Drawing and painting illustrations of artefacts are one of my favourite past times. Artefacts are objects made or shaped by people. My interest in artefact illustration developed naturally after working in Peru as an archaeologist. Later, while working with children back home in Australia, I realised that this activity could potentially help children develop a basic understanding of the discipline. While resources are growing, archaeology is still underrepresented in the Australian curriculum and as a result, children tend to have a poor understanding of what archaeology is and how archaeologists investigate the past (Owen and Steele 2005).
There are many benefits of children learning about archaeology in the classroom, as Owen and Steele (2005) have highlighted. For example, it helps them conceptualise the past. Meanwhile, archaeology also employs mathematical, scientific, social and problem-solving skills.
In this story, I will outline how educators can include an artefact drawing activity in their lesson plans. This is not only fun but will potentially engage different learners in the classroom, including students who are more experienced-based learners. While studying and drawing ancient objects, they practise proportions and perspectives and also build word associations by considering an object’s shape, texture, colour, size as well as the materials and techniques used to make or shape them.
How do archaeologists study artefacts?
Artefacts are important sources of information. They can provide us with insight into the lifeways of people of the past, including their diet, weapons, and dress. In the field, archaeologists meticulously measure the context of an artefact, including its location. It is rare to find a complete artefact when digging; more often we find what most would call ‘rubbish’, broken and wore pieces and other fragments discarded by people. Later, in the laboratory, an artefact is examined, recorded and classified. Contemplating and interpreting the relationship between the artefact and its context helps us to reconstruct aspects of the past.
Archaeologists draw artefacts for a range of reasons, such as to create an illustration for a presentation, article or book. These are often technical drawings, meaning they are detailed and precise. While studying at university, I learnt how to draw technically with pen on paper. In more recent times, it has become common for archaeologists and illustrators to reproduce artefacts digitally using applications, such as Adobe Illustrator.
Recently, I realised that drawing artefacts also helps creative thinking. For example, while painting an Inkan liquid storage vessel a few months ago, I observed details about the vessel’s slip and decoration. This information inspired new ideas about the socio-cultural meaning of this vessel type.
Drawing artefacts in the classroom
In a classroom or at home, it is possible to facilitate an artefact drawing activity that is age-appropriate with basic and more elaborate resources.
A basic activity could include giving children a pack that includes photos of artefacts, along with their basic measurements (height, length and width, for example), paper and pens, crayons, textas or even paints. If possible, I recommend that you use an object, such as an artefact replica, related to the chosen topic. In the past, I have given workshops on topics, such as ancient Andean music, and used objects including ocarinas, small clay whistles and pan pipes. As part of the information pack, it is also important to include the object’s context, such as the culture it belongs to and where it was found, if known.
When teaching a group of children between the ages of six and eight, I suggest that you start the activity by giving each child a blank piece of paper and then share with the group the object and/or artefact photo. Don’t tell them what it is, but instead ask them to spend time observing the object, noting what they see, feel and hear. After five minutes or so, ask your students to draw their object using the chosen medium. This will no doubt produce some interesting and colourful results!
An important aim of this activity is to encourage the children to slow down and engage with the artefact. Then, you could ask your students to write a description of the artefact and/or give a short presentation during which they describe it and also explore what it tells us about the past and in particular, it’s function and meaning.
This activity can be repeated over time so that you can gradually add other educational dimensions. For example, students could be given rulers and scales at a later stage to help them practise making more precise measurements and incorporate these details into their drawings. For older students, who are learning to create drawings to scale, I suggest you give them graph paper.
While it is challenging to teach children about the past, it is a highly desirable and worthy cause. Learning about the past is vital to helping children develop their identity and contributes to their sense of belonging. It will greatly benefit our communities in the future too: as children learn to appreciate the past, they will gradually grow awareness of issues around heritage protection and will hopefully take steps to actively protect and conserve the remains of our past.
Tim Owen and Jody Steele 2005. “Perceptions of archaeology amongst primary school children, Adelaide, South Australia.” Australian Archaeology 61: 64–70.