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).

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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.

Using Coins in Your Classroom

Ancient coins and money are great ways to tie in curriculum goals and interests in broader themes of art, propaganda, history, and government.  Even Latin 1 students can, after learning a short list of abbreviations, quickly learn to read the Latin on coins.  These abbreviations (PP, TR POT, PM, IMP, COS, SC, etc) provide opportunities for students to examine how Roman government functioned and also to compare to modern coins.

Coins show monuments, buildings, religious rituals, and famous events in history, from Romulus and Remus, to the Ides of March, to the building of the Colosseum.  Roman coins can even be the source of controversy, as in the recent discussion on whether Pliny’s date of the eruption of Vesuvius is accurate.

Coins are also one of the few ways that students can easily come into tangible contact with the ancient world.  Some museums will allow school groups to handle ancient coins under proper supervision (Mt. Holyoke Art Museum, for one).  Companies like Antiqua Nova and Medieval Collectibles make replicas of coins that you can use for games or other activities.

If you really want to dig deep into numismatics, there is an organization called ACE (Ancient Coins for Education) who, for a small fee per coin, will send your classroom a set of authentic, usually late-Roman empire era coins.  Students can clean, study, and even keep them! ACE also has contests throughout the year that offer more valuable coins as prizes and require the students to research and examine coins in depth in order to win.

I had bought classroom sets of these coins for a few years.  Students loved to hold antiquity in their hands and explore and share what was on their own coin with friends.   I ultimately felt as though I wasn’t tying in larger curricular goals enough to justify the time it took to clean and work with the coins, so I stopped doing it.

It wasn’t until my last trip to Italy that I found something that rekindled my desire to do something with coins.  In the gift shop at the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian I discovered an amazing series of books which describe individual Roman emperors in terms of the coins they produced.  They weren’t cheap (25-30 Euro each!), but I bought one on Nero with the aim of one day using it in class.  Not only is it a large volume with full color, high resolution images, but it also includes a good introductory look at Nero’s reign and a full list of coin terms and abbreviations.

Recently my Latin 5 students have been studying the Roman emperors, and as part of a tie-in to a larger theme of propaganda and presentation, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to use coins and the book I’d purchased.  We looked at coins minted during the reign of the Emperor Nero and how they showed political developments, “current” events, and the emperor’s changing relationship with his mother Agrippina over time.

I asked each of my students to pick a coin from his reign and do research what it had to say about Nero and what propaganda purpose it might have served.  Each student first created a giant replica of the coin he or she chose (they turned out as amazing visual aids, as you can see in the photos below), and then used it to to make a short (6-8 minute) Latin presentation in which they described their coin, explained the Latin abbreviations, and talked about its historical significance.  As an example, one student chose a coin depicting the goddess Salus.  This particular coin was minted just after the Pisonian conspiracy, and is part of a campaign to show how grateful Nero was that the conspiracy had been thwarted.  It is also one of the few coins to show Nero smiling.  Coincidence?

     I hope this article has given you some ideas about using Roman coins in your classes.  If you already do, we’d love to hear about it.  Please add a comment to the blog below with your idea or send us a project write-up for us to share!