Art often provides us with a window into the world in which it was created. Indeed, much of our historical knowledge has been gleaned by looking at and understanding the evidence left behind by the art and artefacts of ancient civilisations. Three new television programmes, part of the successful Eureka! series History Through Art, help key stage 2 pupils to gain an insight into the past by looking at artefacts from the classical world.
The tomb paintings of ancient Egypt provide a good example of paintings portraying contemporary life. The images show much of what we know of ancient Egyptian culture. Once the language of the paintings is understood, it becomes fascinating to "read" the images. I do not mean the hieroglyphics; the tomb paintings themselves tell us about day-to-day life - although the view is probably idealised. "In the real world there are nice things and nasty things, but in tomb paintings, here everything must be just fine," says Menna, the tomb painter. Tomb paintings aim to show the good things in life that may be enjoyed in the afterlife.
In "The Tomb of Nebamun" (programme 1) a tomb painting is recreated using traditional methods. The techniques of tomb painting are explained, but this programme is more about the civilisation portrayed. Topics such as tools and methods, the symbolism and conventions of Egyptian painting, even the afterlife, are dealt with.
Pots, even with pictures on them, can easily be dismissed as uninteresting, but Nikias, a pot painter from ancient Greece, changes all that in "The Parthenon Scriptures" (programme 2). He explains the reason for the look of the pots - finished in red and black, due to local iron-rich clay - and goes on to show the process of making, painting and firing a pot. He also relates some of the stories they tell. Everyday Grecian life, heroic battles, sporting events, legends and mythology are graphically presented - surely the Grecian equivalent of comic books.
A Roman husband and wife are shown having their portrait painted. Their pet dog Argus is also portrayed in a floor mosaic. We learn about the couple and their way of life while gaining an insight into the Romans. Tragically, Terentious and his wife Julia live in Pompeii in AD79 - when Mount Vesuvius is rumbling. "Paintings at Pompeii" (programme 3) deals dramatically with the town's engulfing by lava, and explains why the artefacts are so well preserved. Julia suggests that, although they died in dreadful circumstances, it was thanks to the eruption of the volcano that their images have survived, preserved now in the British Museum.
These programmes, which were recently broadcast, are now available on video to augment a tape containing the other three titles in the series: "The Bayeux Tapestry", "Sir Henry Unton" and "The Railway Station". Although slower in pace than some programmes children will be used to, these films are readily accessible. This series is intelligently put together, with believable characterisations in the reconstructions and sound historical content. Many of the issues raised can be dealt with creatively in the classroom.
The supporting teacher's guide offers plenty of background information, including a section on how to look at painting; it is good educational practice to encourage pupils to learn how to "read" works of art. There are suggestions for preparation before classes watch the films and a range of interesting activities for follow-up work in many different curriculum areas, including history, geography, English, art and drama.
These entertaining pro-grammes should provide a good springboard for lively work in many areas of the curriculum at key stage 2. The artefacts chosen definitely provide an open window to the past.
Two videos of the six programmes in the series cost pound;12.99 each, the teacher's guide pound;3.95. All are available from Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ.A repeat of the series 'Eureka! Ancient Egypt' starts on May15 at 9.30am