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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

Workshops: Pliny, Lake Mungo and Angkor, History Teachers Conference 2011

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 4, 2011

I went to three very interesting, and very different workshops on the second day of the conference.  Again, these notes were taken ‘on the run’ and if I have misrepresented anything or made any errors, please contact me and I will amend what follows as necessary.


The first one was presented by Denis Mootz who teaches senior secondary history.  His topic was whether we could trust Pliny the Younger’s account of events in 79AD i.e. the eruption of Vesuvius,

Being historically conscious means being aware that the sources are problematic, and if you’re studying ancient history, it’s (of course) especially problematic.  In the case of Pliny the Younger, whose account of the eruption of Vesuvius at Pompeii was used by Tacitus in his Histories, it’s important to look at the purpose and timing of the documents. 

Pliny wrote his letters 20 years after the event, primarily to provide Tacitus with information about his uncle, Pliny the Elder.  The description of the eruption was a just sideline for Pliny who was basically writing a eulogy about his uncle (who died in the eruption), so that Tacitus would write favourably about Pliny the Elder in his political treatise about how to live an honourable life under a tyrant.  In fact Pliny says himself that what he’s written is not history, and that it would only become history when Tacitus the historian wrote about it.

I liked Mootz’s comment says that ‘Big H’ history is when a  historian writes it, (i.e. there’s analysis involved) and ‘little h’ history is just something about the past.

Mootz gave lots of examples of inconsistencies, omissions and so on that show that the first letter, relied on by Tacitus writing his history, just doesn’t make sense. (His second letter is an eye witness account of an event and contemporary vulcanologists studying recent eruptions say it is more reliable). Not even the date is certain.

Much of what Pliny says has been debunked by vulcanologists, and by analysis of what he says about what he could see in the context of the local geography.  He would not have been able to see some things he said he did, and he should have been able to see other things that he didn’t mention.  For example, he doesn’t mention the noise, he writes that from where they were his mother drew his attention to a column of smoke – but the noise would have been equivalent to a 10+ mega-tonne H-bomb, enough to deafen a person.  One of the largest noises ever heard on earth, but Pliny doesn’t say anything about it.  He also tells us that the green fields could no longer be seen after Vesuvius, but he wouldn’t have been able to see them beforehand anyway.  He says he couldn’t tell which mountain the cloud of smoke was ascending.   This is a bit mysterious, because it’s pretty obvious from the local geography –  and this raises questions about Pliny’s knowledge of the Bay of Naples  and its geography.

When it comes to what he said about his uncle, it’s important to remember that the slaves who told Pliny about finding his uncle’s body had a vested interest in lying about what happened. They were expected to stay with Pliny’s uncle no matter what, but they obviously didn’t because otherwise they would have died too. (Pliny heroicises himself too: he  tells us that in the face of this massive eruption he hung around and did his homework, looked after his mother and so on – and had to be told to get away to safety).  The letter talks up the uncle and his decision making: he doesn’t panic like everyone else, because he’s a great man. Pliny says his uncle was found looking as if he’s just asleep, but the extant bodies from then and other recent volcanic events show that bodies aren’t ever found looking relaxed  and asleep: they’re mostly in the ‘pugilist pose’, (sinews tightened up and the person’s arms and legs contract towards the body)which shows what a gruesome death it was, caused by being exposed to heat over 200 degrees.  (Many people, exposed to temperatures were over 800 degrees, were vaporised, while others were covered in pumice which people breathed in and suffocated). 

LAKE MUNGO and the National Curriculum

This session was presented by Jacquie Taylor and Jenny Bowler, daughter of the geologist who was working on climate change in the Lake Mungo region and in 1969 reported archaeological evidence radio-carbon- dated to over 50,000 years ago that proved an Aboriginal presence there. This work now shows how people have lived in Australia at last 50,000 years ago.

Initially there was hostility and distrust about scientists interfering with the human remains at Mungo and it’s only fairly recently that mutual respect between elders and scientists has emerged. With the arrival of the Australian Curriculum, the time is now right for the story of Lake Mungo to be more widely known and taught.

Jenny worked with Jacquie as a writer of curriculum, to use Bowler’s materials for teaching purposes. The CD which is available has heaps of resources which students can manipulate.

Lake Mungo is a world heritage site. The evidence of ritual burial there is the oldest such evidence in the world. It is important that the images of the remains be prefaced with statements of respect and acknowledgement that permission to use them has been given by tribal elders. Mungo Woman was returned to the burial site and handed back to the local elders, while the remains of Mungo Man is still at the ANU until it is agreed what to do with them.

