Course Building: Ancient Art

May 23, 2011

Just a quick little update for you. Today I begin major preparations for the Ancient Art course I will be teaching this fall. I have finally amassed what I hope will be enough texts and other sources to create just the right balance of readings and images. A unique challenge my chair threw at me when she offered me this course was to include some non-Western Ancient Art. Specifically, she wants a lesson on Central Africa. This is unusual as Ancient Art courses typically cover Egypt and the Ancient Near East, but otherwise stick to regions which are now a part of Europe. My problem is that there are no texts (at least none that I have found) which include Central Africa along with the more traditional Ancient materials. I have found a supplement and hope it will pan out. And since I am already going non-Western, I decided to include a section on Ancient Mesoamerica (particularly the Mayans) as well.

One thing I am thrilled to include in the course is a trip to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. Located just twenty minutes from my campus, UPenn has one of the greatest collections of ancient artifacts in the North America. I plan to spend a day there with my students and will send them on a sort of scavenger hunt throughout the museum. One thing they will definitely need to see is the granite sphinx, the third largest in the world. I will also take a research trip to the museum myself prior to the semester starting because UPenn’s collection includes artifacts from both Central Africa and the Mayans!

As I am in the early planning stages still, I pose a question to my fellow art historians. If you have taught an Ancient Art class before, what sorts of lessons did you plan? Did any of you cover non-Western art? Have any tips for a newbie?

Sphinx, Memphis (Palace of Merenptah), Dynasty 19,
Reigns of Rameses II-Merenptah
(1279-1204 BCE), University of Pennsylvania
Museum of Archeology and Anthropology

Update: It occurred to me later that Sub-Sahara Africa is more accurate than Central Africa. However, I plan to limit myself to peoples and artifacts dating no later than the fall of the Roman Empire. Otherwise, it would just get too crazy. The same goes for Mesoamerica. The Aztecs are interesting, but far too late to be covered in an Ancient Art class.

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Alberti's Window May 23, 2011 at 4:54 PM

I was in your exact position last summer, since my colleagues requested that I created an ancient art course that requires “more critical thinking” than a typical survey course. Will you be teaching an introductory or upper-level class?

I spent many, many weeks last summer reviewing textbooks, trying to find an ancient art text which encourages critical thinking. And in the end, I didn’t really find anything that was completely satisfactory. I’ve ended up teaching part of my ancient course with Stokstad’s “Art History,” and supplemented those lectures with in-depth case studies. There are some interesting ancient art case studies at the beginning of “Feminism and Art History” (edited by Broude and Garrard) which I thought were still simple enough for an introductory class.

Other popular lectures in my ancient class have been on the Greeks. We spent a whole day analyzing how (and why!) our perception of Greek art is different than what the Greeks intended. For example, we critiqued writers like Winckelmann who praised the “pure and simple” quality of white marble statues, when in fact the Greeks painted their statues in bright colors.

When teaching about the Parthenon, I also like stage a debate regarding the current situation of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. My students are assigned to support either the side of Athens or London, in arguing where the statues should be located. That also tends to be a pretty interesting discussion, and students appreciate being able to relate the topic to a contemporary issue.

If you ever want suggestions for supplementary texts, email me! I’d be happy to save someone all of the trouble that I undertook last summer.


Erin May 23, 2011 at 8:53 PM

Thanks so much for your help Monica! The course is only a 200 level survey, but it is also the only Ancient Art course being taught and it hasn’t been offered in five years. So it needs to be fairly comprehensive. It is also being offered as a night class, so the lessons have to be somewhat condensed.

I am torn between Stokstad and Gardner’s. I am not sold on the format of the Stokstad, but Gardner’s is strictly a Western perspective. I did find a helpful introduction relating Western and non-Western art history and thought it would make a great introductory reading/discussion to set up the framework of the class. It would provide a good foundation for my lessons on Africa and Mesoamerica.

I love the idea of a debate about the Elgin Marbles. It is definitely one of my favorite stories. I do a similar debate about Richard Serra “Tilted Arc” in the 1980′s for my general survey.

I also found a text called “The World of Ancient Art” which should supplement my own knowledge and texts on Western art. I anticipate a fairly long summer of prep, but if there are certain articles you found particularly helpful I would really appreciate their names!

Thanks again!

Josh May 24, 2011 at 9:43 AM

Good luck with the course and we’re glad you included the Penn Museum!

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