An Educator’s Handbook for Teaching about the Ancient World

Pınar Durgun, ed., An Educator’s Handbook for Teaching about the Ancient World (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2020). 9781789697605; 9781789697612.

Reviewed by Erika M. Jeck, Collegiate School,

An Educator’s Handbook for Teaching about the Ancient World is an exciting gift to ancient history teachers of all age groups (primary through post-secondary) looking for new ideas for hands-on, curiosity-sparking lessons. This handbook contains two parts: Section One comprises pedagogical essays, which together create a compelling dialogue on the educational value of open-access resources and multimodal learning, particularly through object-based lessons, visual and material culture, and digital resources; Section Two is a collection of innovative classroom activities and assignments that incorporate the pedagogical principles laid out in Section One.

Across the large field of ancient history textbooks and teaching aids, at present there is not much quite like An Educator’s Handbook—far less that is free and fully available online. (In fact, the online edition of this text surpasses the hard copy with its innumerable helpful hyperlinks.) Despite living in the heyday of edited “companion” texts on myriad topics within ancient history,[1] there is a relative dearth of published work on best practices in the actual teaching of ancient history. Pedagogical texts for history in general can be found in droves; however, small attention is usually paid to the ancient world (which arguably, in teaching as in research, requires its own methodology). The field of archaeology has generated much more literature on teaching methods[2] and lesson ideas,[3] while the fields of Classics and ancient Mediterranean history have seen some recent work in this area as well.[4] Because of its emphasis on using material culture, An Educator’s Handbook naturally has an archaeological bent, but its broader focus on ancient world history helps fill other gaps in pedagogical literature as well. Moreover, An Educator’s Handbook offers creative ideas for leveraging technology in the classroom at a time when more museum collections and digital archives are becoming available online to the public. These fresh ideas can help current teachers overcome the challenges and limitations of teaching during a pandemic.

What further sets this handbook apart is the fact that the essays and lessons are primarily written by experts in their respective fields. While teacher’s edition textbooks often contain guided discussion questions and supplementary background information, at the secondary level, these are not necessarily written by experts in the field as they are in Section Two of An Educator’s Handbook. This book therefore helps bridge a gap between secondary education and current academic research. Furthermore, while interactive lesson plans for ancient history can be found aplenty online, many are placed behind paywalls and, again, not created by experts.[5] The idea that teachers, almost universally underpaid and overworked at any level, should spend their own income on lesson plans is galling; the fact that so many “pay-to-play” lesson packages nevertheless exist speaks to the high demand for such resources. Thus, as stated at the outset, An Educator’s Handbook is an incredible, open-access gift to teachers everywhere.

The stated goals of this volume are to (1) reveal the inherent diversity within and between ancient societies; (2) provide accessible, inclusive teaching methods and lessons; (3) affirm the value of student-centered, hands-on learning; and (4) showcase a “transparent, respectful, and collaborative peer-review process” (9). The last of these strongly resonates with the intellectual and professional aims of Rhea Classical Reviews; others seeking alternative modes of peer review and knowledge production within academia will be interested to read about the open-review process used for this volume (see the “Editor’s Note,” 9). The editor, Pınar Durgun, expresses some doubt over how well the first goal was achieved, self-diagnosing an over-emphasis on the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia, and offers hopes that a potential second volume may correct the balance (11–12). The second and third goals are accomplished handily.

Section One (“Pedagogical Essays”) opens with Durgun’s own persuasive writing on “Why Should We Teach and Learn about the Ancient World?,” which not only answers its titular question by discussing how ancient history proffers lessons in resilience, empathy, and human ingenuity (lessons perhaps not exclusive to ancient history, but valid points nonetheless), but also tackles another vital yet implicit question: why should learning be student-driven, object-based, and hands-on? Here, Durgun surveys recent research and recounts personal experience on how incorporating material culture into interactive lessons activates sensory memory and leads students to confront more complex questions.

