Primary History: Teaching From Stone Age to Iron Age (Unit 1) from September 2014

This new area of study has the potential to be one of the most exciting to teach. Probably taught in Year 3 to develop some chronological sequence to our British history studies, this topic offers lots of great opportunities to explore two major historical concepts, change and continuity. It also allow us to keep posing the at all-important question; how can we possibly know what it was like so many years ago before man recorded his thoughts in writing. There is a wealth of visual and artefactual material available: we just need to make it more age-appropriate. It is a very hands-on topic but one that also encourages pupils to think about the spiritual side of life when man was not simply hunting, gathering and farming for survival. Our use of case studies of Star Carr, Skara Brae, Stonehenge, Danebury and Maiden Castle should bring this period alive and should answer the question how did these creators of these artists’ impressions know what to draw?

Outstanding Lessons and Smart Tasks

  • Is it true to say that Stone Age man was just a simple hunter gatherer only interested in food and shelter? Key Question 1. This session revolves around the reveal of an object found at Star Carr in Yorkshire which dates from the Middle Stone Age. Pupils are shown a typical artist’s reconstruction and then a series of images which cause them to question the stereotypical version.
  • How much did life change when man leaned how to farm? Key Question 2 SMART TASK This session focuses on the concept of change and continuity. Pupils learn of the major changes that came in the Neolithic period with the arrival of farming from the Near East. After a brief introduction, pupils are asked to look at 9 features of life in the New Stone Age. They have to work out which are the really big changes, which are small changes and which mark continuity from the Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic period).
  • What can we learn about life in the Stone Age from a study of Skara Brae? Key Question 3 SMART TASKS From story telling to detective work, pupils immerse themselves in the fascinating finds that tell us so much about life at this time and how historians and archaeologists make deductions from evidence. The enquiry questions ‘what can we tell?’ and ‘How do we know?’ ensure that pupils see the link between what is written in books and the evidence used to make those statements.
  • Why did they build Stonehenge? Key Question 4 SMART TASK Why is it so difficult to work out why Stonehenge was built?
  • What was life like in the Iron Age and how do we know? Key Question 5 Pupils speculate as to what holes in the ground shown in an aerial photograph might be, before annotating an artist’s reconstruction of Danebury Hill Fort. Using the zones of inference technique, pupils work out what they know confidently, what they can infer, and what they need to enquire further in order to fully understand. They then help the Hopeless Curator to work out what the objects found at Danebury might be. The lesson ends with pupils designing an interactive App for an iPad to help people work out from a picture what life was like in the Iron Age.
  • Crimewatch AD 50. Who killed the 52 dead bodies at Maiden Castle? Key Question 6.Pupils work as detective Time Teams to solve the murder mystery. They are given just the briefest of background information before being let loose on the evidence.


There is a high-quality medium-term planner for Year 3 IN PLANNING SECTION (subscribers only – outline below) which shows not only the key questions and learning objectives but also ALL the smart tasks and outstanding lessons referred to.The planner revolves around the following six key questions

1. Is it true to say that Stone Age man was just a simple hunter gatherer only interested in food and shelter? Here the concepts being taught are similarity and difference and change. Pupils explore a modern day reconstruction of what Stone Age man’s life was like before trying to deduce for themselves what mystery objects might tell us about Stone Age life. The evidence is based on a case study of Star Carr.

2. How different was life in the Stone Age when man started to farm? Pupils explore different ideas and have to divide them into BIG change and little change before creating a before and after image/tableau.

3. What can we learn about life in the Stone Age from a study of Skara Brae? Pupils hear the dramatic story of the excavation of the settlement before going on to make deductions from the buildings that have survived.

4. Why is it so difficult to work out why Stonehenge was built? Having looked at how and when Stonehenge was built, pupils speculate as to its purpose before judging which of the modern theories seems most plausible.

5. How much did life really change during the Iron Age and how could we possibly know? This lesson based on the Iron Age Hill Fort at Danebury has already been published – see above.

6. Can you solve the mystery of the 52 skeletons? This is a source-based history mystery based on a case study of the Dorset Hill Fort, Maiden Castle.

If you would like to offer some alternative enquiry questions try:

  • What was new about the NEW Stone Age?
  • When do you think it was a better time to be alive – in the Stone, Bronze or Iron Age?
  • What can these artefacts (stone handaxe, flint tool, Bronze Age beads, Iron Age torc) tell us about the changes from Stone to Iron Age?

Teaching the chronology of prehistory

For great ideas on teaching the chronology of prehistory the best place to go is Ian Dawson’s site here.

Background reading

Prehistory is usually divided into the Stone Age, Bronze Age and the Iron Age reflecting the materials used to make tools and weapons. The Stone Age can be divided into three main periods: the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and the Neolithic (New Stone Age). During the Palaeolithic humans evolved from Neanderthals and other groups into modern humans (Homo Sapiens). Remains from this period are rare and some of the best preserved are from caves such as Cheddar Gorge and Creswell Crags. The Mesolithic starts with the end of the last ice age when Britain became an island.

Tools began to get more complex and were usually composite tools made up of small sharp blades of flint.

The Neolithic is the period that probably saw the biggest changes. From being nomadic hunter-gatherers, people settled in small groups and farming was introduced. Plants and animals were domesticated, pots were produced for the first time and some sophisticated monuments (henges) were built showing that people worked co-operatively.  The first elaborate burials in long barrows also took place.

The next big innovation was the introduction of metal with the Bronze Age. Stone tools continued to be used but bronze was also used for the first time. Elaborate burials continued, often in round barrows, and monuments that had been started in the Neolithic period were added to during the Bronze Age – for example Stonehenge.

The use of iron was introduced around 700BC and during the Iron Age, large fortified hillforts, many with elaborate defences were constructed. Iron was used for tools and weapons (initially swords) and other innovations such as wheel-thrown pottery made an appearance.

Further Resources

Ian Dawson, one of the leading lights in history education has produced this three-page summary of the periods covered in this topic, From the Stone Age to the Romans: An Introduction to the (Pre)History (A summary for anyone who’s not quite sure they understand it all) which can be accessed here

Great PowerPoint and detailed teaching notes from British Museum

Wessex Archaeology offers interactive archeology workshops and artefact lone boxes as well as online resources at

When addressing the question ‘Why was Stonehenge built?’ Key question 4 of the planner have a look at a really useful 90 second clip of a film made by students on the English Heritage website. It covers a range of possible ideas before posing the final question ‘What do you think?’

For good background information for those who need to feel more confident in teaching this topic go to the Schools History Project site

Simple Share Buttons