produced for the 2007 British Museum exhibition of artefacts from the time of Qin Shihuangdi is probably the best introduction to early Chinese civilisation (The First Emperor, British Museum Press, 2007). See also Ebrey P., The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Cambridge University Press, 1999). For the Indus Valley Civilisation the web is probably the best source of information with learning resources on offer from the BBC as well as up- to-date information on the latest excavations (www.harappa.com).

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6. How old is ‘old’?

With ‘creationism’ still the creed of millions it’s essential for the history teacher to have a firm grasp of the science that underpins our current notions of time. Simple explanations of radio-carbon dating and dendro-chronology can be found in Cork B. and Reid S, Archaeology (Usborne Young Scientist, 1985), up-dated recently as Wheatley A. and Reid S., Introduction to Archaeology (Usborne, 2008). For Silbury Hill and much more of value, see Prior F., Britain BC, Harper Collins, 2003) and Bewley R., Prehistoric Settlements, (Batsford-English Heritage, 1994). For ancient technology in general see James P. and Thorpe N. Ancient Inventions, (Michael O’Mara Books, 1995), a book I’ve had to refer to over and over again. Many attempts have been made in recent times to reconstruct ancient ‘marvels’ using the methods of the time: see Brightwell R. et al, Secrets of Lost Empires, (BBC Books, 1996) for some examples. What comes across most clearly is that the real secret was the ability to organise and motivate a workforce. Inspiration mattered as much as perspiration.

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7. Doing it by numbers? The Greeks

To single out helpful books from the huge literature on Ancient Greece is very difficult. For a good overview try Cartledge P. (ed), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece, (CUP, 1998) or Camp J. and Fisher E., Exploring the World of the Ancient Greeks, (Thames & Hudson, 2002). Robin Lane Fox is best known for his work on Alexander the Great but his Classical World, (Allen Lane, 2005) is both erudite and entertaining. To know what Ancient Athens was really like see Davidson J., Courtesans and Fishcakes, (Harper Collins, 1997). Peter Jones’ Vote for Caesar (Orion, 2008) applies the common sense of the Ancient Greeks to present day problems whilst the same author’s Classics in Translation (Duckworth, 1998) provides an invaluable introduction to the literature of the ancient world that will lead you back to the texts themselves. I also drew extensively on Matthew Dillon’s The Ancient Geeks in their Own Words (Sutton, 2002). My understanding of Greek maths rests on a childhood book by the famous scientist Lancelot Hogben. It was called Man Must Measure (Rathbone Books (1955), and has long been out of print. Second hand copies do exist but are rare.

There are many editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey to choose from. Penguin Classics has verse translations by Brian Fagles (1990). Christopher Logue’s War Music (Faber and Faber, 2001) is not so much a translation of Homer as poetry in its own right, whilst Lindsay Clarke’s The War at Troy (Harper Collins, 2004) provides a straightforward re-telling of the story that allows the gods their proper part in the action – unlike the film Troy (DVD: Warner Brothers, 2007). For the Olympic Games, see Swaddling J., The Ancient Olympic Games (British Museum Press, 1980) and Spivey N., The Ancient Olympics, (Oxford University Press, 2004). It might also be useful at this stage to refer to Llewellyn-Smith M., Olympics in Athens, 1896, for the difficult relationship between the ancient games and their modern revival. With the approach of the London games in 2012 it becomes ever more important to ensure children understand the differences between the two.

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8. A few more thoughts on the curriculum and then… the Romans

Copies of the document Excellence and Enjoyment (2003) can be downloaded from the website of the Department for Children, Schools and Families (www.dcsf.gov.uk). To the best of my knowledge no one has written specifically about curriculum development from a school organisation perspective though there is a useful review of recent developments in the first chapter of Haydn T., Arthur J., and Hunt M., Learning to Teach History in the Secondary School (Routledge, 2001). OFSTED reports on history can be obtained from OFSTED’s website (www.ofsted.gov.uk).

