History and Art History: A Match made in the Past


This past week my students learned about Ancient Egypt. If you think about Ancient Egypt, chances are you will conger up images of pyramids, sphinxes, and hieroglyphs. Where is the line between History and Art History? For me, it is a gray area rather than a line as so much of the History I love can be considered Art too. When you study people that don’t have a written language, all you have from them is their artistic creations and the archaeological evidence they left behind. I’ll discuss History and Archaeology in another post. For today, here are some thoughts on Art, History, and Art History. Also, I’ll show you some examples of Art I use in my own research.

What is Art? The cop out definition is that Art is subjective, and it can be anything. In that case, what is History? The discipline of History has changed a lot since the 1960s and 70s when historians started to emphasize non-literate peoples and peoples who did not leave any written evidence of their own. Studying these peoples is difficult, but certainly not impossible. Often, like in my own research, a different group of people wrote about the non-literate people. Reading these second-hand documents is called “reading against the grain” and poses interesting conundrums for historians. How can we make assertions about a people from the observations of another group? Can we scrape away the subjective nature of a colonizer writing about the place he colonized and the people he enslaved? We can try. One of the most interesting ways to isolate this subjectivity is through Art and critiquing the art of one people that they made about another group.

Below are four images from a Spanish book of Costumes from the New World. I took photos of these pages at the Getty Institute in 2010. The book was created by an author who, as far as I am able to tell, never set foot in the Americas. His book illustrates costumes of indigenous peoples of the Americas where the Spanish colonized and enforced conversion to Christianity in Missions. These pictures demonstrate not the legitimate dress of Native Californians in the colonial period, but the Spanish ideal of how they looked before and after conversion. Look closely at the pictures and see if you can spot the differences between the figures. What is the artist trying to show? Why does he portray the women and men of California so differently before and after contact with the Missions? Do you think this is how these men and women would show themselves? Consider their postures, clothing, facial features, and the backgrounds of the pictures. Leave your thoughts in the comments.

“Muger Salvage de la California” (Female Savage of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall
“Muger de las Misiones de la California” (Female of the Missions of of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall
” Salvage de la California” (Savage of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall
“Hombre de las Misiones de la California” (Male of the Missions of of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall

Gamification in World History

Image from the University of California. The Mammoth group won the game, but I gave everybody extra credit for participating.

Hello All,

As you know from the last post, this is JoAnna, Matt’s wife. My world history course at Sierra college is going well. This week I designed a game for the students to play about life in the Neolithic period. It was pretty successful, despite not having enough class time to really explore the whole game.  In this post I’m going to look at gamifying education and how it specifically relates to the discipline of History.

According to Webster’s dictionary, gamification is “the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.” Although the definition gives an example of use in marketing, gamification is gaining traction in education. Students of all ages enjoy playing games, but many of the popular examples of gamification in education are for younger students. However, in my experience, older students can find even more joy and explore deeper themes in educational games. Many of my students in the World History course want to be educators themselves. By using educational games in class, I urge them to think about new methods when they go on to be teachers too. 

Lectures can be boring, I know. There are only so many things a teacher can do with PowerPoint. Listening to someone talk and staying engaged in actively learning is an important skill for students. But by injecting a little activity and lively fun into my course, I hope that my students can retain and understand even more information about a historical period. My games also encourage students to sympathize with people from the past. Modern struggles like charging your iPhone and checking your email can make the struggles of ancient peoples seem so distant. In a game, students can assume the roles of people from a past time and understand their daily lives in a way I simply can’t deliver in a lecture.

This week, my students learned about the evolution of humanity and how we came to settle in all of the habitable landmasses on our planet. Gathering resources, protecting them, and coming to terms with the rhythms of the natural world were big parts of how we progressed as a species. I had my students play a game modeled on life in the Neolithic period. I asked for four volunteers to be the deities in charge of some major resources (agriculture, meat, fresh water, and building materials) and I broke the rest of the class into four groups (the cave bear group, the mammoth group, the giant sloth group, and the sabre-tooth cat group.) Each group picked a leader and 3-4 members of the group to represent them at the start of the game. Each group sent their leader and representatives around to the four deities to collect resources the could use for survival and growth. At the end of each in-game year, I, as the head deity, collected resources from the groups for the survival for the members and to see if they had enough to grow their group (add new players.) If they didn’t have enough resources to sustain their numbers, a group member died (player had to leave the game.)

After the first year, I changed the rules a bit. The deities received fewer or more resources based on a die roll to represent famines or a bumper crop season. I also allowed groups to steal and trade resources and I allowed the deities to be capricious and withhold resources or grant extras. The arbitrary nature of the game was supposed to represent the whims and natural changes during the Neolithic period. Obviously, they could not actually fight wars. But, things did get exciting and most of the students really got into the game. It helped that I gave them the incentive of a little bit of extra credit for the group that had the most people and resources at the end of the game. Sadly, we ran out of time before we could play more than two in-game years. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and I know the activity would have gone even better if we had had more time.