The essays that follow Durgun’s pick up these themes and discuss them in greater detail: Jen Thum (“Activating the Ancient World with Museum Collections”) establishes principles for successfully conducting object-based learning activities; Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod (“Tools for Digital Pedagogy and the Ancient World”) delivers a guide to online ancient history resources and expounds the benefits of multimedia education; Hannah M. Herrick (“Dig Doodles: Teaching Archaeology through Accessible Illustrations”) discusses the advantages of using illustrations over other visual representations, especially in teaching archaeological methodology or exploring ancient sites; and Robyn Price (“Inspiring Student Motivation through Multimodal Learning”), noting that different modes of learning are “socially, culturally, and historically contextual” (54), challenges traditional “verbocentric” pedagogy by highlighting the positive effects of multimodal projects on student learning and motivation. In “Open Access to Ancient Worlds: Why Open Practices Matter,” Alena Buis presents an incisive critique of survey textbooks (in short: too expensive and too many blind spots) and pointedly makes the case that Open Educational Resources (OER) should replace them, not only as a cost-saving measure but also as a step toward more responsive, up-to-date learning. Further, Buis argues, this models the use and value of open collaboration in the production of knowledge, which can be reinforced through class projects that are collaborative and intended for audiences beyond the teacher (as opposed to so-called “disposable assignments” that have no life after the class concludes). The contribution from Nicholas C. Laluk and Mark R. Agostini (“Collaborative Archaeology in the U.S.: Research Experiences from the American Southwest as Pedagogy”) may at first seem like an outlier amongst the other essays, as it discusses at length how archaeologists can and should build productive, reciprocal relationships with Indigenous American groups and maximize benefits to tribal communities through this work. But this essay, perhaps even more than others, speaks strongly to the handbook’s explicit goals of fostering greater diversity and inclusivity in ancient history education, and presents an important challenge to all history educators: to better contextualize ancient societies in the longue durée of history and connect historical places with living peoples for whom that history holds personal, present meaning.

Section Two (“Teaching Activities”) contains thirty-three classroom activities and assignments, divided into nine categories: “Food and Agriculture”; “Art, Craft, Materials, and Makers”; “Architecture”; “Language, Writing, and Texts”; “Religion, Myth, Medicine, and Magic”; “Gender and Identity”; “Games, Warfare, and Politics”; “Death and Burial”; and “Archaeological and Digital Methodologies.”

Most impressive are the activities that craft experiences wherein students learn complex, abstract ideas firsthand—ideas that would be much harder to grasp or fully appreciate from only a lecture or textbook. For example, Tine Rassalle (“Dolls and Archaeological Interpretation”) has students describe and discuss dolls to determine which identifiers are culturally constructed rather than objective (e.g., the color pink is not an objective identifier of female gender). This simple activity effortlessly helps students understand the concept of “culturally constructed,” an idea less immediately meaningful when passively encountered in a book or lecture. Gabriel Moss and Peter Raleigh (“Imperialism and Rebellion on the Roman Frontier: Boudicca’s Revolt”) place students in a realpolitik simulation of Boudicca’s rebellion. Divided into groups representing different kingdoms facing conquest, students must juggle competing goals, thereby learning on an intuitive level the complex hurdles to fighting imperialism—or, as the authors put it, learning that “Boudicca’s rebellion was more than a bilateral conflict,” and “that their conception of other historical events may be similarly oversimplified” (180). Both Kathryn McConaughy Medill and Stephanie Selover similarly use roleplay to teach critical lessons about the nature and limits of primary sources. Medill (“Multi-lingualism: What Language Should We Choose?”) uses roleplay in Egyptian-conquered Canaan to teach students not to take for granted the form our evidence takes, but to consider the historical and cultural circumstances that shape language use. Selover (“Reenacting the Battle of Kadesh”) has students recreate the Battle of Kadesh twice, first following an Egyptian narrative, then following a Hittite narrative, and both times leaving their “armor” on the classroom “battlefield.” Students thereby come to realize on their own that archaeology is no “handmaiden to history,” that there are limits to both written testimony and archaeological evidence, and that both must be used appropriately.

A few activities conveniently build upon each other and could be combined into a single extended lesson or teaching unit. Shannon Martino’s activity (“Vessel Forms and Functions”) could be paired in this way with Maggie Beeler, Sarah Barack, Beth Edelstein, and Chelsea A. M. Gardner (“Ancient Greek Vase Painting: Production and Conservation”) to create a unit on ceramics and their conservation. Sara Mohr and Willis Monroe (“How Were Clay Tablets Made and How Does Cuneiform Work?”) could likewise be coupled with Klaus Wagensonner (“Writing a Cuneiform Letter”) for an extended lesson on the forms and uses of cuneiform writing.