For a general introduction to the Roman Empire Robin Lane Fox is again useful, whilst aspects of Roman Britain can be researched through the series of well illustrated books written by Guy de la Bedoyere, including Eagles over Britannia. Gods and Thunderbolts and The Golden Age of Roman Britain (all published by Sutton between 1999 and 2002). For those with less time on their hands, McCleavy T., Life in Roman Britain (English Heritage Gatekeeper series, 1999) is tremendous value as is Alcock J., Life in Roman Britain (English Heritage, 1992). Danzigger D. and Purcell N., Hadrian’s Empire, (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005) puts the famous wall in context. For specific sites see the relevant Englidh Heritage guidebooks and Milne G., Roman London (English Heritage, 1995, Cunliffe B., Roman Bath (English Heritage, 1995) and De la Bedoyere G., Roman Towns in Britain (Batsford-English Heritage, 1992).

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9. Empathy: insight or illusion?

As a practising teacher I’ve made use of empathy throughout my teaching career without being altogether happy that the results I’ve achieved have been worthwhile: it is all too easy to allow superficial similarities to dominate. Empathy requires more than the feeling that people in the past were like us: it requires us to go on a journey into the foreign land that our ancestors inhabit and see the world as they saw it. For post-modern history and recent developments in academic history generally see Tosh J., The Pursuit of History (Longmans, 2002).

As background to the Marcus activity I used Bowman A., Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier (British Museum Press, 1994). Hoare K., V-Mail: Letters from the Romans at Vindolanda (British Museum Press, 1998) is a smashing little book based on the same material. To introduce the activity I used the BBC Landmarks series Investigating Local History, made in 1996 and still listed by some resource centres. For the pattern of life in the Roman army generally, see Godsworthy A., The Complete Roman Army (Thames & Hudson, 2003) and the beautifully illustrated series of books by Peter Connolly, published under the general title The Roman World by Oxford University Press in 1997. For the early history of Christianity I drew on Chadwick O., A History of Christianity (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995) and for its development on Brown P., The World of Late Antiquity (Thames & Hudson, 1971), a ground breaking book in many ways. Richard Holmes has written many invaluable books on the lives of men at war: Dusty Warriors (Harper, 2006) shows that Marcus is still alive and serving in the modern British army whilst Tim Collins, Rules of Engagement (Headline Books, 2005) gives the soldier’s view that is so sadly missing from the ancient sources. Vegetius’ Epitome of Military Science, translated by N.P Milner (1993) is available from Liverpool University Press.

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10. Big questions

In The World of Late Antiquity, already cited, Peter Brown argues that the Roman Empire fell because its landowning elite discovered that they could do without it whilst the intelligentsia - like today - lost interest in government. Peter Heather’s new book The Fall of the Roman Empire (Macmillan 2005) suggests that the ‘barbarians’ who overwhelmed the West were essentially economic migrants, driven westwards by further pressures to the East. In The End of the Roman Empire in the West (Tempus, 2000) Ellen Swift argues that the empire had already become ‘barbarised’ before it fell, another echo of modern times. Other explanations include climate change (the Dark Ages really were dark) and depopulation following a plague at the end of the Second Century AD from which the area around the Mediterranean never recovered. Older learners can be invited to make their own decision, with the caveat expressed in the text, that for some people the empire’s ‘fall’ may not have been a fall at all.

For the end of Roman Britain see Prior F., Britain AD (Harper Collins, 2004) which summarises the latest thinking on the Anglo-Saxon ‘invasions’. The literature on ‘Arthur’ is immense: Snyder C., Exploring the World of King Arthur (Thames & Hudson, 2000) summarises the archaeological evidence and explores the development of Arthurian myth down to the present day. Wood M., In Search of the Dark Ages (BBC Books, 1981) brings to life some of the major figures of the Anglo-Saxon period, whilst the same author’s Domesday – A Search for the Roots of England (BBC Books, 1986) demonstrates the remarkable continuity between the landscape of Roman Britain and that of the Normans, as revealed in the Domesday Book of 1086. For the Saxon mentality see Crossley-Holland K., The Anglo-Saxon World (Boydell, 1982) which contains most of the surviving Anglo-Saxon literature rendered into modern English including Beowulf. Many other translations of Beowulf exist, including one by Seamus Heaney, the former poet laureate (Faber & Faber, 2000). With my students I used the version specially re-created for a BBC Zig Zag series called Anglo-Saxon Life, first broadcast in 1994. See BBC.co.uk/primaryhistory for all BBC KS2 history resources.

