A Prehistoric Homework Assignment
On a lazy October Sunday afternoon, while most Grinnell students could be found buried in a book in the library or working determinedly in the confines of their rooms, 20 students were involved in prehistoric homework. Passersby raised their eyebrows when they saw students hard at work chopping wood with axes outside Goodnow Hall.
The students in John Whittaker's Old World Prehistory class were given the opportunity to experience life in the Bronze Age. For three weeks, students worked on a project to make their own bronze axes. The students went on a field trip to cut down trees so they could test the effectiveness of their tools. The project culminated with the class using the bronze axes to erect the monument that stands outside Goodnow Hall.
Whittaker has taught anthropology at Grinnell for 25 years and finds this hands-on approach to be effective. "The idea is to get some experience as to what bronze axes are capable of doing and how they compare to modern axes," says Whittaker. "To make bronze, you have to get the metal," he explains. The students started with replica Bronze Age axes cast by MaxCast, an art foundry in Kalona. First, they had to finish and sharpen them, then make wooden handles and attach the axes.
"It's just a good way to teach and get discussion going. And it's fun!" Whittaker says.
While this project is physical exercise, it's also a means to better comprehend life in the Bronze Age. "Part of the experiment is to understand that a lot of the technology is largely in our heads," he says. There is a lot of knowledge, skill, and practice involved. None of us is quite up to the abilities of the prehistoric bronze wood worker."
Cassey Koid '11 spent more than three hours sanding her bronze axe so that it would be sharp enough to use. That wasn't the only challenge Koid and others had to overcome. "I had never chopped wood before," Koid says.
Charlie Zimmerman '11 found that his bronze axe worked as well as the steel hatchet. "It's a great experience to put a lot of time into something that interests you and find out that the final project actually works," says Zimmerman.
Students interested in adventurous learning should consider taking an anthropology class from Whittaker. This year his tutorial went on a camping trip in Missouri and got washed out by the tail end of Hurricane Ike. A few years ago, Whittaker and his students tried to make a dugout canoe. "That was a little too difficult. Now we use it as a feasting bowl for anthropology picnics!" Whittaker says.
The students in the class share Whittaker's enthusiasm. Both Koid and Zimmerman had fun with the process and were pleased with the end result. Stop by Goodnow for a prehistoric experience.