Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mesopotamia (Meet the Ancient World 4)

After dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, and cave people, you may find Mesopotamia a bit of a challenge. There aren't nearly as many materials available that are suitable for young children, and it will take a little more effort and enthusiasm on your part to convey what's fascinating and marvelous about the ancient cultures of the Fertile Crescent, the first true civilizations on earth.

Yeah, you could just skip forward to Egypt. But then you'd miss ziggurats, the invention of the wheel, and the first cities, all of which are captivating to kids. And you wouldn't have They Might Be Giants echoing in your head: "We're the Mesotopamians! Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, and Gilgamesh ...."


The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of World History, pp. 110-113, 132
More solid, basic overview material from the good folks of Usborne.

"Chapter 7: Hammurabi and the Babylonians," in Susan Wise Bauer, The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, Volume 1: Ancient Times
Any child's sense of justice will be offended by an account of Hammurabi's code, and the discussion it provokes about rules and fairness can lead you in all sorts of marvelous directions.

DK Eyewitness Books: Mesopotamia
This is one of those sturdy Dorling Kindersley volumes you've certainly encountered already, those big books that cover every conceivable topic from robots to pirates to planets. I must admit that I find them informative but uninspiring (I can't tell whether my kids share my opinion or have been infected by my disdain). But these books invariably have great photos and illustrations, so when you're dealing with a topic like this one, where resources are scarce, the DK Eyewitness is well worth tracking down.

Marie Neurath, They Lived Like This in Ancient Mesopotamia
This out-of-print volume is worth tracking down. Most of he lovely line illustrations are derived from Mesopotamian cylinder seals, the intricately carved stones that were used as identifying marks on everything from clay tablets to jars of olive oil.

Peter Chrisp, Mesopotamia: Iraq in Ancient Times
This book is a bit advanced for this age group, but it has a nice mix of illustrations: color drawings imagining life in ancient Mesopotamia are presented alongside photographs of key artifacts.


Ancient Civilizations for Children: Ancient Mesopotamia
Back in the 1990s, Schlessinger Media produced a whole series of short films for children about ancient civilizations. They're officially pegged for grades 3-7, but my five-year-olds watched them with interest. Sure, a whole bunch of the material went right over their heads, but were fascinated by the visual imagery -- and liked the hokey faux-archeologist-narrator Arizona Smith. Many library systems have at least some of the films in this series; with effort, you can also find reasonably priced copies through Amazon Marketplace or eBay.

They Might Be Giants, "The Mesopotamians"
In truth, your kids are more likely to be perplexed than enlightened by this catchy video by the brilliant indie-turned-kiddie rock band They Might Be Giants. They won't possibly be able to puzzle out the premise -- Sargon, Hammurabi, et al. are skeletal members of an obscure musical group traveling by Econoline van -- but they might be amused.


The play part of our Mesopotamia unit was an utter and complete delight. We started with some good basic activities. Ziggurats, or simple step pyramids, are easy and engaging for kids to build. We used Duplos, but blocks or playdough would work well, too. We used some slabs of self-hardening clay to etch our own versions of cuneiform text, and we made some basic flatbread, talking about the challenges involved in making it back in the days of Sumer. I found an activity book that showed how to make your own shaduf, but that seemed too complicated, and I thought about having them try out a pottery wheel but never quite got around to it.

The revelations came one day when I took the kids out to a big muddy expanse at our neighborhood park and told them that their job was to create the world's first city. Like the ancient Mesopotamians, they had to either build with mud or find some way to exchange what they had in their mud flat for other materials they might need. Well, before you knew it, they had dug a Tigris and Euphrates River, excavated some precious metals (bottle caps and the like), and set up trade relations throughout the region, most notably with a nearby mulch pile. And suddenly they had a vivid, concrete grasp of such advanced concepts as the importance of raw materials and transportation in development.

Other Resources

"Gifts of Ancient Mesopotamia" poster, part of an Ancient Civilization Chart Pack from Creative Teaching Press. I purchased the entire series, and put the relevant poster up for each unit we covered.

For New Yorkers

After spending some time on this material, a visit to the Metropolitan Museum's Ancient Near Eastern galleries will make your jaw drop. If you've watched the Schlessinger video on Ancient Mesopotamia, be sure to point out the gold and lapis lazuli headdresses from the royal tomb at Ur. And definitely don't miss the panel from Babylon's Ishtar Gate (half a dozen other museums in the United States boast such panels, too -- Nebuchadnezzar's riches have traveled far). Children will be most impressed by some of the humblest artifacts: the envelopes, fashioned of clay, containing the clay correspondence of the time.

The American Museum of Natural History, meanwhile, has a reproduction of the stele containing Hammurabi's code of law in the wonderfully bizarre mishmash that is its Asian Peoples exhibit.

Know other great resources for teaching young children about Ancient Mesopotamia, or have experiences to share? Please post in the comments section ...