The Subterranean Forest

This image shows a landscape from around 300 million years ago in the Carboniferous Period. It shows the vegetation and swap lands that eventually became fossil fuels. Source: “Onze aarde. Handboek der natuurkundige aardrijkskunde … Met 150 platen en 20 kaartjes in afzonderlijken Atlas”, British Library via Europeana

This article is the second in a series by EUROCLIO and Europeana providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series on

Source collection: The Subterranean Forest

The Historiana source collection The Subterranean Forest consists of sources that describe and explain the origins and usages of the fossil fuels coal, gas and oil and the way these fossil fuels were used in early, pre-industrial, societies. The collection shows different uses for each of the different fossil fuels in the ages before the Industrial Revolution.

One of the aspects that stands out here is the enormous amount of time it takes for organic matter to transform into coal, gas and oil and the way it contrasts with the (extremely) short time it takes to ‘use them up’ as fuel. This was certainly not something people put much thought into the pre-industrial word, and not even during the Industrial Revolution. The exponential increase in the use of fossil fuels over the past two hundred years has forced us to take a different perspective, both on an economical and an environmental level. This is what was chosen as the core thought of the e-Learning Activity: have students compare and contrast both the origins usage of fossil fuels, as well as the speed in which fossil fuels are ‘used up’ over time.


The aims of this learning activity for the students are:

  • The student describes how the fossil fuels coal, gas and oil originated.
  • The student explains why people started using fossil fuels.
  • The student describes the use of fossil fuels in modern day society.
  • The student discusses if the use of fossil fuels in the long term is possible, probable and preferable.
Coal reserves were found and mined across Britain in the 1200s. By 1700, mine shafts all over the country reached as deep as 200 metres. In many cases, mines breached the water level and considerable animal and human muscle energy was dedicated to removing water from the shafts. Muscle energy was needed to haul the coal from the mines. This can be seen in the image. Horses and humans are turning systems of pulleys to retrieve material from the mine. Source: A mine: cross-sections and a horse powered wheel. Etching by Bénard after Goussier – Louis-Jacques Goussier. Wellcome Collection via Europeana

E-Learning Activity builder

This e-Learning Activity makes use of the sorting tool from the Historiana e-Learning Activity builder in three sub-activities. These activities are question-driven and help the student orientate on the sources, compare the sources and get a grasp of the timescale that is concerned with fossil fuels.

In the first sorting sub-activity students are asked to sort the sources by putting them on either left or the right side of the screen, sorting them in the categories ‘origination’ and ‘usage’ of fossil fuels, which can be done rather objectively.

In the second sorting sub-activity students are asked again to sort sources by putting them on the left or the right side of the screen, but now the question is more subjective, because they sort by ‘advantages’ and ‘disadvantages’ of fossil fuels.

In the third sorting sub-activity the students are asked to put the sources on a relative timeline, which aims to show that the process of origination takes hundred thousands to millions of years (on the left side of the timeline), while the fossil fuels are used up in the relative ‘blink of an eye’ (on the far right side of the timeline).

Learning Activity

As said the main aim of the learning activity is to have students take a step-by-step look at the origin and use of fossil fuels and the implications of that use both in ages past and our modern times. The sub-activities are merely steps, interlaced with questions on different taxonomical levels (from describing to evaluating). By working through each of the sub-activities, answering the questions and discussing his or her findings with a partner, students gain evidence which they need to provide when taking a position in the overarching discussion: are fossil fuels the key to the future?

The answers to this question can, of course, be very divergent, yet students should arrive to similar conclusions during the sub-activities, for example that the rate at which fossil fuels are being used means they are being used up way faster than they can be replenished (which in most cases takes longer than the entire span of current human existence on Earth). Another sub-conclusion can be that fossil fuels a certain amount of energy on which we as humans have come to depend for our current standard of living, to which most people have grown quite attached. To keep up that standard we either need to keep using fossil fuels or come up with economically attractive alternatives, which might not be easy in the short run.


The e-learning activity The Subterranean Forest makes use of the Historiana source collection of the same name and relies on the sorting tool of the eLearning Activity builder. It’s aim is to help students compare and contrast sources on fossil fuels and reach an evidence-based conclusion on the possibility, probability and preferability of the use of fossil fuels in the (near) future, taking into account different perspectives and the historical development of the use of coal, gas and oil.

Please note that while this e-learning activity was developed as a stand-alone activity, it can be used in combination with two other e-learning activities: The Age of Synergies and Energy in the pre-industrial world. These activities will be described in separate blog posts, yet share the common theme of energy usage before and after the Industrial Revolution.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyond, and the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.

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