There’s something about handling an artifact or experiencing an ancient building during class that really unleashes a student’s latent curiosity. In Cincinnati, I loved to use coin replicas from the University of Cincinnati Classics Department’s study collection during class or in outreach presentations about ancient coins. Students were more engaged and asked a lot of questions when they had coins in their hands, and they were more willing to try and figure things out on their own. When I came to teach at Ohio University, I no longer had access to a study collection or set of artifacts with which to harness students’ joy and awe of directly experiencing the ancient world, so to reify the experience or the use of objects and buildings in my archeology classes, I relied on PowerPoint slides, videos, and descriptions from my own vivid experiences with the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia or studying abroad at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome (i.e. the Centro).
Yet the gap between the artifacts and the students only seemed to truly be overcome with a final brief writing assignment for my Roman Archaeology class. I asked them to wander the campus of Ohio University and the city of Athens to find a building or piece of art that is unquestionably inspired by a Roman monument, building, or artifact that we have studied this semester and then to answer the following three questions in an essay:
How do you know this structure/object is based on a Roman building/object? How are they similar?
- What does the Roman model tell us about the modern building?
- In what ways does the modern building/object make you better appreciate the ancient model?
As I read through the papers, I was proud to see how much students had learned: how to objectively describe monuments, how to identify their models, how these models fit into Roman culture, and how to read the messages and features of any monument. Since I was able to see their personalities in their writing a lot more, it seems like they enjoyed this assignment more than earlier assignments. But I was also struck by a common answer for the third question: they could better appreciate the engineering, greatness, or reality of the ancient model. One paper admitted that comparing a chapel to the Pantheon was like comparing a kitten to a lion, and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument is much smaller and simpler than Trajan’s Column; but this exercise reified the ancient monuments for them and gave them a taste of what the originals were like. It made me wish I had done something like this exercise earlier in the semester.
So what would it look like earlier in the semester? Several small blog posts throughout the semester could encourage students to discuss what they learn about a Roman building by looking at something modeled on it. For example, when we discuss Trajan’s Column, students could be asked to respond to this prompt: “Go look at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on campus, walk around it, and spend some time contemplating it and its decorations. Based on your experience examining the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, how would a Roman have responded to and appreciated the relief on the Column of Trajan?”
All too often, it’s hard to reify ancient buildings or objects for our students–even on site where many buildings only remain as foundations. By reifying them, we help students better understand the buildings, their messages, and their effects. After all, which of the images below is more engaging or helpful to understand Roman temple architecture?