Multi-Sensory Windows into Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Stephanie Langin-Hooper, Near Eastern Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2011

Near Eastern archaeology is an inherently multi-sensory discipline. The excavation process requires the archaeologist to engage with research material (such as the soil, the remains of ancient buildings, the objects uncovered) in both a visual and a tactile manner. We must similarly employ a variety of senses when reconstructing the past, whether it is extrapolating the sounds of ancient music from the remains of instruments or reading recipes from clay tablets in an attempt to cook ancient food. Unfortunately, much of this multi-sensory experience is difficult to translate into the classroom. Most archaeology classes, especially at an introductory level, rely heavily on visual materials to convey both the process of excavation and our knowledge about the ancient world. This might not be a problem with some ancient subjects that are more recognizable and accessible, such as Greek or Roman art; however, with the largely unfamiliar arts and artifacts of the Ancient Near East, this sensory distancing often translates into an intellectual distancing as well. As a result of their limited, and largely visual, introduction to the Ancient Near East, many introductory students tend to see the subject as boring and unappealing, instead of as the dynamic and engaging field that it truly is.

In response to this problem, I designed a series of multi-sensory activities to engage my students each week in section. In the introductory section, I dumped out my backpack and challenged the students to behave as if they were archaeologists 500 years in the future who were sorting through my belongings for clues about our culture. In another section, I brought in wooden chopsticks, which work well as a scribal stylus, and clay to teach the students to make tablets and write in the Mesopotamian cuneiform script. As a treat in the last section of the semester, I baked Sumerian cookies from an ancient recipe so that the students could taste 5,000-year-old food while they studied for finals.

One of the most involved and successful projects that I designed was a miniature replica of underwater shipwreck excavations. Using large turkey roasting pans, water, sand, and an assortment of miniature objects, I recreated three underwater shipwreck excavation sites. Wooden popsicle sticks served as the frame of the boat, cut pieces of tin stood in for metal ingots, beads represented cylinder seals; I placed these and many other miniature objects into the shipwrecks in precise proportion to the excavation records from actual shipwreck sites in the ancient Mediterranean. The students became the archaeologists and were divided up into excavation teams. One person was designated the site director, while the others were each given a job as a particular specialist, such as metal specialist or pottery specialist, to mimic the organization of a real shipwreck excavation. These specialists were responsible not only for excavating their section of the ship, but also for preserving the materials taken from the water. For instance, on a real excavation, water-logged wood must be immediately placed in a glycol solution to prevent the disintegration of the cellulose structure. The student assigned to be wood specialist needed to similarly transfer any pieces of the ship’s planking into a tub filled with sugar water. Detailed handouts with color pictures helped the students identify what techniques they should use, as well as how to interpret their findings by comparing their results to real excavation reports. After the site was completely excavated, the students discussed their respective findings and compiled a site report, which the site director summarized out loud for the whole class.

Through a multi-sensory engagement, this project successfully opened the eyes of my students to the dynamic process of archaeological excavation. Because of the teamwork required to excavate the shipwreck and then compile a report afterwards, the students also pushed each other towards new levels of inquiry and deeper analysis than I had seen from them employ before. Students who had never spoken in class were suddenly asking questions like, “Why would a ship carry raw lumber ― don’t they have trees everywhere?” “What does it mean when the pottery in one ship all looks the same?” “Why would these vessels risk a shipwreck just to trade in luxury goods?” The fact that the students were inspired to ask these questions was the way in which I assessed the project’s success. These multi-sensory activities awoke in many of my students an intellectual curiosity about the ancient world that more traditional teaching methods had so far been unable to cultivate.