Mesopotamian Clay Tablet and Relief Carving

I created this lesson to integrate with the 6th grade social studies curriculum on ancient world cultures.  We compared Mesopotamian clay tablet and reed stylus to today's electronic tablet and plastic stylus.   Students found out that they have very similar functions!  The Mesopotamian clay tablets were used to record business transactions, tell stories, play games, teach writing and math, do research, record musical notes, etc.  When the clay tablet was wet, it's very easy to erase a mistake just by swiping it with your finger.  They wrote with a stylus, we now sometimes use a stylus on our tablet.  About the only major difference is that they did not have the internet or WIFI.  The clay tablet is much more environmentally friendly by comparison.  It was an extremely effective means of communication for thousands of years.

For this class, every student got a block of clay, a bamboo stylus and a reference sheet on Mesopotamian alphabets to work with.  I chopped down the skinny bamboo branches from my backyard, and sharpened the ends into a triangular shape so they look like the reed styluses used by the ancient Mesopotamian scribes.


Below are clay tablets with relief sculpture and cuneiform created by my 6th grade students.  They made bas relief sculptures of important Mesopotamian symbols such as the sun, the tree of life, the eagle and the lion, then they made cuneiform imprint using a bamboo stylus.  Their cuneiform writing says their name and the date they created this tablet, some even wrote short sentences.


Egyptian Tomb Carving

In this lesson, students learned how ancient Egyptian thinking were influenced by the land they lived in, from the annual birth and the rebirth of the River Nile to the harsh conditions of the desert.  All these were documented colorfully in mythologies later written down by the Greeks. These mythologies, passed down orally for thousands of years, taught the Egyptians how to live in life and more importantly, in life after death.  The 6th graders used ancient Egyptian symbols, geography, hieroglyphs, images of mythological figures and pharaohs to simulate an Egyptian tomb carving.

We used 4" x 6" Amaco balsa foam blocks and either a pencil or a wooden stylus to create these carving.  The foam blocks are very easy to carve on, but they are very dusty.  I gave each student a cardboard tray to catch the dust.  I made sure that they don't blow on the dust or sneeze on their blocks while they are carving, instead they should tap on the foam block to shake the dust off onto the tray.


The Hero of a Thousand Faces

I used the title from Joseph Campbell's book to describe this lesson because I was fascinated by these ancient faces, how did people from the past from all over the world come up with these heroic and fantastic faces?  As an art history major, I was taught that the Chinese Taotie, the face that appears on thousands of ancient bronzes, is likely a combination of different animals that have special properties.  The Taotie is understood to be either a gluttonous ogre or a guardian against gluttony.  As many of these bronzes were ritual vessels, do these faces have the power to transport the person performing the rite from one world to the next?  We compared and contrasts the Chinese Taotie to the Maori ritual face masks and facial tattoos (which are used to show power and social status) and the Burmese women face tattoos (which are used to ward off evil spirits), and then to the Kala head on Indonesian temples (which shows the creative and destructive powers of the universe), and the Greek head of Medusa on Athena's shield, the head of the sun god in the Maya calendar, etc.  We found that the world over, different cultures have similarities in the way they regard the power of the face.  

For this class, I bought big rolls of heavy duty aluminum foil from eNasco, used a paper cutter to cut them down to 12 inch squares, and have the students carved a decorative, powerful, heroic face on it.  We then wrapped the foil on a paper plate to make a shield out of it.  Students were also excited to use foil scraps, masking tape and recycled paper to make weapons and crowns.



Ancient Greek Pottery

As early as 6,000 B.C., people in ancient Greece began making pottery.  Some 100,000+ pieces of vases, wine vessels, and prize cups for athletic games winners, etc. have been recorded from the classical era. The potteries were used for both ornamental and practical purposes.  Large amphoras would be used to hold olives, olive oil, honey, and wine.  A Panathenaic Games (a version of the Olympic Games) winner would be awarded an amphora filled with 10 gallons of the best olive oil.  The winner of the chariot race received as a prize one-hundred and forty "Panathenaic Amphorae" full of olive oil, a great honor indeed!  

Black figure painting of Medusa

Black figure painting of Medusa

Red figure painting of Hercules carrying his club and wearing his lion skin

Red figure painting of Hercules carrying his club and wearing his lion skin

Students learned about the four main periods in ancient Greek pottery: 1) the Minoan/Mycenaean period, 2) the geometric period, 3) the orientalizing period and 4) the Archaic period in which the black and red figure painting were most popular.  They then created a an ancient Greek themed artwork on scratch paper simulating the black and red figure pottery.

This is another version of the Greek Vase Painting class that I tried out this year.  I bought these square tiles from Nasco, they are white tiles with a film of black glaze on it.  I gave the students templates of Greek-themed images such as Hercules, Medusa, Athena, centaurs, sphinxes, owl which is the symbol of Athena, and sea animals like the octopus which was a popular motif at the time.  Students transferred the images onto tile using carbon paper.  They then used a wooden stylus to carved out the lines and the background. I then fired the clay.  The result is quite stunning!


Indian Mandala

Mandala is a Sanskrit word that means “circle”, or if taken apart, manda means “essence” and la means “bottle”.  We are each a mandala in the sense that we are a container of our thoughts and well-being.  As a community, we are also collectively a mandala – we are a diverse community that comes together, works, plays and lives together, and has similar hopes and wishes despite our differences and uniqueness.  Our middle school students learned that the mandala is a Hindu/Buddhist symbol for one to meditate upon, but if you look deeply, the mandala is everywhere – in a slice of orange, in a snowflake, in architecture such as the Indian stupa, the Roman oculus and the rose window of a Catholic cathedral.  It is a universal symbol for people to center their minds and create personal meaning. 


My 6th, 7th and 8th grade students created mandalas using recycled CDs, sharpie and 3-D fabric paint.  On one side of the CD, students created symbols for the three qualities they'd most like to have such as strength, peacefulness, happiness.  On the other side of the CD, they put down one wish or hope they have for the world.  The reflective nature of the CD is used by the students to project their hopes and wishes into the world.  This mandala project was chosen to be part of the 2nd Annual Arts Splash at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, Ca.


Ancient Roman Board Game (Ludus Latrunculorum)

The 6th graders created this 2,000 year old Roman board game Ludus Latrunculorum, which can be translated into plain English as The Game of Highway Robbery. We made the game board with a piece of canvas cloth, measured and drew the grids with a sharpie, and created all the pieces with Model Magic. It was extremely fun for the students to make and fun to play, and they can wrap all their pieces up in the cloth and take them home. I got the idea of this project from this YouTube video, thank you, Storm the Castle: