News.bytes News.bytes Extra, issue 234

Fish Slough archaeology

Fish Slough is an outstanding place to see archaeology in the Owens Valley -- and it is just five miles north of Bishop, the valley’s largest town. This makes Fish Slough a wonderful classroom easily accessible for outdoor education. BLM Bishop Field Office archaeologist Kirk Halford, in partnership with the public school system and other scientists, has created a program that each year brings all the valley’s fourth graders to Fish Slough to learn about the past through hands on experience.

Learning to use an atlatl --a primitive hunting weapon that launched a projectile partway between a spear and an arrow:
A student holds an atlatl, as an instructor gives some pointers in how to use it

Exploring the petroglyphs:

The students explore rocks covered with petroglyphs, draw their favorite in their notebooks, and speculate about its meaning. They examine a prehistoric threshing floor, feel bedrock grinding slicks and mortar holes, grind seeds with a metate and mano, experiencing how hunter-gatherer peoples made a living in the past. They discover remnants of house rings – foundation circles formed of rocks – sketch how the houses might have looked and imagine the family groups who inhabited the dwellings. They find real and facsimile obsidian tools and ponder how they were made and used. They learn to us a dart and atlatl, imagining hunting animals this way.

A teacher and student examine an ancient grinding stone:
Close up of two pairs of hands - a student and teacher examine an ancient grinding stone

Finding a favorite petroglyph, and drawing it in a notebook:
Students examine petroglyphs on rocks in the area, to find a favorite and copy it into a notebook

The students are challenged to envision the past through the strings of evidence they have found. They learn that each artifact and feature left is important for understanding how people used the land, what kinds of tools they made and used and how they made a living. Each piece is interwoven into telling a story of the past. Then they write how they’d feel if they came back and found vandalism, if pieces of the story they have just learned were missing. They remember what they were told on arrival: “Anything we find today that has been changed by humans is an artifact and is part of the story and is also protected for public enjoyment and experience by law. They learn to pick up the pieces of the past and look, but to put it back, that they are working and learning within an outdoor museum; and we all know how we act in a museum.

Why is preserving the past important? The objects tell us about the people who lived here; they inform us of the human experience and journey through time. If people take all the cool things they find there won’t be anything left for others to experience, to learn from or to discover. When you find an obsidian flake or point, there’s a magic that happens when you think that the person who made it could have lived 4,000 years ago, that you are holding an object that has been in this place for thousands of years, that this artifact is part of the story of the past, of the people who lived here and of our shared national heritage. You want to leave that object for someone else to experience that magic too.

Related information:

Fish Slough is part of the Hands On the Land national network of field classrooms, www.handsontheland.org.

Links to various types of information about the atlatl can be found at the bottom of this Grinnell University professor's web page (including illustrated lessons in how to use it, and an extensive bibliography in a Microsoft Word file).

What are a metate and a mano?

BLM California News.bytes, issue 234