Jackie said that it’s important to recognise that not all teachers know much about the diversity of Aboriginal culture or about the geology which underpins understanding about Lake Mungo. The unit of work she’s developed is for Year 4 Australian History in the new AC curriculum. It includes lesson plans, resources, cultural information and protocols, and is intended to give teachers confidence about using it. (A secondary unit is in the pipeline).

It also includes the 8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning as a resource (which if used as a planning matrix, would cover all learning styles). Story, singing, dance and art are integral to Aboriginal learning, using the following components:

  • Deconstruct/reconstruct – knowing the big picture before you unpack the detail, means you always know where you are.
  • Learning maps
  • Community Links
  • Symbols and images
  • Non-verbal
  • Land-links
  • Story-sharing
  • Non-linear

Ref The Incredible Human Journey (BBC production).

I’m looking forward to being able to eventually access this unit of work for Year 4: I think it will be a marvellous resource.


This session was presented by James St Julian , Trinity Grammar school. He introduced the study of Angkor (802-1327) as a topic for study in secondary schools.  The Spouse and I visited Angkor Wat on our trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in 2007, so I am very pleased to see that the study of this astonishing kingdom is gaining greater prominence in the secondary school curriculum. 

Julian very generously shared a unit of work that he has developed using a cut off point of 802-1327 because1327 was when the last known king assumed the throne.  (He says that some people may feel nervous about the pronunciation of names but they are no more difficult than names from the rest of the ancient world once you tackle them).

The Angkor Wat complex is an extraordinary set of buildings, the central wat (temple) is higher than Notre Dame in Paris.

The key issue to discuss (as it is with most ancient empires) is the reasons for its decline. The conventional story is that the Thais invaded, captured the royal family and Angkor was ‘abandoned’. In fact archaeological evidence shows that there was continuous settlement, so this story that it was abandoned is open for discussion.

Other seasons for abandonment?

  • Mismanagement of the ecology
  • Deforestation
  • Over development

Key figures who could be studied in detail:

  • Jayavarman II founded the Khmer empire
  • Suryavarman I expanded the empire over central and southwest Thailand
  • Jayavarman was a prolific builder who is sometimes said to have started the decline of the Cambodian empire because of his extravagance.

There are interesting links between the history of India or China that can be made.

We were given some lesson sequences which could be used, outlining studies of

  • religious beliefs and practices (Hinduism, Theravada Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhism). Worship of the spirit is still prolific in Cambodia today, major religions are superimposed on top of them, probably brought in by Indian merchants. Not clear whether there was slow absorption or a deliberate decision to adopt Hinduism and Buddhism (from about 100BC) to enhance trade is not known. Studying the religion is a good launching place to start studying about kingship. Adoption of the Reamker (Ramayana) which is a love story a little like Helen of Troy, and it becomes a major artistic influence in classical Khmer ballet and visual representations of it in temples etc., e.g. Vishnu and the Churning of the Sea of Milk, tug of war over an eternal elixir in the belly of a naga (mythical snake),they are fighting over immortality. Neither wins, and out of the belly comes creation. There are representations of Hindu mythology everywhere e.g. on the 5 causeways leading up to the complex. Unfortunately only religious buildings were made of stone, everything else was timber and has perished in the tropical climate, so it’s only from the art works on the temples that we can ascertain what other buildings might be like.
  • political system = the study of kingship is fascinating and students will be familiar with this through studies of Egypt.
  • social organisation – was there a caste system? It appears to have been temporary, successive generations were not assigned to a caste because their ancestors were.
  • daily life – information comes from the visit of a Chinese ambassador: he gives details about the role of women, daily bathing etc. and can be compared to present day actions in Cambodia and pictures on temples. (See notes on handout). Evidence of importing Chinese materials = evidence of connections with Chinese court, why was this?
  • economics, trade and agriculture
  • temples and infrastructure
  • Suryavarman II (Virtual site study: ANgkor)
  • Jayavarman Vii
  • Decline and legacy.

Also important to study are the adjacent Cham people who were often hostile to the Khmer. (We saw some of their sculpture at the Cham Museum at Da Nang).

Sanskrit was introduced from the Indians, Cambodians still use it. It’s complex to translate because vowels don’t match up to where the sounds are (like Hebrew). There are inscriptions everywhere, and translations are available,so  it’s just like studying ancient Egypt, (and no harder).

The Cambodian economy depends on the Mekong just as the Egyptian economy depends on the Nile. Lake Ton Le Sap floods over a huge area because the river floods back into it during the wet season. Water management is crucial.

Internet resources include

  • The Greater Angkor Project

The study of Angkor is also relevant if studying modern history and the Vietnam war.

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