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Ancient Mesopotamia: This History, Our History

University of Chicago Oriental Institute Museum

Reviewed by:
Nancy L. Stockdale
University of North Texas
October 2006

This website is a treasure trove of information and imagery beautifully presented and expertly organized. Established to guide educators in presenting clearly-conceived and meaningful information about ancient Mesopotamia, the project is successful in making relevant connections between the ancients and our own world, for the site’s designers consciously remind visitors that ancient Mesopotamia is modern Iraq.

The site presents four sections: a fine collection of Teaching Materials, including 16 full lesson plans; a Learning Collection of 142 artifacts and photographs of archeological sites; an Interactives section that presents interviews with three archeologists and detailed analyses of 13 artifacts; and a section entitled Life In Mesopotamia presenting details on 14 topics surrounding daily life in ancient Mesopotamia. All of these areas provide vital materials that will help students and educators alike in studying the lives of everyday people in ancient Iraq.

A central theme of the site, presented most prominently in the section devoted to everyday life, is the connection between the innovative inventions of Mesopotamians and their essential role in creating key features of civilization still central to our world today. Mesopotamian inventions such as large-scale agriculture, urbanization, centralized government, and writing are taken for granted by students; however, by learning the history of these and many other innovations that made civilization possible, students walk away with a more well-defined notion of how the study of ancient history relates to their own societies.

Such linkages between the past and the present are always a welcome aspect in any presentation of remote history, and in this case, are doubly welcome because they provide a proud and important history of Iraq that may counter the violent images students gain from media coverage of the now-war-torn nation.

Fourteen topics are explored in depth in the Life In Mesopotamia section, including Religion, The First Farmers, The Role of Women, and The Invention of Writing. Each topic is presented with an introductory essay, a variety of images and artifacts from the Oriental Institute’s collection, and links to lesson plans and related classroom activities. These plans are provided in easy-to-use, pdf formatted files, and include contact information for experts at the Chicago Historical Society.

Although it may be that only teachers in the Chicago area may take full advantage of field trip information, educators everywhere may utilize these online resources, giving the Oriental Institute far greater reach than possible prior to the Internet.

Another fantastic element of this website that brings the museum experience a bit closer to the computer-savvy classroom is the Interactives section. To use this section, educators and students must have Shockwave, Flash, and QuickTime plug-ins installed on their computers. By doing so, they have access to a wide range of interviews with the Oriental Institute’s director, its conservator, and prominent Assyriologist Dr. Martha Roth.

Topics include the significance of the Code of Hammurabi and a comparison between its laws and the laws of modern societies, the methods museum curators use to preserve and display ancient artifacts, and the real-life application of archeological pursuits in reference to ancient Mesopotamian sites such as Lamassu. There are 13 interactive artifact explorations as well. For example, An Ancient Pull Toy allows website visitors to explore the usages of children’s toys in Mesopotamia in ways that simulate their original usage, an invaluable tool for making the artifact come alive for modern students.

Teachers of world history will definitely appreciate the Learning Collection unit of the website. The 142 artifacts and photographs of archeological sites have been expertly presented, cross-referenced, and explained for educators and students to easily access and study. Visitors may search by name, or browse the collection by the material used, the type of object, the time period, cultural themes, or the location where the object in question was found. For instance, a search for “clay tablet” calls up 76 results, including cuneiform tablets and stellae, various pieces of pottery, children’s toys, school homework assignments, and religious figurines, all made from clay.

Each object is then accessible by zoomable photos, cross-referenced to related artifacts, pinpointed on a map revealing the location of its discovery, and presented alongside suggested supplementary reading. Discussion questions are also provided, allowing teachers to use ready-made inquiries to get students engaged in class conversations. These questions could also be useful as homework assignments.

Finally, the site presents a fantastic Teaching Materials section. With clear directions on how to use the resources, teachers may choose from 16 well-conceived lesson plans that inspire maximum usage of the resources on the site. The lesson plans also provide fine assignments for inside and outside the classroom, such as having students write about their opinions regarding the greatest contributions of the Mesopotamians to our world’s heritage, helping students do research on the way Mesopotamian innovations compare with modern ones (such as ancient and modern brain surgery, record keeping, and the status of women in society), and watching films that boldly illustrate Mesopotamian life (such as the acclaimed documentary The Glassmakers of Herat.)

One of the most relevant lesson plans for the purpose of the site (that is, linking the history of ancient Mesopotamia to the modern world), is a Symbols From History assignment that prompts students to research the use of ancient symbols in modern Iraq using newspapers articles, library visits, and the Internet. Such assignments not only assist student learning about the ancient past, but heighten awareness about current events as well. Finally, a detailed list of how each lesson plan synchronizes with the National Council for the Social Studies Curriculum Standards is a welcome addition for K-12 educators.

This website is a welcome addition for scholars, educators, and students of world history. The interactive archeological dig and enhanced Flash presentations on ancient sites in Iraq make this site especially useful as a teaching tool. By providing visual, written, and interactive information about ancient Mesopotamia and modern Iraq, as well as making the linkages between the ancient past and contemporary life, the designers of this website have given world history educators a fantastic gift that will surely be appreciated and copied.

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