Helping students understand the concept of anachronism – the misplacing of a concept, object or individual in a time period where it could not have existed – is an important step to getting them to understand the concept of chronology, to empathise with people in the past and to understand a historical period. Arthur Marwick argues that “anachronism is still one of the most obvious faults when the unqualified…attempt to do history”. One effective technique is to provide students with a short, but informative and evocative, written account. Within this, add some deliberate anachronisms. Challenge the students to use any sources available to them to work out which parts of the story are historically accurate, and which are anachronisms.
I constructed the following short accounts and provided them to the students with plenty of space for marginal notes. Students underlined any facts that could be checked (this in itself was an interesting discussion which highlighted the difference between fact, opinion and imagination):
Example 1: Imperial Rome
“It is a glorious day in Imperial Rome. The year is 1AD, and it is the month of August (recently named after the current Emperor, Augustus). After having a pizza for lunch, you hitch up your toga, climb onto your motorbike, and drive through city centre, admiring in particular the white marble statues and the magnificent Trajan’s column (engraved with battle scenes) and the Theatre of Pompey (named after the city destroyed by the explosion of Mount Vesuvius a few years earlier). You glance at your watch and decide you have time to watch a show, so you drive alongside the Aqua Virgo (one of the major aqueducts supplying the city), past the part of town recently destroyed by the Great Fire of Rome, and arrive at the Circus Maximus, which has just recently been rebuilt in stone. Here you watch a gladiator fight between two Christian prisoners, which reminds you that just last year Spartacus led a slave rebellion against the Romans”
Example 2: Victorian Britain
The year is 1891, a Saturday in May. We are in a London street. The horse-drawn cabs are busy rushing past and the streets are full of diesel-engined buses. A newspaper seller is shouting that today William Ewart Gladstone has died, and the advertisements on the street-side all announce trips to see the opening of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. A man in a bowler hat walks along the street trying to read his book (it looks like ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy) and as a result walks into an electric street light.
A family comes past. One of the children stops to look at the books for sale in the shop window. ‘I say, father, they’ve got ‘The Invisible Man’ by H G Wells. Morris Minor says it’s an absolutely ripping yarn’. The others pull him away; ‘Hurry! we must not be late or we will miss David Garrick at the theatre!’
A group of rugby league supporters walk by, their scarves tucked into their jackets. They look cheerful, so their team probably won.
Students then listed all these facts underneath the account, and researched each one in turn to declare it “true” (in which case they had to elaborate), “false” (in which case they explained why it is factually incorrect) and “anachronism” (in these instances, they had to explain why it is something which has been placed into the wrong time period by explaining the historical time period in which it actually belongs).
This is a nice way to engage students in a bit of targeted research and a quick blast of information about the topic from a fresh perspective. It works particularly well as a starter or extension activity.
Taking it further
Get students to produce their own accounts in a similar manner. Additionally, they could try to sketch an imagined scene containing anachronisms.
Older students could be challenged to research the meaning of two very different types of anachronism: parachronism and prochronism.