Artefact Handling Kits

Archaeology Scotland held a ‘big think’ meeting on handling kits – also known as artefact handing kits, loan boxes, or handling boxes – and this is the result of that meeting. We showcased two Archaeology Scotland’s Artefact Investigation Kits, Fantastic Flint and Viking Scotland, including the notes for educators, and the loans borrowing process; Historic Environment Scotland’s Go Roman teachers’ pack and Medieval Castle handling box kit list; and Rosslyn Chapel’s Mason’s Tools kit list.

This blog post goes through: what a handling kit is; how they are used; instructions on how to create your own artefact handling kit; and many Top Tips!

As with all our posts, this is a living document that will be added to over time. This information is aimed at educators who either have, or want to create, heritage-based handling kits.

storytelling kit bag (c) Archaeology Scotland
Archaeology Scotland’s storytelling kit bag  is a soft fabric bag. Inside, the artefacts are protected  within robust plastic containers and layers of soft wrapping  (c) Archaeology Scotland

What: Handling kits are themed cases with real and/or replica artefacts for handling sessions and other activities.

Supporting materials are either in the kit or online and often include:

  • a list of what is in the kit; pictures of each artefact, such as in artefact cards made up of information about each artefact and picture(s)
  • introductory text to the theme
  • educators’ notes: e.g. how to split the group and run the session, more detailed information on the artefacts or time period, and an evaluation sheet.
  • learners’ resources (i.e. resources made for the learners themselves to use), such as worksheets.

Handling kits are often associated with museums, but Archaeology Scotland has produced kits with an archaeological focus since the mid-1990s. The idea of handing objects seems to have been around as long as museums themselves, and the kits are a more purposeful, paedagogical version of this. The kits are available for self-led learning or for session leaders to use with their groups, and therefore work well at unstaffed venues.  Some kits stay at a venue, while others are loaned out and therefore include administrative paperwork, such as tick list for each item in the kit, and loan/sign-out sheets.

Top Tip: The Museums Association’s Collections for the Future: Effective Collections Simple Loans Administration PDF has some great food for thought, if you’re thinking of setting up a loans system.

Top Tip: We note that there is a movement towards calling them ‘objects’ rather than ‘artefacts’ – a move from academic language to informal.

Top Tip: include a timeline of Scottish prehistory and history in each kit.

Top Tip: for supporting documents – note that teachers have told us that they want editable documents.

create a simple PowerPoint document of your artefact pictures, your logos and other images

There is no point in creating a beautiful teachers’ pack if they aren’t going to use it. We recommend a big idea that came out of our meeting:  create a simple PowerPoint document of your artefact pictures, your logos and other images. This means that teachers and other educators can create their own worksheets etc. Another way to facilitate this is to put as much as you can online (e.g. information about the artefacts) as Word documents and PowerPoint, not as PDFs, so that educators can easily copy and paste information. Hopefully, they’ll then share their work with you so that you can add ideas to your kits.

Top Tip: ask your local archaeology commercial unit or museum for de-accessioned artefacts that they have available (i.e. that aren’t required by Treasure Trove and have been cleared for educational use).

Your local museum in particular may be happy to create kits with you, especially if one of the kits thereafter forever lives at the museum and an identical one (as far as possible) at your organisation. An example of this is Archaeology Scotland’s Industrial Heritage Artefact Investigation Kit – the objects came from the National Mining Museum, who has one of the kits and the Archaeology Scotland office holds the other – both get sent out on loan as well as get used at the museum.  Similarly, Historic Environment Scotland’s Go Roman kits (theme 3 and 4 only) are available from the Glasgow Museum Service as well as with themes 1-4 at Longmore House in Edinburgh (more information here).

How: educators working with primary school groups are the biggest users of loan kits

We see this clearly from our stats at Archaeology Scotland, as does Historic Environment Scotland. We also assume that is the case from the number of loan kits available from other places, which are aimed at primary schools. However, note that they work equally well with learners from other settings: adult learning groups, early years (provided the objects aren’t sharp!) and youth work.

The most common activity is a handling kit session, where learners literally handle the artefacts, and discuss what they’re seeing and feeling: what they think each artefact is, what each is made of, and how old. We think that most educators prefer to do this as a group, but like to then hand out worksheets to gather individual learners’ thoughts.

handling boxes meeting at Archaeology Scotland
handling boxes meeting at Archaeology Scotland

Top Tip: have the learners move around the objects rather than the objects move around the learners! Set up the artefacts on tables (‘activity stations’), group the learners into small groups and have them interact with each station for a few minutes at a time. We found that sitting the group into a circle and handling around the objects creates a more passive learning environment.

Handling kits also work very, very well as part of a simulated excavation. However, you need to be extra careful about choosing objects that aren’t sharp; replicas are preferred here in case something gets lost and because you’ll be burying them -they might get damaged during robust excavation; and for the same reasons objects that are adult-palm-size and up work best. We’ll create a more detailed blog post on simulated excavation later in the year.

