Adopt an Artifact – Teaching Ancient Mediterranean Religion with Objects

Adopt an Artifact – Teaching Ancient Mediterranean Religion with Objects

by Gregory Fewster

cover image: Heart scarab of Hatnefer, ca. 1492-1473 BCE. Provenance: Tomb of Hatnefer and Ramose, Sheikh Abd el-Qurna (ancient Thebes). Current location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 36.3.2.

*all quotations from student work have been used with permission*

When I taught “Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean” (RAM) online at the University of Toronto Scarborough in the 2021 Winter term, I wanted to make archaeological artifacts a centrepiece of the course. It was important to me to get students thinking about religion as something that people do rather than simply a matter of belief. Even in the racially and religiously diverse classrooms of UTSC, I have found that students still imagine the category of “religion” according to a Protestant template, one that privileges belief as religion’s most salient characteristic. From my perspective, engaging with the material record of antiquity is an effective means of shifting that perception.

Of course, learning about the ancient world with artifacts has a long tradition. Teachers have recognized that the archaeological record facilitates encounters with the past and the people who lived there in a way that is qualitatively different than reading an ancient literary text or a modern text book. Many museums collections, in fact, especially those connected with universities and colleges, originated as teaching collections.

Archaeological artifacts are not straightforward windows into the past, however. Scholarship on museums has taught us that the assembling and curation of antiquities always shapes how we interpret them. And we are learning more and more about how those interpretive possibilities are deeply colonial and orientalizing, predicated upon contested myths of civilizational continuity and ideologies of ownership that legitimize the removal of antiquities from colonized regions usually to European and North American cultural institutions.

In my view, archaeological artifacts remain an indispensable resource for encountering the rich and varied lives of religious practitioners of the past. But these encounters will always be impoverished if we ignore the colonial stages on which those artifacts have been set. If my classroom is a place where students learn to appreciate ancient religion as human behaviour in a material world, they will also leave it equipped to engage the complexity of the pasts and presents of cultural heritage. Adopt an Artifact seeks to accomplish these interrelated goals.

RAM is listed as a third-year undergraduate seminar, drawing students in their second through fourth year, who have by now developed moderate research and writing skills. Many of them have taken a course on the myths of Greece and Rome, or Egypt and Mesopotamia, and are using RAM as a breadth requirement in their classics, history, philosophy, or cultural studies programs. Adopt an Artifact was developed with these factors in mind. At its most basic, the assignment is a series of three scaffolded modules centred on a single object of the students’ choosing. Through in-class training, sustained engagement with a single artifact, and repeated feedback from the instructor, students learn to build new knowledge about the ancient world in ways that are imaginative, rigorous, and responsible. The following essay shares the inner workings of Adopt an Artifact, describing and reflecting upon each of its three modules: Object Analysis; Thick Description & Ritual Analysis, and Question & Answer.

Selecting an artifact

The first thing students have to do, of course, is pick an artifact. The title of the assignment Adopt an Artifact already frames how students approach selection. For the language of adoption shifts an orientation to artifacts away from ownership or possession toward responsibility and care that takes place during a brief period of interaction.

The language of adoption shifts an orientation to artifacts away from ownership or possession toward responsibility and care that takes place during a brief period of interaction.

Where can students find their artifacts? For those of us who work at institutions with local antiquities collections, I think it is important that we make regular and responsible use of them. At the University of Toronto, we have very rich collections at our disposal, most notably at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) but also the Malcove Collection (particularly for late antiquity). Under traditional circumstances, I would have encouraged my students to peruse museum galleries and select a piece they could directly look at and return to. But with museums closed during the pandemic, we had to make use of digitized collections instead – these would be useful for anyone without ready access to museums collections too. Some good digitized collections include the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the ROM. These collections tend to have high quality images (often from multiple angles), strong object descriptions, and at least a brief comment on provenance, all of which is essential for the success of the assignment.

Module 1: Object Analysis

Making sense of an artifact can be challenging. Where do you start? And how do you know what to look for? Module 1 consists of a step-by-step approach to the interpretation of archaeological artifacts, bringing clarity and precision to that process.

The approach that I chose was adapted from a fairly classic (though somewhat cringey) essay called “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model” by E. McLung Fleming. This model is pretty involved. But it isolates five properties of an object, which are fantastic for orienting students’ analysis: History, Material, Construction, Design, and Function. To complete Module 1, students simply had to fill out a worksheet that asked them to compose a 500-word entry for each of those five properties, along with a 100-200 word Museum Label. The final form also required the use of five secondary sources. By working through each property in sequence, students are able to build a comprehensive descriptive profile of their adopted artifact.

