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MFA for Educators

Engage your students with the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to illustrate themes and concepts in any discipline.

Outreach Programs: Highlights of the Art of the Ancient World

Highlights of the Art of the Ancient World

Abstract: This lesson offers an overview of the Art of the Ancient World collection at the MFA with a specific focus on highlights from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Description: This lesson highlights some of the artworks in the MFA’s Art of the Ancient World collection. Students will look at a range of artistic mediums practiced in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. They will also discover different ways cultures created symbols of protection and power. Students will be asked to use careful looking skills and asked questions about how these ancient cultures perceived themselves. Students will leave the lesson with an understanding of the changes in power perception through time and across cultures. They will also understand that there are many mysteries left unsolved about the ancient world.

Learning Goals:

Students will understand how these objects were found and how we can learn about a society through the art and artifacts that are left behind.

Students will learn about different manifestations of power and protection, and specifically look at how animals, gods, and humans can serve as iconographic purposes. Students will see a range of artistic expression spanning across time and cultures.

This discovery will require students will practice close looking and observation, through expressing and supporting their individual ideas.

Students will be asked to look for stories within the objects from ancient religious beliefs and classical tales. They will also be introduced to certain, gods, goddesses, and heroes.

Using this Resource:

Social science teachers and students will be interested learning about how objects and artworks inform what we know about an ancient civilization. They will also be interested in visually exploring concepts and stories associated with these cultures.

Foreign language teachers and students will be interested in learning about the traditions and perceptions of cultures they have studied. They may also be interested in learning about changes of written language as manifested in the artwork.

Visual arts teachers and students will be interested in thinking about the different purposes of art, how art varies across cultures, and what changes in art throughout time.

Teachers and students, who have participated in the Highlights of Art of the Ancient World Outreach Program, will be interested in revisiting and the artworks they saw during the discussion to learn new information.

Teachers will be interested in viewing and contributing to the comments below to learn more about how other educators are using this resource.

Guiding Questions:

What makes a symbol of power? 

How is art similar or different across cultures?

How does art communicate the values of a society?

How have these artworks withstood such a great amount of time?

What story does this artwork tell? What stories are we missing?


How do we know what we know about the ancient world? What we know about the ancient world is all based on the art and artifacts that we find. That means that it is also limited by what we have not found, or by what does not remain.

How old do you think something has to be called ancient? The art featured in this lesson is not hundreds of years old, but thousands. Some of the artifacts have been broken or worn-down and are still viewed and appreciated today.

What kinds of materials would last a really long time? Students will be able to discuss materials such as stone, metal, pottery. Painting and works on paper are very rare from ancient times, but sometimes available. Items made out of wood are not common, but students will get to see some works today. Ask students why they think stone and metal may have been the most common art forms that we now have from the ancient world. What sorts of conditions are needed to preserve more fragile things like wood, paper, or cloth fibers? Dry climates, such as that of Egypt, are best to preserve more fragile materials, so some of the items we will see in Egypt are not stone.

About the MFA’s collection: The MFA has a large collection of art from ancient Egypt thanks to archeological expeditions. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard University partnered to go on an archeological expedition to find Egyptian artifacts. Leading the expedition was George Reisner. The Egyptian government allowed them to excavate as long as they gave half of their findings to the Egyptian government.  The expedition lasted approximately forty years, and continued even through times of trouble. The Harvard-Boston Expedition continued through all sorts of weather, as well as political trouble with World War I and the dawn of World War II. The project, however, allowed the MFA to have one of the world’s largest collections of Egyptian art.

Lesson: This sample of artwork explores some of the visual culture created by people living in ancient times in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Not only will students learn about artistic practices of ancient peoples, but they will also be able to see recurring stories and characters in the artifacts. Students will understand different ways power is manifested in art. They will see a change in power depictions transition from animal symbols to representations of individuals. The lesson will provide a visual context for some of the subjects students will have learned about in their other classes.

The looking questions are designed for 5th through 8th graders, but could easily be modified for a younger or older audience


Cuneiform: the form of writing used by the people living in ancient Mesopotamia.

Ankh: an Egyptian symbol of life that looks like cross with a loop at the top.

Polytheism: a form of religious practice where there are multiple gods. Most of the cultures we explored in this lesson were polytheistic.

Monotheism: a form of religious beliefs where there is only one god. Some examples of monotheism include Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. 

Maat or Ma’at: the Egyptian concept of truth, balance and order. Maat is represented by a feather when the heart must be weighed in order for the person to pass into the afterlife.

Nemes: the type of headdress worn by pharaohs to indicate their role as a leader.

Hieroglyphs are ancient Egyptian pictorial writing symbols.

Canopic jars: jars that hold important organs—liver, lungs, intestines, and stomach—of mummified people. Each jar is protected by one of the sons of Horus.

Bust: a sculpture only featuring the head of a person, sometimes a bust includes the shoulders a part of the chest.

Sarcophagus: a coffin adorned with sculpture typically made of stone.

Tomb: a very large vault or space usually underground where the dead are buried.

Liberti: a class in ancient Rome of freed slaves and their children.

Magistrate: a government official who administers laws and holds court sessions for minor incidents.

Strategies for Looking:

Art works well for discussion because it holds multiple points of entry. In looking at art we engage in different ways: we describe, analyze, judge, associate, question, and more! Many of the questions included above are designed to encourage these different ways of looking and consideration of the larger theme of the lesson.

Beginning a discussion with the question “What is going on in this artwork?” is a powerful way to engage students with looking. This question encourages students to make sense of what they see beginning with what they know. For example, students may not be able to identify Hercules in the Sarcophagus with triumph of Dionysus, they can notice that he looks important in his own sculpture or describe the story depicted in the artwork. “What is going on” provides an authentic, learner-created foundation, which allows students to give meaning to contextual information and to grapple with deeper looking questions.

In engaging with works of art using looking questions, students will often make claims about the artworks. To encourage students to support their claims with evidence, “What do you see that makes you say that…?” is an excellent follow-up that prompts students to reflect on the steps they took to reach their conclusion. For example, “What do you see that makes you say that Hercules is important?”

Many of the questions used at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston during tours are designed to begin with open-ended discovery and move students to consider different interpretations or frameworks for thinking about the work of art. For example, a question such as “What can this artwork tell us about the time in which it is made?” allows for multiple interpretations while prompting students to consider that art, indeed, can provide a lens for a time and place.

These strategies are based on research such as the work done by Visual Understanding in Education and Project Zero of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  This research suggests that art is an ideal tool for promoting critical thinking, fostering a constructivist environment, and providing students with a strong context for developing the skills of collaborative and evaluative discourse. The strategies outlined above are one tool to foster that type of a learning environment. Experiment and see where your students will take you!

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