The majority of these lessons seem to be written with older students in mind: of the thirty-three activities, twenty-five are intended for high school students (ages 14–18) or older; seven are explicitly post-secondary. This is presumably and understandably the result of the volume’s contributors being primarily drawn from the ranks of graduate students and professors-—and as noted earlier, their expertise sets this handbook apart from similar teaching aids. Nevertheless, it is perhaps worth noting that, at least in the United States, ancient history is typically taught at the middle school level (roughly ages 11–14), after which many students may never be formally re-exposed to ancient history.[6] An Educator’s Handbook could more directly serve this significant age group if more contributors outlined ways of meaningfully tailoring lesson plans for younger students. Beeler, Barack, Edelstein, and Gardner do an excellent job of just this, providing clear guidelines for adapting their lesson to different grade levels.

Along these same lines, the accessibility of An Educator’s Handbook could be improved if more authors expanded the “General background/information” section of their lessons. One of the great benefits of this book is that non-specialist teachers (at any level) can easily implement information and ideas that they might not otherwise encounter in whatever introductory texts they are likely to consult while preparing for class. Martino’s discussion of open and closed vessel shapes is a good example of the level of background explanation that would be handy for non-specialists, even going so far as to specify which weblinks will provide further information on related topics. Some lessons within this collection, however, perhaps assume greater prior knowledge than a secondary teacher, or postsecondary teacher covering material outside their own subject area, is likely to have. For example, a quick explanation from Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod (“Curating a Digital Egyptian Necropolis”) of changing funerary rituals in Egypt would be helpful. This information can be found within the provided weblinks, but supplying a condensed version within the activity plan itself would be more user-friendly. Also, it is unclear how accessible these weblinks—presented as hyperlinked text rather than URLs—are in the printed edition. Similarly, further guidance or commentary would also be appreciated in some of the lesson plans’ discussion questions. For example, in “How and Why Was the Royal Game of Ur Played?,” one of the learning outcomes Shane M. Thompson lists is “Discuss how a board game can connect to religion.” A non-specialist teacher and their students can certainly ponder this question together, but it would be useful to know what connections the author has observed from their expert viewpoint.

These suggestions would only make an already generously helpful collection even more readily usable by a wider audience; as it stands, the teaching activities of Section Two already have something for everyone. Many of the more complex lessons can be adapted or serve as inspiration for teachers of younger age groups (for example, an age-appropriate version of Cynthia Shafer-Elliott’s “The Iron Age House of Graham Crackers” would assuredly be a huge hit amongst lower and middle school students). More invested readers can overcome any lack of background information by exploring linked sources and doing their own research. What is far more important is that all of the lessons provided in Section Two admirably incorporate the pedagogical principles set out in Section One.

An Educator’s Handbook is a timely and valuable resource. It is labeled as “Volume 1”; many will surely look forward to a Volume 2. In the meantime, I urge fellow educators to follow Durgun’s own advice for expressing enthusiasm and gratitude (10): share observations or photos from your own implementation of a lesson on the Educator’s Handbook website, give a shout-out on social media using #teachancient, or send a quick note of thanks to an author whose lesson came in handy.

Table of Contents

Editor’s Notes and Acknowledgements (8–12)

Section 1: Pedagogical Essays

“Introduction: Why Should We Teach and Learn about the Ancient World?” / Pınar Durgun (14–24)
“Activating the Ancient World with Museum Collections” / Jen Thum (25–36)
“Dig Doodles: Teaching Archaeology through Accessible Illustrations” / Hannah M. Herrick (37–45)
“Open Access to Ancient Worlds: Why Open Practices Matter” / Alena Buis (46–51)
“Inspiring Student Motivation through Multimodal Learning” / Robyn Price (52–67)
“Tools for Digital Pedagogy and the Ancient World” / Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod (68–85)
“Collaborative Archaeology in the U.S.: Research Experiences from the American Southwest as Pedagogy” / Nicholas C. Laluk and Mark R. Agostini (86–104)

