Intro to the Ancient World

In September 2016, I began teaching a first-year undergraduate course (20 UK credits) called “Introduction to the Ancient World” to Archaeology and History students at Canterbury Christ Church University. While the course is run within an Archaeology programme (we don’t use the “department” terminology), the majority of students are studying History, either on its own or in combination with a subject other than Archaeology. This means that this may be many students’ only formal exposure to learning in archaeology, and it is a great opportunity to foster a good understanding and appreciation of archaeologists role in the study of the past. It also poses some pedagogical challenges in terms of ensuring (level appropriate) archaeological rigour whilst also recognizing that the majority of students will have had no previous experience in archaeology.

The course is offered over one semester and introduces students to the cultures and civilizations of the ancient world through an examination of historical and archaeological evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, the near east, and the central Mediterranean (including Greece and Rome) from about 3500 BC to AD 700. Explored themes include art, architecture, religion, politics, and society, with an emphasis on the long-term influence of ancient civilizations on later societies and the contemporary world. In order to best cover the maximum ground within the limitations of an introductory course, a “great traditions” approach is employed, adopting terminology and part of the framework developed by anthropologist Robert Redfield (1955) and later applied to the ancient near east by Øystein S. LaBianca (2007).

Students engage with historical texts and material evidence and learn to identify key characteristics of the art, architecture, and cultural practices of ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek (including Hellenistic), and Roman (including early Byzantine) societies. They also learn to identify and evaluate different historical and archaeological interpretations of the ancient world, applying critical thinking to categories and frameworks that are often used to present and understand it; this will include a final evaluation of the benefits, limitations, and risks associated with the “great traditions” approach (especially emphasising the importance of balancing elite-driven “great traditions” with non-elite “little traditions”). The course effectively plunges students into big themes (civilizations, empires, “great and little traditions”) AND the investigation and analytical value of individual items of material culture. A highlight of the course is a day-long visit to the British Museum, and students use this opportunity to come face-to-face with the material culture of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Following this visit, students design and present their own mini museum exhibit catalogue, which features their own selection of British Museum objects that (they think AND argue) reflect key aspects of one of these “great traditions” of the ancient world.

In total, the course ensures that students leave with a basic understanding of the similarities and differences between key cultures/civilizations of the ancient world, that they understand the value of integrating available historical and archaeological evidence (including museum collections), and that they can begin to critically evaluate intellectual frameworks and the ways in which the past is presented to the public. This critical evaluation forms the topic of the course’s final essay.

Works Cited

  • LaBianca, Ø.S. (2007) Great and Little Traditions: A Framework for Studying Cultural Interaction through the Ages in Jordan. Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, 9: 275-289.
  • Redfield, R. (1955) The Social Organization of Tradition. The Far Eastern Quarterly, 15.1: 13-21.

Image Credits

  • Colossal winged bull from the Palace of Sargon II, c. 710-705 BCE. Image courtesy of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

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This page was last updated on 6 November 2017.