Making a Connection to the Distant Past

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Categories: GSI Online Library

by Catherine Becker, History of Art

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004

Clay pots marked with the traces of twisted cord, bronze bells depicting geometric patterns and smiling haniwa, clay figurines that once surrounded the exterior of tombs, are some of the objects examined in the first lectures of History of Art 35, Introduction to the Art and Architecture of Japan. The chronological sequence of the course dictates that the students will encounter some of the most mysterious objects in the first weeks of the class. The Jomon period (10,500 BCE–300 BCE) was named after the distinctive cord markings that ornamented some of the pottery used during this vast period of time. During the Yayoi period (300 BCE–300 CE), bronze casting and rice agriculture arrived in Japan. By the Kofun period (300 CE–710 CE), the construction of elaborate keyhole-shaped tombs suggests a stratified society had emerged, yet only at the end of this period does a writing system appear in Japan. Although a huge quantity of objects remains from these periods, scholars know little about the people who made these pots and figurines. In the first discussion section of the semester, I, the eager GSI, launched into an examination of Jomon pots and Yayoi bells; however, so many of the students’ basic questions had no answer that the class became frustrated and uninterested. The following week’s section would address slightly later, but equally puzzling objects from the Kofun period. I wanted to encourage more student participation. How could I engage my students in a productive and thoughtful conversation about objects from the distant past?

Fortunately, the professor had included several juicy articles in the course reader on the controversies surrounding modern archaeology in Japan. One article addressed the tensions between archaeologists who wanted to excavate additional tombs and the Imperial Household Agency that refused to grant permission to do so. I used this controversy to organize a mock debate between students speaking for the Imperial Household Agency and students posing as archaeologists. Prior to the actual debate, the two teams organized their positions and formulated questions for the opposing side. The archaeologists began with an introduction of some of the most cryptic grave goods. While I shuffled slides, students expertly wielded the laser pointer to draw the attention of the Imperial Household Agency to the uncertain function of haniwa and the various interpretations of the figures painted in the Takehara tomb. The Imperial Household Agency listened politely as the archaeologists made their case. Then the representatives of the Imperial family questioned the archaeologists about what exactly they hoped to find during additional excavations. Were they certain the tombs contained important objects? Since the excavations would destroy the tombs, how would the archaeologists preserve the objects once they were removed?

I regard this activity as a success not only because students enthusiastically discussed the objects and the ramifications of modern archaeological practices, but also because every section’s debate ended differently. In one section the Imperial Household Agency appealed to the archaeologists to respect the final resting place of the deceased. In other section the archaeologists convinced the Agency to allow limited excavations. The third debate concluded in a stalemate with both parties considerably agitated. These varied results reveal that the students were not simply reiterating ideas from lecture or the readings, rather they were forming new opinions in the classroom. The debate format allowed students to create a dialogue with each other and with the ancient past.