Section 2: Teaching Activities

“Identifying Centers of Domestication” / Christopher W. Jones (106–8)
“Life on the Farm: How Can We Reconstruct Past Agricultural Choices?” / Jennifer Bates (109–11)
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Carving and Using Seals” / Erhan Tamur and Pınar Durgun (112–14)
“Carving Ancient Egyptian Reliefs” / Jen Thum (115–17)
“Making Lions at Babylon” / Anastasia Amrhein and Elizabeth Knott (118–20)
“Ancient Greek Vase Painting: Production and Conservation” / Maggie Beeler, Sarah Barack, Beth Edelstein, and Chelsea A. M. Gardner (121–24)
“Roman Portraiture: #veristic, #classicizing” / Alena Buis (125–27)
“How and Why Did Babylonians Use Quicklime?” / Sandra Heinsch, Walter Kuntner, and Wilfrid Allinger-Csollich (128–30)
“Playing Architect: Designing Ancient Structures” / Carl Walsh (131–32)
“The Iron Age House of Graham Crackers” / Cynthia Shafer-Elliott (133–34)
“How Were Clay Tablets Made and How Does Cuneiform Work?” / Sara Mohr and Willis Monroe (135–37)
“Writing a Cuneiform Letter” / Klaus Wagensonner (138–40)
“Multi-lingualism: What Language Should We Choose?” / Kathryn McConaughy Medill (141–43)
“Rosetta Stone” / Christian Casey (144–45)
“Tabula Rasa: Experiencing the Roman Wax Tablet” / Nathalie Roy (146–48)
“Creating Personalized Anthologies Using Primary Sources” / Victoria Pichugina (149–50)
“The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Value of Friendship” / Leticia Rovira and Cecilia Molla (151–53)
“What’s Up Doc? Diagnosing & Treating Illness in Antiquity” / Chelsea A. M. Gardner and Maggie Beeler (154–56)
“Demon Traps! Making Late Antique Incantation Bowls” / Helen Dixon (157–59)
“Council of Nicaea: A Lesson on Christology” / Nicholas Cross (160–62)
“Dolls and Archaeological Interpretation” / Tine Rassalle (163–65)
“Figurine Out Ancient Identities” / Anastasia Amrhein (166–68)
“Build Your Own Exhibition: Women at the Dawn of History” / Elizabeth Knott, Agnete W. Lassen, and Klaus Wagensonner (169–72)
“How and Why Was the Royal Game of Ur Played?” / Shane M. Thompson (173–74)
“Reenacting the Battle of Kadesh” / Stephanie Selover (175–77)
“Imperialism and Rebellion on the Roman Frontier: Boudicca’s Revolt” / Gabriel Moss and Peter Raleigh (178–80)
“How Were Mesoamerican Ball Games Played?” / Shane M. Thompson and Carl Walsh (181–83)
“Plastered Skulls and Commemoration” / Pınar Durgun (184–86)
“Curating a Digital Egyptian Necropolis” / Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod (187–89)
“Humanizing Roman History and Tragedy” / Anna Accettola (190–92)
“Vessel Forms and Functions” / Shannon Martino (193–95)
“Virtual Museum Exhibit: Humanizing the Past in the Present” / Nadia Ben-Marzouk (196–98)
“Podcast for Public Engagement” / Nadia Ben-Marzouk and Danielle Candelora (199–201)


[1] E.g., the Cambridge Companion, Routledge Companion, and Oxford Handbook series.

[2] Hannah L. Cobb and Karina Croucher, Assembling Archaeology: Teaching, Practice, and Research (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020); Susan J. Bender and Phyllis Mauch Messenger, eds., Pedagogy and Practice in Heritage Studies (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019); Katherine M. Erdman, ed., Public Engagement and Education: Developing and Fostering Stewardship for an Archaeological Future (New York: Berghahn, 2019); Mike Corbishley, Pinning Down the Past: Archaeology, Heritage and Education Today, (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2011); Paul Rainbird and Yannis Hamilakis, eds., Interrogating Pedagogies: Archaeology in Higher Education. Lampeter Workshop in Archaeology (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2001); Karolyn Smardz and Shelley J. Smith, eds., The Archaeology Education Handbook: Sharing the Past With Kids (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press in cooperation with the Society for American Archaeology, 2000).

[3] John R. White and Mattie Oveross, Hands-On Archaeology: Authentic Learning Experiences That Engage Students in STEM, 2nd ed. (Waco, TX: Prufrock Press, 2019); Heather Burke and Claire Smith, eds., Archaeology to Delight and Instruct: Active Learning in the University Classroom (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2007). In addition, many museums (e.g., the American Museum of Natural History, the Oriental Institute, the British Museum) host lesson plans online, as do some archaeological institutions (e.g., the Archaeological Institute of America, the Joukowsky Institute at Brown University). 

[4] Bartolo Natoli and Steven Hunt, eds., Teaching Classics with Technology (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019); Gabriel Bodard and Matteo Romanello, eds., Digital Classics Outside the Echo-Chamber: Teaching, Knowledge Exchange and Public Engagement (London: Ubiquity Press, 2016); James Morwood, ed., The Teaching of Classics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). 