I emphasized two points about the importance of provenance: (1) the antiquities trade is fraught, and understanding its history by tracing an artifact’s provenance is the first step in a more ethical practice; and (2) knowing the context of an artifact’s excavation can illuminate its ancient significance

Most of these categories are fairly straightforward (although it was not uncommon for students to require a refresher on the distinction between Construction and Design). However, I took special care to define History in terms Provenance. This post is not the place to soapbox on the importance of engaging questions of the excavation and trade of antiquities (go here, here, or here). For the purposes of the assignment, I emphasized two points about the importance of provenance: (1) the antiquities trade is fraught, and understanding its history by tracing an artifact’s provenance is the first step in a more ethical practice; and (2) knowing the context of an artifact’s excavation can illuminate its ancient significance. Some of my students were able to do impressive work in both those dimensions. A number of them discovered how their artifacts functioned as commodities in a patronage system involving J. P. Morgan and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another saw how provenance could be obscured in the early twentieth century, by conducting some basic “museum archaeology” of early Met publications (the Annual Report of 1906 and Bulletin of 1907). One student even found that the Attic amphora they were studying was one among many objects sold to the Getty Museum by Nicolas Koutoulakis, a well-known looter. Some of these artifacts have now been repatriated to their country of origin (Image 1). These students had to contend with the fact that clandestine looting by colonial powers actually stripped artifacts of their context – a challenge for their historical research – but they encountered some of the social mechanisms by which artifacts have been extracted and sometimes returned.  

Image 1: Attic Panathenaic Amphora, 500-480 BCE. Provenance: Athens? Current location: Getty Museum, 77.AE.9.

Before any of that rich research can occur, however, this module starts in the classroom. The third session of our seminar was devoted to the “Objects of Ancient Religion.” Together, we worked through the process of navigating digital collections and locating provenance information. And the seminar trained students in the very method that they would be replicating in their assignment. Each student brought a few everyday objects to class (a pen, a coin, a cup, a toothbrush). And in groups, they analyzed one object together and filled out the worksheet. The aim of this exercise is to become familiar with the framework, but it also teaches them how to look. Students often think they that after a few minutes of inspection, they have seen all there is to see in an object. By sending them back to their object for a few more minutes, they recognize that there are always more details to uncover – an essential discipline when it comes to analyzing historical artifacts.

Image 2: Roman coin, 41-50 CE. Provenance: Warwick Square, London, England (minted in Rome). Current location: British Museum, R.5074

Like the others, Module 1 is scaffolded through multiple drafts. The final paper was to be completed with the use of secondary sources. But the first draft was to be based solely on students’ own observation. I wanted them to let their imagination run, with the artifact itself as the primary constraint, without biases created by reading secondary literature. One student, for example, came up with an inventive hypothesis for the manufacture of a Roman copper coin (as), attributing its asymmetrical shape to a cylindrical blade that would punch out the coin from a sheet of impressed copper alloy. After I encouraged him to research for the second draft how Roman coins were made, the student was able to compose a comprehensive and technical description of coin production in Claudian Rome, now attributing the asymmetry to inconsistency in the mold or the position of the blank between the dies before it was struck (Image 2). Their first hypothesis was wrong, but that was kind of the point. This student was engaging in a process of creative reasoning that was grounded in the features of the material object itself.

Module 2: Thick Description & Ritual Analysis

The second module offers students a chance to place their artifact in the world of ritual, adapting the classical ethnographic practice of “thick description” (a la Clifford Geertz) for ancient historical study. Thick description, as I explained to my students, is a means of documenting a ritual event that attends closely to its details. And the act of writing out those details into a coherent narrative enlivens our understanding of that event. Of course, ethnographic observation of ancient rituals is impossible. So for the purposes of Adopt an Artifact, thick description frames how students can imagine real people making use of their artifact and how they write about it.

In this module, students are expected to compose two pieces of writing – a Thick Description and a Rationale – each about 3-4 double-spaced pages. Building on the Function segment of Module 1, the Thick Description is a narrative telling of a ritual event that involves the adopted artifact in a significant way. Students were encouraged to exercise their imagination and creative writing skills, bringing their ritual to life with vivid and evocative language. To anchor their narration, students focus on 5 important elements: context, agents, objects, actions, and sequence. That is, their writing should set the scene of the ritual, describe the people and things involved in the ritual, the actions those people took part in, and the order in which those actions took place.

Students were encouraged to exercise their imagination and creative writing skills, bringing their ritual to life with vivid and evocative language.

