Book review: The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein

This is a wonderful picturebook that invites children to imagine they lived thousands of years ago and invented drawing. You see animals in rocks and clouds, watch animals all day and even come face to face with a woolly mammoth. You see animals running and dancing in the firelight on the walls of the cave where you sleep with your extended family. But no-one else can see what you can see until you pick up a charred stick from the fire and start making marks on the wall where you can see the animals: the first drawing. Then everyone can see what you see and everyone draws on the cave.

Being written in second person is really engaging and different, and the detail in the pictures really backs up that feeling of the reader being the main character in the story and being misunderstood by others. The book could easily be read without any words, with the pictures themselves telling the story. If you focus on the pictures you can see the expressions of the wider family as they disbelieve, fear and finally see the animals on the walls. If children look really carefully they can see that one member of the extended family does see, a baby, the most innocent and least socialised person in the group.

If you examine the end papers either before or after reading the book, you can find some clues as to why certain aspects of the book are in there. There is the dedication which reads:

For Susan, with love. Your beautiful drawings open our eyes to our own imaginations. –MG

Who is Susan? Who is referred to in ‘our eyes’? Perhaps Susan is the author’s daughter and she opens her parents eyes to their own imagination, like the hero of the story eventually opens his/her parents and relations eyes to their imaginations. Under the dedication is the hero looking at an elephant in the zoo, which might link to the hero coming face to face with a woolly mammoth. Perhaps that is a memory of the author’s visit to a zoo. Children will have other ideas too.

A focus on the text will provide opportunities for philosophical discussion. The phrases “Why can’t they see what I see?”, “being a mammoth might not be so different from being you.” and “It is magic.” the ‘it’ being drawing, are a few starting points that would lead to very rich dicussions.

The Author’s Note at the back gives more detail about the prehistorical background, explaining that the book was inspired by the cave paintings found in Chauvet cave in southern France. The author tells us that he had always thought children had invented drawing and when the footprint of a child, perhaps aged about 8, was found in the cave, alongside that of a wolf, he felt vindicated. It would be great to compare the drawings in the book to the drawings in Chauvet Cave, which you can find on the Bradshaw Foundation’s website.

Children could even investigate the premise of the book, which is that art was invented in Europe around 30,000 years ago. This eurocentric viewpoint can be challenged as it may be that anatomically modern humans (AMH) created art long before that but not on cave walls where it has been preserved. AMHs first arrived in Australia, it is thought, about 60,000 years ago and they may have already been drawing. A recent find of a scored shell has been dated to before AMH evolved, about 500,000 years ago. It is likely that an earlier human species, Homo erectus, had scored the abstract patterns on the shell found on Java in Indonesia.

It is also not likely that humans lived in the caves that they decorated, and it would be good to read this book alongside Satoshi Kitamura’s Stone Age Boy book that shows a more authentic way of life of these Ice Age people, living in tents by rock shelters.

Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Devon

Several weeks ago we took a trip to Devon and had a great time getting to know its prehistory. Teachers in Devon are spoiled rotten with amazing places to talk about or visit. Here are a few of them.

Devon is blessed with the site of the earliest piece of anatomically modern human (Homo sapiens) from Europe. The verdict is out on exactly how old it is, but it seems likely to date to about 40,000 years ago. It is a piece of jawbone and was found in Kents Cavern in Torquay. It was excavated in 1927 and found in a layer filled with bones of Ice Age animals such as wolves, deer, cave bear and woolly rhino. Schools can visit the cave to find out more about the Stone Age.

Tableau of life in the cave at Kents Cavern

Tableau of life in the cave at Kents Cavern

Display about a basket made of lime bast from Whitehorse Hill at Plymouth Museum

Display about a basket made of lime bast from Whitehorse Hill at Plymouth Museum

The cusp of the Stone and Bronze Ages can be explored by learning more about Dartmoor and the various hut circles, cairns and stone rows up there. In the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (e.g. 3000-1500 BC) the moor was the focus of religious and funerary activity with the creation of the stone rows and circles, as well as burials under round barrows (mounds of earth), cairns (mounds of stone) and in cists (stone boxes) buried in the peat. Once such cist has recently been excavated, at Whitehorse Hill, and dates to around 2000 BC. It’s on display at Plymouth Museum until 13th December and we plan to go back and see it ourselves. Burial in the peat means lots of organic material, that would otherwise have rotted, has been preserved, including a bracelet made of woven vegetable fibre set with tin studs. It was the focus of a BBC documentary called the Mystery of the Moor.