How to create an artefact investigation kit:

  • Check out this advice from SHARE ©Luton Culture
  • GEM has an awesome resource ‘Guidance notes: making loan boxes/handling kit’ – its currently down for refurbishment, but keep an eye on their website for it
  • Have more real artefacts than replica ones
    • Ask your local archaeology commercial unit or museum for de-accessioned artefacts that they have available (i.e. that aren’t required by Treasure Trove and have been cleared for educational use). If you need replicas, there are plenty of museum suppliers as well as freelance artisans who can create them for you.
  • Container – these all work:
    • sturdy plastic boxes, such as ‘Really Useful Boxes’ – note that plastic boxes don’t courier well!
    • suitcases (the National Museum of Scotland uses these for their in-house workshops on Ancient Egypt – large heavy-duty suitcases with a hard outer shells and rolling wheels keep the objects safe and easy to transport)
    • (c) National Museums Scotland - artefacts and objects for workshops on Ancient Egypt are enclosed in specially-cut foam within hard suitcases for storage and transport
      (c) National Museums Scotland – artefacts and objects for workshops on Ancient Egypt are enclosed in specially-cut foam within hard suitcases for storage and transport

      (c) National Museums Scotland - artefacts and objects for workshops on Ancient Egypt are enclosed in specially-cut foam within hard suitcases for storage and transport
      (c) National Museums Scotland
    • specially-made cases (Archaeology Scotland uses these – they’re metal cases with foam inserts);
    • fabric bags with the artefacts packed in plastic containers (see above).
    • Plastic toolboxes might also be worth thinking about for small collections.
    • we’ve even heard of sleeping bags being used to transport large and bulky items (such as a handling kit and associated simulated excavation equipment), but only via a car.
    • need a bespoke-sized box? The South East Museum Development Programme has this advice sheet on making  your own: ‘making boxes for museum objects’.
  • supporting documents – make them modern by using text boxes – and by being succinct. We were drawn to Rosslyn Chapel’s use of rounded rectangular text boxes in background information sheet about a Mason’s Tools, and the Go Roman learners’ instructions which were three steps written in small bubbles (find an example on page 5 of Go Roman – Theme 1 – the Legionary Soldier PDF). Both of these were a single side of A4. Need more inspiration? Check out the world of one-pagers.
  • Protect each object by getting foam cut to size at banner/signage makers’ shop. We don’t recommend trying that yourself, as it is a precise job and is harder than it looks!
  • Take nice images of each artefact: we suggest using a light box -something relatively cheap, portable and lightweight, something like this – to get better images. You can either use the black or white backdrops that come with it, or purchase pretty coloured card: artefacts look nice on medium blue, sage green and bright red or pink backdrops. There is no need to add a scale bar, as the artefacts are visible in the kit, and you’ll want a picture without one anyway for popping the pictures onto the list of what your kit contains, worksheets, promotion, etc.
  • Did you know that you can make a picture background transparent using Word?? Select your picture, click on Picture Tools in the Home Ribbon, and you’ll see ‘Remove Background’ on the very left:
  • Include soft mats in the kit to ensure that the artefacts have a safe, soft resting place and won’t scratch any tables. Foam would be nice. Also include some large soft cloths in the kit so that educators can set up the activity stations and keep the artefacts covered until the big reveal.

    (c) Archaeology Scotland Roman AIK
    (c) Archaeology Scotland Roman AIK
  • Please don’t make the kit too heavy or cumbersome! You should be able to carry it comfortably for at least 10 minutes*, as you want it to be comfortable for those without cars to get it to sessions (*picture yourself walking from a train station to a local school or other venue – is it too heavy to do this comfortably?).
  • How are you going to get it from once place to the other? We use trolleys, including a small packable one, to take the kits around, as most of them are too big to fit in a suitcase. Something that isn’t too heavy and fits into wheelie suitcase would be ideal.
  • If you courier, note that courier companies like to stick their labels onto your kits – this is particularly annoying if you have branded them up! Protect the outside of your kits from this vandalism by covering them in plastic bags, and then taping that down with packing tape. Also note that the Highlands and Islands pay more for courier charges, so it’s best if you can subsidise this or even work your networks to send the kit up with someone you know when they go to visit family, say.

Please do get in touch if you have something to add, we’d love to hear from you!

-Becca

Blog post author Becca Boyde is the Youth Engagement Officer at Archaeology Scotland and coordinates the Heritage Resources Portal. Views Own. Contact: r.boyde@archaeologyscotland.org.uk or heritageportal@archaeologicalscotland.org.uk 

Archaeology Scotland 

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Archaeology Scotland 75 years (c) Archaeology Scotland

Post Author: r.boyde