For the Vikings, see Hall R., Viking Age York (English Heritage, 1994) and the guidebook (2009) to the world famous Jorvik experience. Graham-Campbell J. (ed), A Cultural Atlas of the Viking World (Andromeda, 1994) is as complete a survey as anyone could wish.

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11. Closed and open systems

Jakob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man (BBC Books, 1969) has been re-issued many times and copies are still widely available. Its theory of ‘intellectual’ evolution can be compared with the spiritual odyssey charted by Robert Winston in The Story of God (BBC Books, 2005) which provides a very good introduction to the major religions of the world. As a medical man and a practising Jew Winston sees no conflict between religion and science, only between different forms of human authority - precisely the issue that divided Becket from Henry II. For the historical background to the conflict between Church and State in the Middle Ages see the relevant chapters in Huscroft R., Ruling England 1042-1217 (Longmans, 2005). Of course the best primary source for early medieval England is the sixty foot long embroidery known as the Bayeux Tapestry. For superb reproductions and detailed commentary see Musset L., The Bayeux Tapestry (Boydell, 2005). The Hereford Mappa Mundi is analysed in detail in Harvey P., Mappa Mundi (British Library, 1996). Large scale reproductions of the map can also be obtained from the British Library.

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12. Liberty and its foundations

The best recent biography of King John is by Ralph Turner (Longmans, 1994) which gives a much more accurate picture of the exploitative nature of medieval kingship than more ‘constitutional’ versions. For the aristocratic society of which John was a part the key source is The History of William the Marshal, translated by S. Gregory for the Anglo-Norman Text Society, 2002. The career of this most successful of younger sons is put into context in Crouch D., William Marshall: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147 to 1219 (Pearson Education. 2002).

For the character and reign of Edward I see Morris M., A Great and Terrible King (Hutchinson, 2008) or Prestwich M, The Three Edwards (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980). The hostile portrayal of Edward in the film Braveheart accurately reflects the opinion of some of his contemporaries who saw him as tricky as well as brave. A modern version of Sir John Fortescue’s On the Laws and Governance of England, edited by Shelley Lockwood, is available from Cambridge University Press (1997). The supremacy of the House of Commons in modern British governance still rests upon its ability to deny the monarch money

For life in medieval England see Brown., The World of the Luttrell Psalter (British Library, 2006) and Mortimer I., A Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (Bodley Head, 2008), also the excellent Medieval Craftsmen series published by the British Museum of which Coldstream N., Masons and Sculptors (1991) is a good example. The best book on castles is still Platt C., The Castle in Medieval England and Wales (Secker & Warburg, 1982) Nothing however surpasses Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, (Penguin Classics, 2003).

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13. New Worlds

For Martin Luther see Wilson D., Out of the Storm: the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther (Hutchinson, 2007). The same author’s In the Lion’s Court (Hutchinson, 2002) provides an excellent introduction to the reign of Henry VIII by following the lives of six leading men who happened to be called Thomas, including Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. For More in particular see Guy J., Thomas More (Arnold, 2000), although I prefer Marius R., Thomas More (Knopf, 1984) as literature and Ackroyd P., Thomas More (Chatto & Windus, 1998) for the author’s unrivalled knowledge of Tudor London. More himself can be read in Utopia, (Penguin Classics, 2004). Both Luther and More have been the subject of influential plays: Luther by John Osborne (Faber & Faber, 1961) and A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt (Heinemann, 1960). Both represent the views of their generation rather than the 16th Century but their influence on historical thinking has been considerable. For Anne Boleyn, see Ives E., The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Blackwell, 2004), a classic which is both scholarly and readable. The same author’s Lady Jane Grey (Blackwell, 2009) is equally as good. For the discovery of Anne Boleyn’s remains in the 19th Century my source was Bell D. C., The Chapel in the Tower (John Murray, 1877).