Overall, I believe gamification can be beneficial to students. Some of my fondest memories were playing games in history classes. In middle school we played a medieval life game where we took on roles of serfs and landowners. I learned what a bailiff was and how much how important agriculture was to the foundations of medieval Europe. In college I took a course where we took on the roles of historical figures and wrote argumentative papers from their points of view. I still use what I learned about those figures in my classes today and it greatly improved my writing and researching skills. I don’t know if my students will remember this game, but I believe they will look fondly back on the day they got to run around in class and collecting little pieces of paper and acting out life in the ancient world.

The Guest Begins

Portions of Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. This cuneiform writing depicts Gilgamesh and Enkidu meeting Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest. The tablet dates to the Old Babylonian Period, 2003-1595 BCE. Photograph by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, FRCP; Wikimedia, open access.


For those of you who don’t know me, I’m JoAnna Wall, Matt’s wife. I’m taking over his blog while he is working on his book this month. My posts will be a bit more varied than Matt’s have been, but all he specified was that the posts had to be historical. So, send any complaints to him.

My first post is going to be a bit introductory, historiographical, and pedagogical. After a hiatus from teaching, I am now an adjunct professor at Sierra Community College in Rocklin, CA. I have one section of World History to 1500 C.E. to teach this semester. In this post, I’ll let you know a more about me, my research, and my teaching methods. The last part of the post will give you a taste of what my students are reading for the class and some discussion points.

Although Matt told you that I am finishing my PhD at UCLA, I am strongly considering leaving the program. After a lot of thought I have found that being in the Latin American History field was not the best place for me. Not only do I regret going straight from undergraduate to graduate school, I should have taken more time to consider advisors and my field of choice. However, I will never regret my time at UCLA as I learned so much and met Matt. Without him and our daughter Clementine, my life would be much less fulfilling.

History is still my passion. Even if I end up leaving UCLA without a PhD in hand, I have done work I am proud to share. This month I’ll post some of my research on indigenous women’s dormitories in the California Missions as well as some other work I have done on Americans who were marooned in Colonial California and their journeys home.

In this post, I want to focus on my teaching. I emphasize primary sources in my courses. Like Elmer’s letters, primary sources give us a window into a time and place that a secondary source just can’t capture. I think it is vital to students without a History background to read an analyze primary sources themselves, rather than only accessing them through a source like a textbook. Context is important, so I still give my students secondary sources to read about the period we are studying, but I mainly want them to focus on thinking about the primary sources and coming up with their own original thoughts about them.

For example, this week my students will read selections from the Epic of Gilgamesh. This poetic epic from 2700 B.C.E. tells the story of King Gilgamesh of Uruk. Uruk was a Sumerian city state in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and is one of the oldest literary works in existence. To start with this primary source is kind of pushing my students into the deep end and seeing how they swim, but it is a fascinating mythological work that epitomizes Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth. The Hero’s Journey from Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) ties myths from across History together to show how we as humans see our legends. Although the Epic of Gilgamesh was written almost 5000 years ago, we can still see parallels in our favorite stories from today.

If this enterprise is not to be accomplished, why did you move me, Shamash, with the restless desire to perform it?

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Saunders trans. (1960) pg. 7

This quote illustrates the call to action. Heroes don’t just decide out of the blue to be heroes and go on an epic adventure. The ambition, whether God-given or innate, drives the hero to go on their quest. Gilgamesh’s “restless desire” can be seen in stories like The Aeneid to “Star Wars.” Although The Epic of Gilgamesh is sometimes difficult to parse for modern audiences, the comparisons to our own favorite stories help students connect with the distant past and see that even people who lived almost five millennia ago, in a place that is now best known as a war zone, are not that different from us after all. Once you can get over that mental hurdle, History becomes a lot easier to relate to our own lives. It’s one of the things I love most about History.

Thanks for coming on this journey with me. Here are a few more of my favorite lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh and some of the questions I will ask my class this week.

“He (Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s enemy and then friend. A wild man from the wilderness) was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.”

“So he returned and sat down at the woman’s feet, and listened intently to what she said. ‘You are wise, Enkidu, and now you have become like a god. Why do you want to run wild with the beasts in the hills? Come with me.”

“Ishtar opened her mouth and said again, ‘My father, give me the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction; but if you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.’ Anu said to great Ishtar, ‘If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks. Have you saved grain enough for the people and grass for the cattle?’ Ishtar replied. ‘I have saved grain for the people, grass for the cattle; for seven years of seedless husks there is grain and there is grass enough.’”

-Women play important roles in The Epic of Gilgamesh. What traits to women represent in the story? How do they help and hinder Gilgamesh and Enkidu? What do their parts in the story tell us about Sumerian views of women and gender?

-Enkidu begins his life in the wilderness, the opposite of city dwelling Gilgamesh. Looking at these opposing characters, what can we learn about Sumerian culture? How did Sumerians reconcile urban life and nature? What was most important for them economically and culturally?

-The gods and goddesses of Sumeria are very active in The Epic of Gilgamesh. How do these supernatural forces compare to those in other legends, mythologies, and religions?