Vol. XXIV, No. 2September, 2011


Articles in Vol. XXIV, No. 2

Project Publication on the Web — III
Organizing and planning the work.
-- Andrea Vianello, Intute, and Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Photofly from Autodesk - 3D from Photos
Experimental software for making 3D models.
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Project Publication on the Web — IV
The final publications.
-- Andrea Vianello, Intute, and Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Website Review: The British Museum Ancient Civilization Sites for Young People
Superb introductions to ancient civilizations.
-- Phoebe A. Sheftel

Website Review: CyArk
Much potential and many problems.
-- Andrea Vianello

Miscellaneous News Items
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Website Review: The British Museum
Ancient Civilization Sites for Young People

Phoebe A. Sheftel

(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)

British Museum Ancient Civilization Sites for Young People

  • URL for all sites mentioned, except one on Greece which follows the same format but appears to have been added later: ancientcivilizations.co.uk/home_set.html
  • Ancient Civilizations/Greece URL: www.ancientgreece.co.uk/
  • Web site reviews in this newsletter customarily include information on the site's authorship, host, peer review process, archival procedures and technical languages used. In this case, there is no information given beyond the indication it was copyrighted by the Trustees of the British Museum in 2004, and a note that the current version is 2.16. There is, however, helpful information needed to get the most out of the site provided on the technical set-up page needed to get the most out of the site, although that page provides no information about authorship, permanence, or other matters considered by the CSA Newsletter Editor to be essential matters for serious websites.

The British Museum holds an incredible collection of material from ancient civilizations around the world. Many an individual object can reveal a fascinating story that brings to life the time and people who made, traded, and used the object. Connecting a young person to this ancient history usually requires either a trip to a museum or learning about it from the static pages of a book. An exciting and much more engaging approach is provided by the museum's highly interactive Ancient Civilizations web resource.

The site was created in 2004 with independent funding that required it to have a URL separate from the British Museum's web page, but fortunately they are currently working to move the content to the British Museum's web page. I hope that this valuable resource will not remain virtually hidden as it currently is on the Learning/Families and Children page where you need to scroll to the very bottom to locate a link to the site. The Ancient Civilization series offers fascinating ways to learn through story, by exploring artifacts or topics in depth and by trying out challenges that engage you with information and objects.

There is a statement on the site that it is geared to appeal to children between 9 and 14, but, judging by the amount of time I spent going through the various parts of the site while riding out a recent hurricane, they can draw in and fascinate even the most jaded adult. (Please note that many of the pages require an Adobe® plug-in for browsers called Shockwave Player.)

The Ancient Civilization program covers Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, China, and India. Two other parts of the site on Early Imperial China and Mughal India are presented in a different format and aimed primarily at 11 to 14 year olds. The sites for Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece are the focus of this review.

Because the sites were developed as a resource for teachers, the Ancient Civilizations site and each cultural area have "staff rooms" with overviews of the site or cultural area and a wealth of teaching aids for getting the full potential out of the content. (The overall staff room is at www. ancientcivilizations.co.uk/staff/main.html; for any cultural area, substitute the cultural area for "ancientcivilizations," e.g., www.ancientegypt.co.uk/staff/main.html). Background information is provided, classroom discussion topics are proposed, and a number of fun worksheets and activities support the learning that occurs when you explore the site. Key to the success of the site is the integration of objects from the museum's collections in informative and creative ways. The various imaginative and technically dazzling activities call on you to use and build skills in analyzing objects and texts, constructing and testing hypotheses, sequencing and classifying data, understanding key words and concepts, predicting outcomes, and reading a map.

Each part of the site follows a similar structure, with the information broken down into themes such as geography, daily life, religion, time, trade, war, and writing. Each topic is introduced through stories. On the Egypt site those stories include relating parallel day-in-the-life-of stories about a noble man and a farmer (Life), explaining the status of a scribe by using the text of Teaching of Duaf's son Khety' (Trades), and relating the story of Ramesses II's conquest of Nubia through theimaginative battle frescoes (Pharaoh). The most interactive story on the Egyptian site is the one on Geography, where you follow a boy's search for his brother by selecting one of two proposed paths in the story line each step of the way, all the while showing your location on an accompanying map. With a different choice at each step, you can create many different stories.

The stories on the Greece site use Hesiod's Works and Days to explain the Greeks' concept of time (Time), draw on Plato's images on the cave wall to explain the philosopher's search for truth (Knowledge and Learning), and allow you to select a character to follow through the day as you drag Helios in his chariot across the sky (Athens).

The Mesopotamia site uses similarly imaginative ways to tell different stories. In one the user creates the story thread by making choices at nine different points in the tale of a trader on his travels (Babylon/Trade and Transport). In another, photos of Sir C. Leonard Woolley and his excavations of the Royal Tombs of Ur convey the excitement of the discoveries (Sumer/Royal Tombs of Ur). Cuneiform tablets are used to explain the development of written signs over time in the section on Writing.

Fig 1 - The opening page of the section explaining the development of writing.
(Note that this and all other pages shown here have been trimmed to omit space to
the right and below that has no content. The images have then been reduced to fit here.)

The second focus for each site is on exploring topics in greater depth. This primarily involves clicking on scenes, drawings, or objects to get more detailed information, frequently enhanced with a photo of an object from the collection. On the Egypt site this includes studying maps that show the sources of various raw materials (Geography), understanding the parts of a mummy (Mummification), and wandering through a cut-away model of a temple with embedded photographs of preserved elements (Temples). On the Greece site you can learn about the story, symbols, objects, places, and festivals associated with each of the Olympic deities (Gods and Goddesses); scroll around a 360 degree model of the Theater of Dionysos (Festivals and Games); and explore the Acropolis by clicking on buildings in the model (Acropolis). On the Mesopotamia site you can delve into warfare by selecting figures in battle scene reliefs of Assurnasirpal II (Assyria/Warfare); take tablets out of an ancient storage shelf to read about Babylonian advances in astronomy (Babylonia/Astronomers); and use old photographs, books and cuneiform tablets to understand the excavation and reconstruction of a ziggurat (Sumer/Ziggurats).

Fig. 2 - The opening page of the mummification topic.

The creativity apparent in the presentation of information through the story and exploration sections of the three sites explodes when it comes to the third part — the challenge. Activities that are down-right fun prompt you to do things like make conclusions based on collected information, use math skills to solve problems, decipher ancient languages, select materials to build your own temple, and just have fun playing ancient games. One of the best challenges on the Egypt site involves using a map to hunt for the raw materials to make a gold, jasper and carnelian necklace, with a photo of the object from the collection displayed when you have successfully found the best sources for the materials (Geography). Another challenge asks you, as temple priest, to calculate the things brought into and handed out of the sacred storerooms using Egyptian number signs (Temples). Perhaps the single best part of the site is where you can play a two-person game of senet (Life).

The Greece site is so bulging with mesmerizing activities it's hard to pick just a few examples. But you couldn't go wrong with building your own temple — you get to choose the style, materials for the walls and roof, where to put the sculptures, the type of akroteria, and whether or not you want to replace the old cult statue (Acropolis); guiding a diver to find five objects on a shipwreck and then, based on their places of origin, plot the route the ship must have travelled to pick up its cargo before it sank (Geography); and understanding what people thought caused the plague in Athens by reading about their beliefs and outlook on life (Knowledge and Learning). The most engaging challenge on this site must be the game where you get to direct your trireme against a Persian ship at the Battle of Salamis — it comes complete with great sound effects (War). On the Mesopotamia site you can try your skill as a trader, out to get the best deal for the king who has sent you to find certain goods (Babylonia/Trade); calculate the correct combination of people needed to do different tasks to build a ziggurat most efficiently (digging clay, making bricks, carrying them to the site, laying them) (Sumer/Ziggurats); and build an understanding of BC chronology by assigning objects to the correct sequence in a tell (Time).

Fig. 3 - The opening page of one Geography challenge (as it first opens).

Fig. 4 - The opening page of one Geography challenge (as it appears after a few seconds).

While these challenges are the most engaging parts of these otherwise excellent sites, they do pose some skill and technical obstacles. Were I many years younger, I might not have been so frustrated at my vain attempts to help Scythian slaves herd people into the assembly in the Agora (Greece/Athens); figure out how to flood, plow, plant, water, and harvest three fields quickly and efficiently so as to yield enough to pay my taxes (Mesopotamia/Geography); or get accepted as a Spartan youth into the mess, as I completely failed the appointed tasks of stealing cheese and eggs for my food supply, not to mention responding appropriately to commands to brandish my shield and spear (Greece/Sparta). While the intricacy of some of site's elements increases the fun factor, some seem to test the technical limits of the site: two pages on the Greece site hung up in the middle of downloading; so I was never able to try to carry out all the farming activities during a year or explore the battlefield at Plataia (Time/Challenge and War/Explore). Some of the other Challenge pages could benefit from clearer instructions; but these are minor faults in what is a top-notch site that should delight any young person in or out of a school setting. I'll admit it – I can't stop playing that game of senet.

-- Phoebe A. Sheftel



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