In the introductory anthropology class, “Food and Fire,” students’ coursework follows what is essentially the story of human evolution as told through tools of technology.
These tools—made from stone, pottery, textiles, and metal—were used by humans’ earliest ancestors to pound, cut, burn, and cook things.
But students don’t just look at these objects from the Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology collections. They also gain a deep understanding of objects by picking them up and turning them over in their hands, through close examination, and by drawing, photographing, and weighing them. They’re able to see texture and dirt on tools, chips and paint on plates, and carved faces of figurines.
This close proximity to the items themselves, called object-based learning, often brings out the best in students, says course instructor Katherine Moore, Mainwaring teaching specialist in the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM) at the Penn Museum.
While Moore says she loves a well-structured lecture, students tend to dive deeper with hands-on work.
“Object-based learning was a natural for the way I have always learned and practiced in the field, and it was a natural for being able to present to the students both the kinds of fresh materials of life—the bone, the seeds, the bread, the fruit, the grinding of the tubers—that kind of thing and making better use of the archaeological material,” says Moore, who was recently awarded a School of Arts & Sciences’ Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching by Affiliated Faculty.
The class shows students all of the analytic approaches covered by CAAM, including zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, human skeletal analysis, ceramics, lithics (stone tools), and archaeometallurgy. Since very few students enrolled in the course have done any work of this kind before, Moore says they first learn how to write, draw, measure, and interpret others’ drawings and measurements. Students also get object-handling training, which allows them to have hands-on access for the whole semester.
“Food and Fire” has been offered twice before—once in the fall of 2014 to 14 students, and again in the fall of 2015 to a larger group of 40. Moore will lead the course again this fall; 56 students have signed up for the course.
Rather than provide a general overview of numerous ancient cultures and objects—something that could be overwhelming for the novice anthropology students—Moore and her assistants in the classroom show how CAAM staffers work together and what archeological science covers.
“I spent a week with the students in the classroom giving them a good understanding of how we study ceramics, not just from the point of view of style or morphology, but the key questions that we can answer by looking at them more in depth,” says Marie-Claude Boileau, CAAM laboratory coordinator, teaching specialist for ceramic analysis, and a ceramics expert. “[I want] students to see different sites, different cultures, but not be overwhelmed by the diversity of cultures.”
Boileau says she has the students attempt to answer questions of provenance and technology, or where and how pottery was made.
“We learn a lot by looking at ceramics in the lab setting,’” says Boileau. “Within a week, students really get a good understanding of the main questions that we’re trying to address, the main tools that we’re using to address these questions, the type of data that we get, and then the interpretation.”
The students’ final project is to pick a singular object (from several selected from the Museum’s various collections by Moore), and describe and analyze it. Last semester, Moore chose Etruscan plates gathered from 19th and early 20th century Museum excavations, bronze objects, figurines, and intricately decorated bone pins from mummies in Peru (which proved to be the most popular choice among students’ final projects).
Moore says people don’t need to excavate an item in order to appreciate it—but she does recognize that students can more easily connect to objects when they talk about familiar things.
“I want them to learn and love the objects for themselves, to become familiar with the old-fashioned science that we do, and practice that old-fashioned science, and get them to be educated consumers of all of the things they’ll learn about in their lives, or see in any museum, or see in any new building,” says Moore. “Visual information is very important to us.”