As a companion piece to the Thick Description, the Rationale is a formal essay (i.e., employing academic standards of evidence and citation) that justifies the creative choices made in the narrative. It ensures that the exercise of imagination is disciplined by the students’ investigation of primary sources and the current state of scholarly research. What we know about ancient rituals is highly variable, depending on the kinds of sources we have and what they describe. So there is a lot of room to fill in blanks and make informed choices. Sometimes this manifested in small details. For example, what might Thracians have worn during a festival to Bendis set in Athens? Whereas Thracians (and statues of Bendis) frequently wore tunics and fox-skinned caps, as one student noted in her Rationale, she was careful to depict her Thracian festival-goers dressed in long white robes in-keeping with Athenian legal stipulations (Image 3).

Image 3: Silver gilt Phiale depicting Auge and Heracles, depicted as a gift during a student’s retelling of a festival to the Thracian goddess Bendis in Athens. V-IV c. BCE. Provenance: Rogozen, Bulgaria. Current location: Vratsa Regional Historical Museum, Rogozen treasure no. 4. Picture from Wikipedia.

Other times, the evidence lent itself to more expansive creativity. One student who had adopted a heart scarab amulet belonging to a woman named Hatnefer chose to depict her weighing of the heart ceremony, drawing on the procedures recorded in the famous Papyrus of Ani while using the manuscript’s illustrations as a guide to describe the setting of the ceremony itself. Although the weighing of the heart rituals occur in the liminal space between life and afterlife, this Thick Description carefully drew upon multiple forms of material evidence to depict ritualized actions, while cleverly representing afterlife expectations among Egyptian New Kingdom elite.

These examples reflect the many beautiful stories that students composed for Module 2, which they developed from a proposal, into a first and finally second draft. Students generally seemed eager to engage in creative writing, a welcome departure from the standard 12-page essay of humanities courses. And the scaffolding allowed them find a balance in scope and detail of their narratives – most proposals promised to cover too much ground.

Module 3: Question & Answer

By the final weeks of class, students have developed a set of skills attuned to analyzing ancient artifacts along with an impressive breadth of knowledge pertaining to their own adopted artifact. Module 3 provides students with a chance to flex these abilities and knowledges, culminating in a 5-minute presentation given to the entire class.

Two weeks before a given students’ presentation, they are to upload their Museum Label (from Module 1) and an image of their artifact to a discussion board on the course web portal. (We use a Canvas derivative in Toronto, but most other platforms have analogous discussion boards). Over the next week, all students in the seminar pose a question about the artifact on the board. The questions tend to fall into a few different categories: details of design or manufacture; provenance; ritual function; and socio-economics of users (Images 4 and 5). A little later in the week, they log on again and “like” any of the questions that have been asked that they especially appreciate. The presenter then has a whole week to prepare answers to the two questions with the most “likes,” drawing on the research they have already conducted for the other two modules.

Terracotta kernos, ca. 2300-2200 BCE. Provenance: likely Philakopi, Melos. Current location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2300-2200 BCE.
Image 5: Screenshot from the discussion board

Module 3 is the most perilous of them all, for it lives and dies on the basis of participation in the discussion board. The presenter needs to upload their museum label and image in a timely manner, and the other students need to ask and “like” questions in order for the presenter to have material to address. Some degree of participation can be motivated by grades (half the grade of Module 3 comes from participation in the discussion board). Ultimately, though, I think that participation was motivated by a sense of camaraderie and mutual reliance, which also translated into student engagement during the presentations – they wanted to see how their peers addressed their questions!

Final Thoughts

Adopt an Artifact asks for a lot. It asks students to intensely scrutinize an ancient artifact, research various dimensions of its manufacture and function, and dig into the hazy details of the modern antiquities trade. It also requires that they communicate their knowledge in different modes: through technical writing, creative writing, and in an oral presentation. A number of students told me that they found the work challenging. But they also commented that it was a rewarding challenge, thanks especially to combination of the focus the artifact provided and the scaffolded format of the assignment. Not only were students able to build upon foundations laid in previous Modules, they were able to look back at earlier work and see how their observations, their analysis, and their writing had sharpened significantly since the beginning of term. I can tell you that as an Instructor, watching that development occur is just as rewarding. And it is encouraging to know that next time these students step into a museum, they will consider where those artifacts came from and how, and be better equipped to imagine the human lives that were animated by those ancient objects.

Author: Greg is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Department of Classics and Departmental Associate of the Royal Ontario Museum, where he is cataloguing, editing, and conserving an unpublished collection of Greek documentary papyri. With a PhD in the Study of Religion and speciality in Book History & Print Culture, Greg’s research centres on the material cultural dimensions of textuality and the place of the Book in ancient Mediterranean religion, especially early Christianity. You can learn more about his work here.

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