Tin was clearly being mined in the early Bronze Age (tin being one of the elements that can be mixed with copper to make bronze) and was probably exchanged with powerful tribes in the Stonehenge area that controlled the flow of raw materials to the continent. The people were also farmers, but their way of life did not become one of permanent settlements and fields until the middle Bronze Age, which is when the reaves (low stone walls) and hut circles of stone appear on the moor. In the later Bronze Age there was a climatic downturn which made the moor uninhabitable. The Dartmoor National Park Authority has useful posters to download, including this one on Prehistoric Dartmoor, and can be booked to take your group out safely onto the moor to see the prehistoric monuments. Alternatively, you can use OS maps of the moor to study the Stone Age to Bronze Age developments. We took a trip up to see Emmetts Post, which is a later stone marker set into a Bronze Age barrow, just before it is destroyed by porcelain clay mining after being excavated by Oxford Archaeology. It was a wet day!

Emmetts Post set into a Bronze Age round barrow on Dartmoor

Emmetts Post set into a Bronze Age round barrow on Dartmoor

As we’ve explained many times before, use your local Historic Environment Record (HER)! Unfortunately, Devon has three! But if you go to the Heritage Gateway and search for Devon, you will automatically get results from all of them. The main Devon HER has started collecting and creating useful pages on Devon’s prehistoric past, including Bronze Age burial mounds on Busdon Moor, Milbur Down Iron Age hillfort near Newton Abbott, Bolt Tail Iron Age hillfort near Bigbury Bay, and Dolbury Iron Age hillfort at Killerton.

Museums you can visit to find out more about the Stone Age to Iron Age include:

Usually on display in Exeter is the Kingsteignton Idol, an Iron Age carved wooden figure. Similar figures have been found in Roos Carr in Yorkshire and from the River Thames at Dagenham (although the latter is much older, Neolithic in date). Perhaps they were used as religious statues, or maybe even children’s toys. Either way, they are fascinating.

If there’s anything other resources you’d like to add about Devon’s prehistoric past that could be used in the classroom, please feel free to comment below!

Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Surrey

In a continuation of our new theme, we’re collecting useful resources and places to visit for teachers in Surrey who are teaching the new curriculum in September.

The historic country of Surrey stretched from the banks of the Thames to the North Downs but Greater London has since encroached and will be dealt with in a separate blog post. Unfortunately, because Surrey has been densely settled and farmed over the millennia, a lot of prehistoric evidence has been destroyed. The best place to go to for a run down of Surrey’s history is Exploring Surrey’s Past, especially the overviews of time periods.

Some interesting archaeology includes finds of mammoth tusks in Farnham Quarry that date to a time when Neanderthals, and possibly modern humans, were living around the area c. 30 kya. After the end of the Ice Age, a large camp was made at North Park Quarry near Bletchingley. It dates to the Mesolithic period, the middle Stone Age and Neanderthals had died out by this point.

Is this what the Blackweater Valley looked like 30,000 years ago? Neanderthals and mammoths together. By Randii Oliver [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Is this what the Blackweater Valley looked like 30,000 years ago? Neanderthals and mammoths together. By Randii Oliver [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When farming appeared in the Neolithic, people started building huge monuments. There was a big enclosure at Staines Road Farm near Shepperton, in which a woman’s body was buried at the entrance, which faced to the Midsummer Solstice sunrise. Surrey’s one and only known long barrow at Badshot Lea would probably have had a wooden mortuary chamber to start with that several people were interred in, and only later would a long lozenge-shaped mound have been constructed on top of it.

The Bronze Age saw the beginnings of hilltop enclosures, and there was one excavated under Queen Mary’s Hospital at Carshalton. For many years it was thought that most prehistoric people lived on hills, but it was the seminal excavation on the site of a new motorway bridge at Runnymede that changed that view. A late Bronze Age riverside settlement, complete with wharf, was excavated in the 1970s. It had been preserved by waterlogging, and was sealed under several feet of alluvium or riverine silts.

Colin Smith [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eroded bank and ditch of the hillfort on St Ann’s Hill. Colin Smith [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A hillfort proper, St Ann’s Hill can be visited (Chertsey Museum below does guided walks to it). Some excavation in the 1990s confirmed that it dated to the early to middle Iron Age and contained post-build roundhouses. Not everyone lived in hillforts in the Iron Age, though, and there are numerous smaller villages or hamlets such as the one at Runfold Farm near Tongham.

Recently Schools Prehistory was invited to a Learning on My Doorstep event at Brooklands Museum and we met all the museums and organisations in Surrey that are preparing to run workshops on Stone Age to Iron Age Britain and lend out loan boxes of prehistoric artefacts, real and replica.