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14. Maggots in a jar

This section, as much as any other, represents my own view. Clearly it’s a bold simplification to ascribe the Industrial Revolution to the secularisation of Western European thought following the Reformation but there seems no doubt that the response of British farmers and landowners to the rise in population that began in the 18th century was essentially rational: unlike Thomas Malthus, they saw it as a commercial opportunity, not a portent of doom. For a broad overview of the period see Schama S., A History of Britain 1757-2000 (BBC Books, 2000) and for the Agricultural Revolution in particular see Overton M., Agricultural Revolution in England (Cambridge University Press, 1996). Nichol J., Expansion Trade & Industry (Simon & Schuster, 1993) interprets the period for secondary school pupils and their teachers whilst Rural Rides by William Cobbett (Penguin Classics, 2005) gives a contemporary view of the social changes brought about by agricultural ‘improvements.’

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15. ‘We must educate our masters…’

These days genealogy is a major industry with many entry points, including on-line access to much of the data through Ancestry.com and local libraries. I owe my knowledge of the Leedham family to the Victorian habit of keeping a record of births, deaths and marriages in a large family bible, purchased for the purpose. In rural locations graveyards provide ready-made data that can highlight social change as well providing a link to the present through names that may still be found in school registers. For the Victorian period in general see any of the classic works by Asa Briggs – Victorian Cities (Pelican, 1968), Victorian People (Pelican, 1965) and Victorian Things (Batsford, 1988); also Pickard L., Victorian London (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005); Thomas D., The Victorian Underworld (John Murray. 1998); and Hart-Davis A., What the Victorians Did For Us (BBC Books, 2001). Sweet M., Inventing the Victorians (Faber & Faber, 2001) provides a very different view of the conventional ‘stuffy’ image of Victorian Britain. For the lives of children outside school see Pamela Horn The Victorian Country Child (Roundwood Press, 1974) and the same author’s The Victorian Town Child (Sutton. 1997). For the Education Act of 1870 and the schools it created see Stephens W., Education in Britain, 1750-1914 (Macmillan, 1998). A Victorian school day can be reconstructed from May T., The Victorian Schoolroom (Shire Publications, 1994).

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16. Cops and robbers

Being more than half a century old at the time of writing I can claim personal experience of some of the ‘tortured history’ of the 20th Century, not least the threat to the continued existence of the human race posed by a nuclear exchange in the era of the Cold War. Amongst the sources I used for my teaching of this period, Niall Ferguson’s War of the World ( ) is acknowledged in the text. I also made much use of Richard Evans’ magisterial history of the Third Reich – The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power, and the Third Reich at War (Alan Lane, 2003, 2005 and 2008), and Richard Overy’s The Dictators (Alan Lane, 2004). Huw Strachan’s The First World War (Simon & Schuster, 2003) proved indispensable for its global perspective whilst Lyn Macdonald’s Voices and Images of the Great War (Penguin, 1991) provided indispensable first hand evidence of a conflict in which both my grandfathers fought. For the domestic history of Britain I used Hattersley R., Borrowed Time (Littlebrown, 2007) and Kynaston D., Austerity Britain (Blooomsbury, 2007) now followed by the same author’s Family Britain (Bloomsbury, 2009) together with Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain (Macmillan, 2007).

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Secrets of Lost Empires, edited with an introduction by Robin Brightwell (BBC Books, 1996) features a series of experimental archaeology projects, originally shown on television. The most impressive was the building of a rope bridge in Inca fashion by villagers in Peru. The 1900 House was broadcast in 1999 and published in book form by Channel 4 in the same year.

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