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Visual Literacy: Letting Our Students See the Past for Themselves

Anthropology and Archaeology: Online Sources for Teaching World History

Wendy Eagan,
Walt Whitman High School


     Instructors of world history can find rich visual sources for students by accessing several websites created by our colleagues in the related fields of Anthropology and Archaeology. On February 1, 2008, the American Anthropological Association launched its redesigned website at The new user-friendly site offers many possibilities for integrating intriguing topics for historical inquiry as well as timely news updates and articles from professional publications. A new blog called " In Focus: Reflections on Anthropology News" should be of interest to both students and instructors alike who access it. The Archaeological Institute of American has a website at which offers a myriad of possibilities for professionals who teach the past each day. Their publication "Archaeology" has fascinating online features easily downloaded

Figure 1

     One complex topic which all social scientists must address is race. Race: Are We So Different? is a public education project that combines perspectives from the sciences, history as well as lived experience. An interactive website,, is a wonderful resource for teachers beginning an academic semester or year in which students from middle school through college will be introduced to cultures quite different from their own. The program offers three basic perspectives: that race is a socially constructed concept, that race is not biological in nature, and that racism can be part of everyday institutional and private life. After a compelling visual introduction, visitors can choose from three main sections: History, Human Variation, and Lived Experience. "Race in the United States" begins with an historical overview on a timeline starting in 1600 in North America through the present day. There is an introductory movie that answers questions about the origin of racial issues in the United States. Once the film has been viewed, a return to the menu allows a more in-depth investigation of specific topics such as "Colonial Authority", "The Paradox of Freedom and Slavery", or early 20th century "European Immigration and Defining Whiteness" World history instructors will find many visual and textual primary sources, quotes and chronology to support many of the analytical frameworks they employ. "Human Variation" offers menu selections for students including Race and Human Variation, The Human Variation, and Only Skin Deep. The last section, Lived Experience, treats a difficult subject with the question, "Who is White?" and a "Sports Quiz" which addresses athletic stereotypes. This is a website students will return to after class is over.

Figure 2
    Musicians at Fiesta San Geronimo, Taos, NM, 1939. Photograph by John Collier, Jr., courtesy of the Collier Family Collection.

     Another link useful for world history instruction is the Society for Visual Anthropology, which promotes the study of visual representation and media. If teachers request documentary projects in world history, students can be further directed to the Center for Social Media at American University's School of Communication for important considerations regarding Fair Use Classroom Tools at

     These are only two brief examples of the opportunities that the American Anthropological Association's website offers interested historians, so on to the Archaeological Institute of America which promotes interest in the material record of past societies all readers of World History Connected teach regularly. Both disciplines support the stated goal of the AIA that "greater understanding of the past enhances our shared sense of humanity and enriches our existence."

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     For 60 years, the AIA has published a popular magazine and now students can view online content from the current issue at  The May /June 2008 issue contains a story which links a curious crystal skull reputed to Aztec to the latest installment of the famous film adventure series, “Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” starring Harrison Ford once again. Students will want to know the truth and teachers can provide the details after reading the enlightening article by Jane MacLaren Walsh at


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Figure 5

    The author and Scott Whittaker, director of the Smithsonian's Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Facility, examine the "Mitchell-Hedges Skull." Silicone molds of the skull's carved features were analyzed by SEM for evidence of tool marks. (James Di Loreto/Courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

     A quick click of the mouse on a featured Interactive Dig can transport those interested 400 miles south of Cairo and to the City of the Hawk or to a Turkish City in the Clouds once visited on command of Louis XIV Keep dry, but do visit a Black Sea Shipwreck Project or gaze upon the letters left behind by prisoners during the American Civil War. All this is sure to visually instruct even a reluctant learner.

Figure 7

     Another feature, "From the Trenches", reinforces the geographic instruction so vital for historical understanding. Granite obelisks from Egypt, DNA analysis of a woman buried in Norway during the 9th century CE, pale, red-headed Neanderthals, pre-Columbian ball courts in Puerto Rico, and evidence of 7,700 year-old rice fields in China are all reported by Samir M. Patel in World Roundup. According to a poll of 2,200 online readers, only 13% would like archaeologists to find the tomb of Hammurabi, while 47% hope that Alexander the Great will be found. Looking back to 2007, visitors can ponder the significance of discoveries of South Asian Paleolithic tools, Roman imperial standards found on the Palatine hill, an expanded Angkor in Cambodia, or thirteen solar towers in Peru Even the experts had a difficult time choosing the top ten.

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Figure 9

Careers could be launched by directing students to the Interviews feature. Kathleen Curtin discusses her own journey to become a historian with a "love of food and cooking", or the academic insights of Dr. Shelby Brown about teaching following an "Aha moment in Mexico" as a young woman Other interviews focus on high interest topics such as tracking hunter-gatherers,, the looting of gladiator sculpture, the Celtic roots of Halloween, and evidence of documented dog burials on most land masses—some 4,500 years old

Figure 10

     Encouraging students to see material remains for themselves at current local exhibitions is facilitated by the important feature of Events conveniently arranged by regions at For students anywhere in the nation, permanent and special exhibits are detailed and described whether in Chicago at the Oriental Institute Museum, in Baltimore at the Walters, or in Virginia at the Mariners'Museum Nothing beats seeing material remains or visual primary sources for yourself, and this feature makes sure that no one will pass up opportunities they might regret later.

All in all, our colleagues in Anthropology and Archaeology have provided world historians and their students much rich online content to be considered, and virtual treasures to be savored for years to come. Just a fraction of what is available has been introduced here and will be continued in a later column.

Biographical Note: Wendy Eagan teaches world history at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland.



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