  • Farnham Museum has been preparing some objects for their loans boxes and have a good range of materials in there, from flint to bone and skins. They plan to run workshops in the museum as well as take objects out to schools. Their main thrust is to see how things changed over time in the Stone Age to Iron Age. Sophie Smith from Farnham Museum is on our Experts on your Doorstep list.
  • Surrey Heritage at the Surrey History Centre is providing loan boxes of Stone Age artefacts and can lend out mini-digs to use in school to learn about archaeological techniques. These will require a £25 returnable deposit. Contact kate.jenner@surreycc.gov.uk for more information.
  • Chertsey Museum also has mini-digs for schools to borrow or can do a big dig when you visit the museum and is working on a prehistoric loans box. They also take guided walks up to the local Iron Age hillfort on St Ann’s Hill.
  • Guildford Museum also lend out loan boxes on archaeology and Stone Age axes. They cost £10 for three weeks and schools have to collect the boxes and drop them off.
  • Spelthorne Museum, Staines, are currently developing their offer, but already ran a Secrets of Stone Age Spelthorne day in July so it won’t take too much for them to prepare a new session.
  • Elmbridge Museum have a new Stone Age workshop for the autumn, and have created a discovery box of real Stone Age artefacts too, including a stone mortar that children will be able to see has been well used.
  • Haslemere Museum are well-known for their Ancient Egyptian session and have extensive prehistoric collections. They are in the process of developing a prehistoric session to support the new curriculum.

There is another very small museum known as the Abinger Mesolithic Pit Dwelling Museum. This was set up in the 1950s when it was thought people lived in pits. A more up-to-date view of Mesolithic dwellings has now been installed, thanks to the Surrey Archaeological Society.

A great book that has lots of up-to-date research about Surrey’s past, but doesn’t entirely focus on prehistory, is Hidden Depths: An Archaeological Exploration of Surrey’s Past.

If there’s anything we’ve missed, let us know in the comments below.

When do you start teaching Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age?

There are two meaning to this question. Do you start teaching this topic in September? Are you teaching British history chronologically starting with Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age in Year 3? Do let us know.

The other meaning is, when in prehistory are you going to start? We’ve been working on some updated timelines and we can take you through some possible starting points as well as give you an overview of the prehistoric period.

The non-statutory guidance in the National Curriculum starts with comparing Neolithic (sic) hunter-gatherers with farmers at Skara Brae. If you want to start with this topic, you’ll need the first timeline. It starts in the Mesolithic, which is actually the time of hunter-gatherers rather than the Neolithic as suggested in the NC.

Later Prehistory timeline

Notice that we have used kya, for thousand years ago, and BC for this period. beyond this BC becomes a little redundant. Also note the march of sheep from the Near East to Britain. Climate changes affecting the sea level are key to understanding the Mesolithic. After the Ice Age as the climate warmed, the glaciers melted and sea levels rose. Britain had been attached to the continent by a land bridge across the North Sea (called Doggerland after the Dogger Banks) and the Channel. Around 6200 BC this sea level rise was exacerbated by a marine landslide off the coast of Norway which caused a tsunami that finally flooded Doggerland and caused Britain to be cut off from the continent.

But if you were to start the topic in 12kya, you would miss being able to talk about cave art, which we have heard here at Schools Prehistory that lots of teachers want to do. Cave paintings or engravings and portable art all date to the Upper Palaeolithic, when Homo sapiens first arrived in Europe. Not much is known in Britain, but there is some at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. If you want to start at this point, you’ll need this timeline.

Timeline starting 40kya

 

The Upper Palaeolithic is within the last Ice Age and was connected to the continent throughout. Ice sheets covered Scotland and most of northern England and at the last glacial maximum, around 20kya, would have stretched from the Wash to the Severn. Nevertheless, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did venture this far north at various points and it is thought that people were moving great distances for hunting. If you do start teaching from this point onwards, you also get the great opportunity to talk about Neanderthals, who died out around 24kya but co-existed with Homo sapiens in Europe for about 15,000 years. What a great P4C topic!

But if you do start only at 50kya, you miss out on being able to talk about the oldest human footprints found outside Africa – those of Homo antecessor at Happisburgh in Norfolk. They date all the way back to 800kya – nearly 1 million years. So, if you think East Anglia is as sexy as we do, here’s a timeline that can help.

Timeline starting 800kyaApologies for the slightly messy look. It still needs some work. What you’ll notice when you get back this far, is that there isn’t just one Ice Age, there are several. In between some of the glacial periods, sea levels may have risen high enough to cut Britain off from the continent a few times before receding again as the ice advanced once more. The earliest hearth known in Britain dates to 400kya, though it is thought that humans could control fire much earlier from evidence in Kenya and Ethiopia.

There may be many of you who balk at teaching 800kya of history, and we totally understand. The arrival of farming in Britain may be a good place to start, as it’s only 4000 BC. This technology sees the start of so many massive changes, from permanent settlement to dividing the landscape into territories and fields, and ultimately to massive population growth, pressure on resources, social stratification and violence. It also spurs on technological advancements like using fire to make metal tools and the invention of new ways of travelling, like the wheel. The introduction of farming was accompanied by changes in religious and funerary practices that give rise to huge ceremonial monuments needing massive communal effort to create. It would be a good place to start. Here’s a more detailed timeline for the Neolithic (late Stone Age) to Iron Age.

Neo BA IA timeline