Home School Life Journal From Preschool to High School

Home School Life Journal ........... Ceramics by Katie Bergenholtz
"Let us strive to make each moment beautiful."
Saint Francis DeSales

Early Middle Ages: The Normans, part three: The Riccall Bones Mystery: How do we Carry out Historical Inquiry?

Natural History Museum at Gray Fossil Site in Eastern Tennessee.
The discussion of how factual science "facts" are came up for us when we toured the Natural History Museum at Gray Fossil Site in Eastern Tennessee. The tour, naturally included a lot of "facts" about evolution, and being Christians, we had some doubts arise about how sure we can be of the facts presented to us. Even if you do not have the issues we have about evolution, it is clear that historians and scientists are constantly revising the conclusions they make once additional evidence is presented to them. With this in mind, we can teach our children that they are capable of looking at historical and scientific evidence and making decisions about them for themselves. This is a great thing to begin with your middle school students so that you can bridge over to them analyzing source documents in high school.

For their first inquiry, I used a controlled setting in which I gave them clues or facts that they could use as building blocks for creating a historical/scientifically based theory. I told the boys that they were going to take an imaginary trip to Riccall, which was near the site of two famous battles, Fullford and Stamford Bridge. I told them that they would be taking part in an imaginary archaeological dig, looking for evidence buried long ago. Before their trip, we located Riccall on the maps they had made previously in which they had marked the probable route the Norwegians took to get from Stamford Bridge to where their boats were on the river Ouse. By looking at their maps, they could see that the route the Norwegians took goes through Riccall.

First evidence. I then had the boys close their eyes and imagine their arrival at Riccall... "It’s early morning. The sun is starting to warm your back but it rained yesterday. You can probably feel that the ground’s still damp through the knees of your jeans. It’s time to start work. Pick up the trowel by your right knee. Start to scrape away the soil where you were digging yesterday. Careful! Just scrape gently. That’s right, scrape carefully – Oh! What’s that? I think I saw something gleam in the sun. Put your trowel down. You don’t want the sharp edge to damage what’s there. Pick up your brush and very gently brush the soil away, that’s it, very gently. I can see it now. Wow! It’s looking incredible – this is quite a find … you’ve done really well. Now open your eyes and look up and see what you’ve found.” They examined the mock finds I gave them. I also gave them the fact that (in 1956) 46 skeletons were found on the bank of the river Ouse, near Riccall. 

Historical and scientific inquiry is a process that takes many steps and much revision. It is a process of gathering evidence, asking questions and making hypothesis based on the answers to those questions. But it doesn't end there. There is often more new evidence that is revealed and this requires more questions to be asked and possibly a revision to the original hypothesis. This process can be continued over and over again. I helped guide them through this process since it was their first time with carrying out a historical inquiry.

Ask questions. "What questions do you want to ask about what you’ve found?" Who were these people and how did they die?

First hypothesis. To help them clarify their hypothesis they were forming, I gave the boys a list of words or phrases that they could pick from to use in their sentences...Certain, Possibly, Fairly Sure, Might, Not Sure, Perhaps, Could, Probably, Hypothesis, I think.
They came up with the initial hypothesis that they could possibly have been Viking or Anglo-Saxon warriors and that maybe they died of wounds from the Battle of Stamford Bridge or possibly in another, undocumented, battle. 

More evidence. I then gave them a bit more evidence to include in their investigation. Scientists tested the teeth of six of the skeletons and because of the trace minerals that are found in the teeth from the water they drank can be found in them. The tests showed that they grew up in what area? 

Revised hypothesis. I asked them, "Does this evidence support your ideas or does it contradict them? Do you need to completely re-think your hypothesis?" The boys already knew that these were areas of Viking settlements, and agreed that this supported the idea that the bones were from a Viking warrior who died in battle.

More evidence. We continued with the process of more evidence and revised hypothesis several times. When the scientists examined the bones they found that the bones had marks on them that looked like they had been made by axes and swords. The boys already knew from their studies that both the Saxons' and Vikings' primary weapons were axes and swords, so this also bolstered their suppositions. 

Revised hypothesis. They began to think that perhaps the bones were from members of Hardrada’s Viking army, defeated at Stamford Bridge, killed during the flight back to their ships at Riccall.

More evidence. After the bones were identified, it was found that 28 were identified to be men, 2 women and 5 children. (Other bones were found at later dates.) 

Revised hypothesis. We discussed the fact that women and children were in the group, and they began to wonder if their hypothesis was perhaps wrong. Perhaps these bones were not from a battle, but perhaps were part of a general graveyard?

More evidence. By talking to leading historians, we found out that they had checked to see if there had been a church near where the bones were found, and there hadn't been.

Revised hypothesis. The boys now began to wonder if perhaps, then this site was part of a family or tribal graveyard.

More evidence. Archaeologists suggest that family members often came with the warriors if they plan to settle in the new land and not simply raiding. This is not an established fact, but a supposition based on the amount of evidence there is to suggest it.

Revised hypothesis. At this point, the boys began to go back to their original hypothesis that the skeletons belonged to members of Hardrada’s Viking army and some of their families, defeated at Stamford Bridge, killed during the flight back to their ships at Riccall. 

Most historians agree that this is the probable answer to the mystery of the skeletons. However even the historians can’t be completely certain. Doubts might be based on the fact that only a few of the skeletons were examined by scientists or on the fact that there were female and child skeletons in the group. 

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  1. wow! Wow! Wow! This is great, Phyllis!

  2. How much do I love this? Super duper much!


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