Ancient Lives/Future Skills: Discovering Graeco-Roman Egypt at the Manchester Museum

The team of Kim and Katharina working on Artemidora's dossier

The team of Kim and Katharina working on Artemidora’s dossier

Yesterday I led a school day on Graeco-Roman Egypt with a group of colleagues, graduate students and staff of the Manchester Museum. Using artefacts and papyri from the Manchester Museum and the John Rylands Library collections, we asked sixth form students of Runshaw College (Manchester) and Holy Cross College (Bury) to create short I-pad video-biographies of fictitious characters supposed to have lived in Egypt under the Roman rule. The results were impressive in terms of creativity and competence. They made me think a lot about how dramatically different the learning environment has become, and how inadequate some of our teaching still is.

Based on last year experience with schools for the exhibition Faces&Voices, the Graeco-Roman Egypt day at the museum has confirmed some trends:

Pupils do like ancient history and museums. The school day was attended by about 30 enthusiastic and engaged students. In their feedback forms pupils said that they wanted more time to be spent in the galleries where they were asked to find one object to add to their biography dossier. They also liked the object-based approach to ancient history as a more effective way to study history.

Students' feedback with appreciation for Chris, the graduate student team leader

Students’ feedback with appreciation for Chris, the graduate student team leader

Pupils like to be taught by people closer to their age. The pupils were divided into five groups led by a graduate student of our division (Classics & Ancient History, and Religion & Theology), and they enjoyed the experience. I noticed that they chatted a lot with their University peers, but were much less talkative when I interacted with them. Graduate students should be given more seminar teaching by Universities in close collaboration and under the supervision of senior course leaders. This will increase the quality of our courses and the student experience as both undergraduates and graduates.

Pupils like objects better than texts. Being a visual generation this is not surprising and it is positive because material culture should be much more integrated into ancient history teaching at all levels. It is nonetheless a point on which educators must find some sort of counter-balance. The ability of critical textual analysis is still a crucial skill. The syntax and grammar of social media communication and the overwhelming quality and quantity of digital and non-digital images that surround us are undermining students’ ability to approach texts critically and to write. (Answers to this? I don’t see many at the moment. May group reading be a strategy?)

Pupils are creative. This actually enhances our experience as teachers and scholars. Our work, especially as scholars, tends to be restricted by academic conventions that do not encourage creativity. I was actually inspired, entertained and intellectually stimulated in ways I am not so often, for instance, while listening at conference papers. Creative intelligence tends to be forgotten and less valued than other intellectual qualities in the education process.

This model of seminar is definitely successful and rewarding for all the people involved, and I am now trying to find ways of integrating aspects of it into my university courses. In the light of this on-going experience, I believe that having closer relationships with college students and teachers is essential for lecturers.

Object biography #5: A double-sided painted mummy portrait (Acc. No. 5381)

I recommend the reading of this post, on a very special mummy portrait, from the blog of my colleague Campbell Price, curator of the Egyptian collection at the Manchester Museum!

Object biography #5: A double-sided painted mummy portrait (Acc. No. 5381).

The Jewel Box Mystery Case

This week Kate Cooper, Jamie Wood and I had a very lively session at the John Rylands Library with graduate students from my two Departments, Classics and Ancient History and Religions and Theology, who are collaborating to the exhibition. Jacquie Fortnum and Anne Young of the Library were with us too.

The students were asked to choose from a list of papyri their favourites. That for me was a test for understanding if I have selected the right ones and what kind of texts may interest young people. Actually many of the papyri I like were on their list too.

We will certainly have a choice from a group of petitions from Euhemeria, a village of the Fayum, all dating between 28 and 42 AD that were purchased all together and perhaps come from a public office. This is the translation of P. Ryl. 2 125 that we have renamed ‘The Jewel Box Mystery Case’:

‘To Serapion, chief of police, from Orsenouphis son of Harpaesis, notable of the village of Euhemeria in the division of Themistes. In the month Mesore of the past 14th year of Tiberius Caesar Augustus I was engaged in demolishing some old walls upon my land through the agency of Petesouchus son of Petesouchus, builder; and when I had left home on business concerning my livelihood Petesouchus discovered in the work of demolition certain articles deposited in a little box by my mother as far back as in the 16th year of Augustus, namely a pair of gold ear-rings weighing 4 quarters, a gold crescent weighing 3 quarters, a pair of silver bracelets to the weight of 12 drachmae of unstamped metal, a necklace on which were silver ornaments worth 80 drachmae, and 60 silver drachmae. Putting his workmen and my servants off the scent he had these conveyed to his home by his unmarried daughter, and having rifled the contents aforesaid he threw the box empty into my house; moreover he acknowledges (having found) the box but alleges that it was empty. Wherefore I ask, if it seems good to you, that the accused be brought before you for the consequent punishment. Farewell.

‘Orsenouphis aged 50 years, with a scar on the left forearm.’

Orsenouphis, clearly a member of the village well-off elite, believed in the efficiency of the system, he believed the police would have solved the case. Did the builder steal the jewels and money for his daughter’s dowry? This is what the petition insinuates. But do petitions tell us the truth or just one side of it?