The Tankwa Toolbox Project

Reading at a Children’s Book Network workshop in Clanwilliam in 2014

I first met Lesley Beake in 2011 in an airy loft in Clanwilliam, overlooking the Cederberg Mountains. It was both early days for Lesley’s educational charity Children’s Book Network (CBN), and the start of my Masters fieldwork at the University of Cape Town. When I quietly confessed to Lesley (out of the earshot of my academic supervisor) that I was worried I might not actually find any stone tools, Lesley offered an understanding smile and immediately set about recruiting me for CBN’s upcoming children’s workshops. Ten years, tens of thousands of artefacts and many workshops later, Lesley and I are embarking on a new collaboration between CBN and the TANKwA Project, creating educational toolboxes containing 3D printed artefacts and stories to inspire children to think about the science of archaeology and people in the ancient past.

Lesley Beake, Director of NPO Children’s Book Network and children’s author. Lesley also teaches writing courses.

Children’s Book Network is a not-for-profit organization based in South Africa that aims to bring books to children and encourage reading, especially in under-privileged communities. Lesley is an award-winning author of books for young people with a long-standing interest in archaeology which has featured in many of her books. CBN has pioneered the creation of Toolboxes, bringing together books (both fiction and non-fiction), educational resources and creative activities to engage young readers on various themes. Following the success of the first Red Toolbox on the theme of Books and Stories, the Blue Toolbox currently under development takes up the big ideas of Time and Landscape. The new Tankwa Toolbox will form a part of the Blue Toolbox, as well as serving as a stand-alone resource.

The Blue Toolbox contains a range of non-fiction and story books about time and landscape.
‘Hap’ is Lesley’s award-winning novel about a present-day teenager’s experience on an archaeological dig which connects her with an ancient girl, like her.

Archaeology is particularly well-suited to public outreach since it draws on a deeply-rooted curiosity in us all about our origins – especially important in South Africa given its deep and complex human history. My archaeology activities at previous CBN workshops have ranged from building human timelines to grasp the depth of time, to filling jars with layers to understand principles of stratigraphy. Other creative projects drawing on archaeology for inspiration include creating paintings inspired by the rock art of the nearby Cederberg using ochre paint, making music with rock gongs (ringing rocks from the Karoo), and telling stories based on San mythology with shadow puppets. In the age of Covid when hands-on outreach is much harder to implement, Toolboxes offer a new way of bringing science and stories to children at both local and global scales.

Archaeology in a jar – learning about layers and time
Shadow puppet storytelling (photo from August 2014)
Painting ‘rock art’ with ochre paint (photo from July 2015)

The TANKwA Project was delighted to welcome a small group of learners from Elandsvlei Primary School to the main field site in May 2021. The students learnt about the process of doing archaeology and saw first-hand the stone artefacts left behind by past hunter-gatherers who lived in the Tankwa Karoo on a very windy hilltop. Unfortunately, site visits like this are difficult logistically to arrange, as well as posing ethical issues of stewardship since many artefacts lie exposed and vulnerable on the land surface. To extend the reach of our research, the target audience for the Tankwa Toolboxes are the young people growing up in the desolate but beautiful Tankwa Karoo landscape. These farming children appreciate the remoteness, harsh climate and scarcity of water in a way that parallels the experience of ancient hunter-gatherers who struggled to survive in the stony desert. Furthermore, they are the descendants of the San people, with one child even telling us about how his grandfather used to chip stone into tools.

3D prints are a useful teaching aid.
A 3D printed replica point. Each artefact in the toolbox has a story.

We are fortunate to have access to a 3D resin printer to print our own tools (using plant-based, rather than plastic) resin. We are aiming to roll out our first toolboxes in mid-2022. As well as providing the toolboxes to schools in the Tankwa region for free, we hope to sell them for a small amount to cover costs, both at regional tourist hotspots in South Africa and more widely in Europe. Look out for more updates as the project progresses.

Prototype 3D prints for the Tankwa Toolbox. They still need a bit of perfecting, and we plan to paint them to look realistic as well.
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