Book Review: The Boy with the Bronze Axe by Kathleen Fidler

This book is set in Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands so would be a perfect book to accompany an in depth study of the settlement and way of life of these Neolithic farmers. Attention to detail is enormous, and the author has clearly done plenty of research into the layout of the settlement, the rooms and the artefacts used there. It is 164 pages long and is primarily aimed at older children, perhaps Years 5 and 6.

The story starts with a brother and sister Kali and Brockan walking out to a rock exposed by the low tide where the biggest limpets grow to collect a treat for themselves and their parents. They find so much tasty seafood that the time passes quickly and before they know it the tide has risen and will soon cover the rock. Luckily for them, a stranger in a strange long boat made by hollowing out a tree trunk rescues them and takes them back to Skara. He is a young man called Tenko who has travelled from the south all alone and hopes to find sanctuary in Skara.

Interior of one of the dwellings at Skara Brae. Taken by Jun and shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

Interior of one of the dwellings at Skara Brae. Taken by Jun and shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

The people of Skara are interested in his boat, the like of which they have never seen. The children also appear to know nothing about trees as the Orkneys are mostly devoid of them. But the most amazing thing Tenko brings is his axe that shines like the sun. Kali asks him what stone it is made out of, and he tells them it’s not made out of stone, but bronze. The presence of the bronze axe causes tensions as several people desire to own it. It is a great adventure as well as being very well researched.

The book ends with the final storm that shifts the sand dunes directly on top of the settlement, burying it for nearly 5000 years until a similar storm swept the sand away and revealed it to archaeologists. The details are threaded through the story, with a broken necklace in one of the dwellings and a hearth made on top of the sand under one of the broken roofs.

Make a replica clay axe, then make a mould from that and pour melted chocolate in it

Make a replica clay axe, then make a mould from that and pour melted chocolate in it

The book would provide plenty of opportunities to discuss how people discovered bronze, what it would mean to people who’d never seen it before, how the technology spread, and why it took over from stone tools in the end. Try casting an replica axe; instead of molten metal use chocolate or freeze water in axe-shaped moulds.

You could also have discussions about the farming lifestyle at Skara and how food was supplemented by hunting and gathering, and to what extent children undertook this.

 

 

Ring of Brodgar from above by Giles Carey

Ring of Brodgar from above by Giles Carey

Religion could also be explored, as one of the chapters involves a ceremony putting in one of the stones of the Ring of Brodgar and another sees the tribe’s wise man being interred at Maes Howe. The author suggests the enigmatic carved stone balls found in Skara were representations of the sun and used for ceremonial processions to the Ring. Look at the resource on carved stone balls from the British Museum’s Teaching History in 100 Objects website. Make your own from dried clay balls. If you’re feeling very adventurous, you can even explore Platonic solids with them. See this video of a lecture at Gresham College by Professor Tony Mann.

A couple of problems we have with this book is that the women, and particularly Kali and Brockan’s mother, are mostly invisible and completely passive. The only reason we can think of to explain it is that the book was originally written in 1968 and thinking about gender roles in prehistory clearly didn’t cross the (female) author’s mind. It would be a good talking point to see whether children found this believable.

Another problem is more fact based; Tenko is supposed to have experienced from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle on the Scottish mainland. While this gives the author, and you, a handy way to contrast the two lifestyles, in reality people in mainland Scotland would also have been farmers by this date, with a little hunting and gathering on the side. It’s also unlikely that bronze was introduced through the Shetland Islands, which is what is suggested in the book. We also have a small issue with the place names. The author has used modern ones, which is great for kids to identify sites, but most of these names are the Norse words that replaced earlier place names. Also, logboats were probably not that good at sea and were made for river transport.

But apart from that, a great book for older children which gives you lots of ways in to explore Skara Brae and important themes in prehistory.

Book review: The Whitestone Stories by John Barrett, illustrated by Christine Clerk

This is the first book so far that we have read that deals with later prehistory for children, apart from the Wolf Brother series which is set in the Mesolithic (middle Stone Age – after the ice and before farming). What is so attractive about this book is that it covers not only the Mesolithic period but also later Neolithic (farming) and Bronze Age, though unfortunately stopping short of the Iron Age.

Barrett’s prose is beautiful. It helps the reader become immersed in these other, very different, times. The first story recounts the coming of humans to Britain and starts by evoking the smells, sights and sounds of the wildwood.

When Summer came to the forest, all the thickets sparkled with red raspberry jewels; and the grasses were spangled with scarlet strawberry drops as bright as the garnets in the mountain rocks.

Plenty of scope for analysing rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and imagery there and for drawing what the phrase conjures up in the mind’s eye. The Whitestone itself is a glacial erratic that has been dropped by a glacier and witnesses the changes all around, the disappearance of the forest, the ploughing of the land and the building of huge monuments.

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Crawling into West Kennet long barrow to meet the ancestors

Although never explicit, you could make links to what is now Avebury, the West Kennet long barrow and Silbury Hill, or similar monuments in Scotland with Barrett exploring how such monuments might have come to be built and what people did there.

The stories do not shy away from some discussion of magic but many read as if they are parables that would have been told around the fire to children in prehistory to ensure that they knew how to behave, for instance to only take what they need from the forest and not everything, to be kind to one another, to be honest and not envious and to be loyal to ones friends.

Because of this tendency for the stories to come across as legends already very old by the time they are told in prehistory, some of the mechanisms of change in society may not reflect modern archaeological thought. The coming of farmers in boat loads and exterminating the hunter-gatherers, for instance, as in Chapter 3, is not now considered to have been the case. The ideas and products of farming may instead have been adopted by the indigenous population of Britain.

The changes in religious beliefs over the millennia are very interesting, from the ancestor worship of the Neolithic to possible worship of the sun and moon in the Early Bronze Age (which coincides with very rich burials of individuals indicating some kind of high status, in the book they are described as kings), to worship of a destructive water goddess in the later Bronze Age that links to the deposition of lots of metalwork in rivers and bogs at that date. It is pure supposition that there was a change from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society in the Bronze Age, though.

Dancing girls of the later Bronze Age - this is as bad as the nudity gets

Dancing girls of the later Bronze Age – this is as bad as the nudity gets

The pencil-drawn illustrations are very rich in content and would repay some attention, particularly looking at the way people’s dress changes over the years, and the different reconstructions of settlements and religious ceremonies. Be warned that there are some topless dancing girls in this book, which may have happened in the later Bronze Age (though the only evidence we have is from Denmark).

Overall this is an excellent book and deserves to be widely used in the classroom as there is otherwise a dearth of good picture books about the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age. This book goes some way to addressing that.