[5] E.g., the Hands-on History trade book series or the vast number of posts on

[6] Of the thirty-eight states that have state-mandated (and well-published) content sequences for social studies, thirty require ancient history in middle school but not in high school; four states require ancient in middle and high school, although three of the four high school courses are a single year of world history (ancient to present day); and four states require ancient in high school only, though again, three are “Plato to NATO” world history. (Information collected from individual state board of education websites.) The trend to drop premodern history from high school curricula will presumably increase, since in 2019 the College Board altered their AP World History program to begin in 1200 CE.  


1. This book does an excellent job making the case for (in “Section 1: Pedagogical Essays”) —and helping teachers achieve (in “Section 2: Teaching Activities”)—greater diversity and accessibility in ancient history education, especially at the level of individual activities and lesson plans. How would you approach or implement this same goal at the broader level of curriculum design or departmental course requirements (at primary, secondary, and/or post-secondary levels)?

One of the things I advocate for and tried to emphasize in this volume was collaborative teaching. My wish would be that it becomes a common practice to design and teach our classes and curriculum, at any level, in collaboration with others. And by others, I mean not just academics or teachers. When I taught an undergraduate course on death and burial at Brown University, I invited a guest speaker every other week. The guests included museum educators, filmmakers, and medical professionals who had varied experiences with the subject. This allowed students to see how classroom knowledge applied to the world outside the classroom. No educator is an expert or authority on every subject they teach. Teaching should be about sharing authority, letting students see different kinds of knowledge, backgrounds, values, and biases. This approach empowers students to value their own voices and be critical of what they know and are taught.

Collaborative teaching is even easier now that we can invite anyone in the world to our classroom over Zoom. I highly recommend using platforms like Connect with an ExpertSkype a ScientistRequest a Woman ScientistWomen Also Know History, and Women of Ancient History, and to reach out to people in your communities to make your curriculum more collaborative and to include more voices. 

2. My one (and only!) criticism of this volume is that, for some entries in “Section 2:  Teaching Activities,” to increase usability for a wider range of audiences, the “General Background” section should have been expanded to include more detail. With more in-depth information at their fingertips, non-specialist teachers could more easily and meaningfully incorporate these lessons into their curriculum. With this critique in mind, would you like to share your thoughts on the process by which this book came together, including any limitations or hurdles encountered? 

It is a fair assessment that the general information sections could have been longer. There was no word limit based on the sections, but I decided to keep every activity to 2–4 pages so that the book could be published in a size that would fit in your hand or bag so that you could easily carry it to your class or make photocopies. To provide readily accessible contextual information, all educators listed a bibliography and open-access sources (such as museum websites and online articles). The idea was to give educators some essential information in the “General Background” section and a starting point with these additional sources if they need more specific information.

It was a challenge to provide a brief yet concise general background. But this book would not be practical as a 1,000-page “doorstopper” and it would not be affordable (the current printed book is $40, £30). The open-access online version of the book is free, but I assumed some school libraries would want to buy a physical copy. So the price had to be kept relatively low. But for the next volume, I will consider this criticism.

2a. Who do you imagine the primary audience of this book to be (e.g., secondary teachers, museum programs staff, college professors)? 

All of the above! I have taught in schools, museums, and universities, and I believe that any educator can use these activities. We provided a “level of students” section for each activity, but educators can certainly adopt or adapt activities based on the age group, audience, and subject they are teaching. Sometimes hands-on activities are looked down upon in higher education for being “childish”; however, in my experience, both as a student and instructor, I can say that graduate students enjoy a good hands-on activity as much as third-graders do. So do adults learning about the ancient world in museums. 

2b. How do you envision that audience primarily utilizing this book (e.g., step-by-step instructions or general pedagogical inspiration)?

Not every activity will work for every course or level, which is why we tried to provide some suggestions where these activities would work the best in the notes. Ancient world teaching happens outside of schools and classrooms, in libraries, community centers, correction facilities, social media, and other online platforms. So our suggestions and directions may fall short in some contexts. But I hope that when the activities do not work well for an instructor’s needs, they can still be inspired by the variety of subjects that can be turned into engaging activities or find something useful in the additional sources. My other hope is that there will be a second volume with activities by instructors who teach in contexts that this volume did not cover.

Thank you! I appreciate you selecting this book to review and your thoughtful criticism and questions. I would also like to thank everyone at Rhea Classical Reviews for having this open review and showing the possibilities of a productive and constructive review process.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s