New Castle University’s free open online course on archaeology promises a rich and interactive educational experience.

In something of an Internet revolution, a whole new world of specially commissioned university courses is becoming freely available to anyone who wishes to sign up. ‘Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier’ is the first course to be offered by Newcastle University, U.K., as part of its partnership on the FutureLearn social learning platform. It is a free open online course for anyone to join in — all you need is an Internet connection.

Course structure

Hadrian’s Wall in the North East of England is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a natural choice for Newcastle University to launch its first course, ruggedly beautiful, with multiple sites, rich data and a long history of research, the Wall can be approached from many angles. Each course consists of a series of bite-size steps which together add up to a rich interactive educational experience, normally occupying up to three hours a week, to be fitted into the participants’ schedules as they wish.

These courses are about much more than just watching short videos and reading class notes; they use an array of social media to ensure that course tutors and all those interested in taking the courses can engage in debate and discussion wherever they are in the world.

With some elements of the course being delivered through succinct, specially commissioned videos, others through live discussions and some through short papers, maps and extracts of site reports, there is ample scope to ensure that every participant takes away something new.

For those who never thought they could read a Roman inscription, the course guarantees results with an online version of the tried and tested epigraphy teaching.

Cold-case investigation

Detailed case studies consider the different features of the Wall and its surroundings, discovering the way in which the frontier system evolved throughout the Roman period. In addition to observing the changing face of the Roman army in Britain, the six-week programme looks in detail at the diverse migrant populations and the indigenous community, their homes, dress, diet, rituals and beliefs. Newcastle University has even designed a new series of ‘cold case’ investigations where the participant uses the techniques of forensic archaeology and bio-archaeology to investigate the mysterious deaths of some of those who once lived.

Drawing on the very latest research, the course investigates how archaeologists interpret evidence, considering:

The factors that determine the survival of evidence

The different methods of archaeological prospection used to detect settlement locations and better understand their organisation

The planning of archaeological projects

Excavation techniques

And the detailed study of structures and artefacts

The writer is professor of Archaeology, Newcastle University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology.