Stone age cultures seem to get a raw deal from historians. This is probably because they leave no written records, and relatively few archaeological remains. Also, they lived a lifestyle with almost no cultural commonality to people alive today, which makes it virtually impossible to truly understand their experiences. Although treated very generically, stone age cultures are, in fact, as bewilderingly diverse as the environments they inhabited.
After a shaky start to teaching history, we have finally adopted a system in The Story of the World set. I actually see a lot of inherent problems with it, but I like its broad scale chronological approach. Also, I was quite inspired by reading the thoughts of someone who had finished it, and honestly, hardly a single lesson in any field has run according to the textbook anyway. I am really just treating it as a (sometimes cringeworthy) guide for direction.
We are only on to hunter gatherers and the drift to agriculture at the moment. As with most history books, it gives our nomadic forebears a couple of pages worth of two dimensional stereotyped gloss over before moving on to the main event. I really wanted to impress on the boys that these were real people, every bit as capable as we are, who were trying to make the most of their lives in the circumstances they found themselves in.
Fortunately, I live just down the road from a remarkable piece of Aboriginal heritage – the Arrawarra fish traps. We were going on a field trip.
Like most ancient technologies, the fish traps are delightfully simple. Essentially, they are just lines of heavy beach stones which make a series of pools as an extension to the rock platform on the headland. Nobody knows exactly how old they are other than to say ‘thousands of years.’
A piece of living history, they require reasonably regular maintenance to replace shifting rocks, or to open or close different pools. Given how much rocks and sand move on the beach over time, I doubt that any of the rocks are the ones originally laid down. They are rarely used today, but on special occasions, people still bait them and trap fish there.
There are three lines of rocks which run parallel to the water line. One side is edged by the natural rock platform and the other by a wall which runs straight down the beach into the bay. The walls are about the height of the mid tide mark. There is a flag on the outer corner to prevent boats from running into it as they come in to land.
To use the traps, bait bags are put in the pools on an outgoing tide, so as to carry the smell out through the water. When the tide comes in, so do the hungry fish. As the tide goes out again, the fish are trapped in the artificial pools and can easily be caught.
The three parallel lines of rocks give pools of slightly different depth. There are gaps open in the side wall at the moment, so they are not working, but it does not take much imagination to see how they would.
After a thorough climb over the traps, we then moved on to the beach to explore in a bit more depth the role of archaeologists. Over morning tea, we looked at pictures of a dig site, and discussed what the various people were doing and why. Then, imagining ourselves as archaeologists of the future, we pretended to dig up an old house site from the year 2014 to discover what we could about the people of that age.
I marked out a square of stones, and buried a collection of stuff I had hurriedly gathered as we ran out the door. The boys dug it up with large spoons (I couldn’t find two small trowels) and used paintbrushes to clean off their finds.
As the objects were uncovered, they were put on the specimen tray, and we discussed what they implied. There was a plastic tool handle, which showed that plastic was common enough for everyday use. We also noticed that it had started to decay with exposure to harsh sunlight. We saw that the stainless steel knife and bowl lasted very well. In a detail that probably only I understood, we also talked about how this very complex alloy was able to be produced easily enough to make common household items. In contrast, we saw that the mild steel bolt was rusting, and probably would not last many years if exposed to the elements. Lastly, we saw that the people of 2014 still used clay to make cups, as people had in ancient times. They also knew all about glazes, and stamped a makers mark on the base.
Always one to encourage hands on learning, I was very happy with our history lesson. A casual observer might have only seen us spending a few hours playing on the rocks and digging in the sand. Casual is certainly something we do very well at Bloke School, but it masks a lot of focused intensity.