The Future of Our Past: New Technologies for New Audiences

By Catherine Foster and Brian Brown

 Certain images from the ancient past stand out in popular imagination: the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” Moses, David, Goliath and other characters from the Hebrew bible, and the Persian conflict with the Greeks, to name just a few.  But as any specialist knows, there is much more to the history and cultures of the ancient Near East. For example, our modern judicial system—with judges, witnesses, and court records—is based on similar practices from Iraq in the second millennium BCE, while most existing alphabets derived from the Phoenicians, seafaring merchants who sailed from Lebanon thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, the wider public does not know that this region—home to some of the earliest developments in the arts and sciences, religion, and political organization—continues to exert an influence on contemporary societies around the world. Part of the mission of the Ancient Middle East Education and Research Institute (AMEERI) is to remedy this situation by making study of the ancient past a normal part of public education and mainstream media.

One way to meet this goal is to start young at the K-12 level. While concerted efforts in this regard have already been made (see, for example, the ArcSmart program), more needs to be done considering the magnitude and urgency in connecting with the next generation not just of archaeologists and art historians, but also lawyers and policy makers. It is no secret that the perceived usefulness of archaeology and ancient history has declined in mainstream culture over the past decades as more people question the relevancy of civilizations thousands of years old to their contemporary lives. The result has been consequent declines in funding and support for research into our common human history as it developed in the Middle East in the pre-Classical periods. By reaching young people specifically, we educate them at an early age on the importance of studying the ancient world and get them thinking about why things in our society are the way they are, rather than taking them as unexamined givens or part of the natural order of things. This kind of critical, self-aware viewpoint will make them better students in general, no matter what subject they gravitate to later in their studies.

Directly reaching a younger audience is only half the picture though: K-12 teachers also deserve our attention. Teachers work hard to know a little something about everything, but most have precious little time outside of the classroom to learn more. AMEERI would like to give instructors, at all levels, the training and resources to confidently and effectively teach about the art, history, and cultures of the ancient Middle East in ways that are accurate, engaging, and memorable. Resources would be based on assessed needs and range from lesson plans to a digital image library, supplies, and course workbooks. We envision teacher retreats and workshops where instructors can brainstorm ideas together or simply absorb new material through lectures and local museum tours. Programs like the UC Berkeley Office of Resources for International and Area Studies (ORIAS) Summer Institute are good models that AMEERI and other scholars of the ancient Near East can follow.

Apart from traditional workshops and teaching seminars, we need to think creatively about how students best learn. We need to seek methods that actively engage the students beyond facts, names and dates, no matter how interesting these are (at least to us). In particular, we need to offer people a means to get to know, on a more personal level, the figures that populated the ancient world, and interactively experience the kinds of situations that ancient people would have faced. In this respect the fields of archaeology and cultural heritage management have the ability to better leverage interactive media and sequential art, like video games and graphic novels, to achieve educational goals in the classroom and to reach a wider audience.

The ziggurat of Ur in Minecraft, “a game about placing blocks to build anything you can imagine.” (Image: Brandon Foster)

Games especially have the ability to go beyond simple entertainment to be truly multifaceted learning tools. Initiatives like MinecraftEdu and GameDesk are leading the charge to fully integrate gaming into curricula, thus revolutionizing the way instructors teach and students learn. Educational gaming has even been noticed at the highest levels of government. Earlier this year the Obama administration brought on board an expert in video games and education from the University of Wisconsin to shape policy around games. Since 2005 the National Science Foundation has been funding research into the potential of video and computer games, and providing direct support for educational game development through its Cyberlearning: Transforming Education program and Education Application topic (EA3), among others.

And these games need not be “serious.” Though there have been entertaining “historical” games before (like Civilization, for example), what actually happened in ancient history is usually even more interesting than the scenarios of such games. There are plenty of historical records of intrigue, of strategy, of economic competition and networks from the ancient Near East. There is nothing that should prevent students, the public, or even your colleagues from learning about the economy or politics of the ancient world while also getting in their game-playing time too! Games focused on the ancient Near East like Discover Babylon and Gates of Horus are just the beginning—we plan to take it further and hope others will follow.

This is just one potential avenue for raising the profile of the ancient Near East among K-12 students. Hopefully many of these young people will join us as tomorrow’s archaeologists, historians, anthropologists and art historians, but they will definitely be part of tomorrow’s general public, upon whom study of the ancient world depends. AMEERI is working to make sure they will be knowledgeable about the need for ongoing research into our shared human history and the ongoing influence it exerts on us thousands of years later.

Dr. Catherine Foster is co-Executive Director of AMEERI and a Cultural Property Analyst at U.S. Department of State.

Dr. Brian Brown is a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and co-Executive Director of AMEERI.


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