Classifying Artifacts: a classroom activity

Classifying Artifacts: a classroom activity for students
by Susann Lusnia
Associate Professor of Classical Studies
Executive Director, Center for Engaged Learning & Teaching
Tulane University
I teach courses on Roman art and material culture to undergraduates at Tulane University in New Orleans. Roman archaeology courses attract students of all backgrounds and interests, and therefore, one of the challenges is that students arrive in the courses with different levels of preparation in archaeology, ancient history, or art history. Most are not majoring in classics but are using these courses to fulfill general education requirements.
In an ideal world, I want them to leave class knowing a great deal about antiquity, but from a practical standpoint, what I really hope is that I can teach them about proper use of evidence, its analysis and interpretation. As an archaeologist, the ideal way for me to teach about evidence and analysis would be through artifacts, site tours, or museum visits. Although we have some good museums in New Orleans, none has a Roman art/artifact collection. So, how does one give students a “hands-on” experience in archaeological practice? In my case, I created a classroom activity using bendable toy figures, purchased using a small grant.
The goal of the activity was to introduce students to the concepts involved in the classification of archaeological artifacts by having them engage in a practical example. The bendable toys, of many types and colors, stood in for ancient artifacts in this exercise. (Note: you could use other objects such as hardware – different types of screws, nails, washers, nuts, etc.)
For the exercise I prepared bags of 20-25 figures (Fig. 1), and before class began, I positioned these on the tables, along with blank worksheets for students to use during the exercise. Before starting the exercise, I went over some basic terms (type, material, shape, decoration) and practices related to the classification of artifacts.
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I talked about hierarchy in the description of artifacts (Fig. 2). Students were then instructed to sort the objects in their bags devising at least two different classification systems. I left it to the groups to decide what the criteria for each of these would be, and we would discuss their choices and reasoning afterwards.
Instructions were projected on screen (Fig. 3), and I allowed about 10 minutes for the first sorting, and then another 5 – 10 for the second sorting. (Fig. 4)
After all groups had sorted their objects twice and filled out the worksheets – one sheet for each sorting method – I invited the groups to share and discuss their sorting criteria. The obvious choices that I expected to see were sortings done by shape type (animal, human, etc.) and by color. In fact, some of the students were quite creative, using a variety of classification methods, such as “necks” vs. “no-necks.”
Discussion of the range of criteria led into my lecture on how and why archaeologists establish norms for object classification. In addition to helping students understand how archaeologists classify objects for study, I wanted them to think about the role artifact assemblages (groups of objects found in the same structure, grave, etc.) in identifying spaces, their occupants, and the use of those spaces. I think the exercise was successful, in that it gave students a hands-on experience for understanding the development of typologies and the need for consistent criteria if one hopes to do comparative studies of objects.
Now that I have the materials needed for this exercise – sufficient to use in a class of up to 40 students – I will definitely work to include it on a regular basis in other courses as well, such as my Roman art & archaeology and Etruscans courses. In the future, I hope that I can adjust/expand the exercise to include a component that prompts students to compare the objects from one group to another, to ask questions about relationships between “locations” (each bag of objects representing a location) to help them see how archaeologists approach the study of trade, production, and commerce through artifacts and their distribution.
The activity is scalable for most any class size and is suitable for pre-collegiate students. You might need to explain the terms differently and perhaps skip the hierarchy of the descriptors if used in a middle school classroom. Learning about classification starts in pre-k and kindergarten, so the concepts are not foreign. The goal is learning how to take this basic skill to a new level.
For anyone who wants to try this, here are some recommendations:
You need a variety of “artifact” types, at least 5 or 6, to make the exercise challenging and interesting.
2. Make random groupings – but it’s also good to plant one or two odd objects in each group to create a challenge. I spread everything out on a big conference table. (Fig. 5)
3. If you have a classroom where desks can be moved together or you have tables that students can sit around, wonderful. If not (e.g., if you teach in fixed-seat lecture room), think creatively about how you might move students around for this, or hold the class in another, more suitable venue for that one session, if possible. I booked a room in our student center where I could get small round tables with four chairs each, and that was perfect for the 35 students in my class. Larger classes will face more logistical problems.
Bibliography & Resources
Miller, Peter N. 2014. “How Objects Speak,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. 11 August 2014. Online article at (Last accessed on 08 July 2015).
Rouse, Irving. 1960. “The Classification of Artifacts in Archaeology,” in American Antiquity 25.3: 313-323. (Available on JSTOR:
Savage, Stephen H. & Dinsmore, Elizabeth S. 1998. “Exercises in Archaeological Methods and Techniques” (Partial Curriculum for Anthro 156-103: Digging Up the Past – Approaches to Archaeology. In-class Exercises). Arizona State University. Available as PDF download at (Last accessed 08 July 2015).
Assortment of 100 bendable toys on
Susann S. Lusnia, FAAR ’96, is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Tulane University, where she teaches courses in Roman art and archaeology, as well as Executive Director of the Center of Engaged Learning & Teaching (CELT). She has published articles and reviews in several journals, and her book, Creating Severan Rome: The Architecture and Self-Image of L. Septimius Severus, was published in 2014 in the Collection Latomus series. In addition to the American Academy Rome Prize, she has held both a Fulbright grant and an American Philosophical Society Franklin Research grant. She received her B.A. in Latin from Mary Washington College in 1985, and her M.A. (1990) and Ph.D. (1998) in Classics, with a concentration in classical archaeology, from University of Cincinnati. Susann was born in Leesburg, Virginia and now resides in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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