Tag: archaeology

Describe the artifact carefully.

augustus-prima-portaThis semester, many of my Roman archaeology students latched on to a tidbit from the textbook: that the bare feet of the Augustus of Prima Porta indicate that the is a hero or even a god. I am intrigued by this phenomenon because I’m not 100% convinced of this tidbit so I did not mention it in class–it had to come from their reading–and because it was something that had remarkable staying power among so many of my students.

I think I know why. It was something concrete to latch onto. It fit the “In Roman culture, X means Y.” It is tangible and easily recognizable. It was also in English (They didn’t latch onto the idea that “In Roman culture, when a statue’s arm is raised with an open hand, it is the adlocutio pose and this pose means that he is addressing a group of people.” … maybe because adlocutio is a funny Latin word they don’t know?).

Instead of just purely speculating about this one instance, I think it’s representative of something else.  All too often, while the textbook and I tried to balance our amount of description with how much we talk about the meaning and significance of an artifact or structure, we erred on the side of discussing the significance and meaning. After all, there are only so many pages and minutes we can describe things without boring our students completely to death.

But this last sentence is a little off the mark. When we talk about the Augustus of Prima Porta, or any other artifact and structure, we are constructing an argument about it. In order to be a good model for our students and to teach students how to read ancient images, we need to construct this argument by providing evidence: detailed, specific descriptions. These should be more than that the Laocoön provokes an emotional response from his pained look, but what about this pained look elicits this response? and what is this response?

When I have described objects in more detail, not only have I felt better about the quality of argument that I present my students, but I have also felt better about their level of comprehension because I have read their faces and moods. As we balance description with significance, we need to offer more nuggets like “bare feet = god and/or hero” and be careful that the forest not get lost through the trees.

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By the way, I have found PRS questions are another very helpful way to develop students’ visual literacy. In addition to forcing students to take a position and giving them a chance to do the analysis, the questions are particularly valuable for correcting mistakes. If you see that a lot of students did not answer a question correctly, you can describe or explain the object in more detail or in another way in order to explain the answer more effectively. Or better yet, have students who got it right describe the object and explain their own answers.



Geopedia, Pompeii, and Spatial Analysis

There is an excellent German website that combines Bing’s maps with wikipedia’s articles: http://www.geopedia.de/  Like videos, this is a great tool to take students on a virtual field trip.  For example, in my Roman Archaeology class, I asked students to visit this site at home, explore the excavated area of Pompeii, and answer a few questions on an assignment sheet (pompeiispatialanalysisassignment).  After a brief explanation of spatial analysis (so, more or less, looking at the distance between sites and the ease of movement from one place to another), this assignment sheet asked some factual questions, and other questions that encouraged students to think about spatial analysis.  After answering these questions, students took an online quiz based on the first set of factual questions–the second set of spatial analysis questions was not graded or assessed with the online quiz.  This second set of questions tried to get students thinking about how to analyze maps of archaeological sites and it primed them for a class discussion about spatial analysis in Pompeii–where this type of analysis has been particularly fruitful.

geopedia Pompeii.png

In class, we discussed how spatial analysis has helped us understand the lived experience of Pompeii.  This discussion also allowed me to introduce various types of buildings: bakeries, fulleries, and fountains. Since the spatial analysis seemed to overwhelm some students, because of the level of the course, and because of what I wanted students to get out of the lesson, I told them that they only needed to know the conclusions from this analysis, not be able to reproduce it.

Things to Consider

  • Spatial analysis will confuse some students and is still not necessarily obvious from geopedia, but this is one of the best ways to let students play around and actively engage with maps of ancient sites.  So also remember to be clear about what you will assess students on: factual information, preliminary spatial analysis, and/or conclusions.
  • The assignments involving geopedia should be fairly structured so that students are guided through a difficult new skill or topic.
  • Geopedia is not GoogleEarth. Geopedia helps students identify sites from aerial images and provides information about sites in the same screen as the map. Google Earth does not necessarily provide these same clues and combination of information, but it does seem a bit easier to move around the map than geopedia.
  • Geopedia will not work well with every archaeological site or city.  Pompeii works well because it does not feature as many buildings from wikipedia as the Forum Romanum does.  It also features only buildings from AD 79 instead of from the 10th Cent. BC to the present day, like the Campus Martius in Rome. It allows you to focus in on what may be relevant and important for your course, instead of being distracted by a medieval church that (even though it’s very nice and interesting) is not necessarily relevant to your course.
  • The lesson plan here is still a work in progress.

Videos in classes

This semester, I have been teaching several archaeology courses, and I have definitely appreciated the value and power of showing different videos in class:

  • You get to cover more material in a short time. Whereas I may take 15 minutes to describe something in a lecture, a video can do it conveniently in 5 minutes.  As I have made my own YouTube videos, I have come to appreciate the care and detail taken with scripts, the ability to condense and efficiently deliver information, the ability to do multiple takes (instead of misspeaking in class), and the ability to draw on the interaction of images and a dynamic visual.
  • Even a silent video, such as this one of a water screw, quickly illustrates and helps you describe a dynamic action that would take far longer to explain without a video.
  • Students light up and become more engaged when they hear they will watch a video.
  • They allow you to take a “field trip” to places that may not be easily (or safely) accessible for your students, such as Pompeii, Babylon, or Giza.  This helps students understand sites better than static pictures allow.
  • They allow you to showcase the process of archaeology.  For example, many documentaries about archaeological sites are framed around an archaeological project, so they often discuss methods or relevant issues (such as safety in present day Iraq).
  • Similarly, by focusing on a particular site or issue, documentaries often feature the expert on that site or issue.  If it’s a good, clear documentary, I’d prefer to offer my students the insights of the expert, straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, instead of my summary. And, since it’s made for a public audience, the producers often make sure that the expert’s ideas are easily digestible.
  • They allow you to show dynamic 3-D reconstructions of various buildings. For example, this reconstruction of the house of Caecilius Iucundus in Pompeii combines wall paintings, artifacts, and architecture that are nearly impossible to assemble effectively in PowerPoint slides. This computer animation of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius may also be a better way of explaining the eruption than a lecture, depending on your goals.
  • It allows you to engagingly cover material that may not excite you or that will not be engaging if told in lecture form.  For example, this video is far more entertaining than my description of the Olympic games.
  • They are relatively easy to find. With YouTube, NOVA, National Geographic, and many, many other sources, there is an abundance of videos out there on a variety of topics.

There is a key to this, though: you need to add an incentive for students to pay attention to and learn from the video. Make them fill out a worksheet–so they know what is fair game for tests and have good notes from the video–or quiz them with a PRS system right after the video.