How To Read an Object

How to Read an Object

Teach students how to analyze artifacts.

Where does the information in social studies textbooks come from? And how can educators introduce students to the inquiry-based skills that produce our understandings of the past? How to Read an Object  was a set of workshops focused on how researchers investigate the past through the analysis of physical artifacts. Participants learned a method for introducing students to this sort of inquiry while increasing their knowledge of a particular time and place in World History.

See below for an exercise called Twenty Questions to Ask an Object. You'll also find materials from past workshops, including lists of museum objects and websites to locate museum-pieces for classroom activities.

Each interactive three-hour workshop included:

  • practice with a classroom-ready activity to teach students how to analyze artifacts
  • a talk by a researcher with expertise in a particular region
  • an opportunity to examine a selection of objects from the museum collections

How to Read an Object was a collaboration between ORIAS and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, located on the UC Berkeley campus. 

photo credit: diffendale Painted tomb (1799) from Sarno: bronze belt and fittings from first inhumation via photopin (license)

Past Workshops

Focus on Peru and the Ancient Andean Region

Christine Hastorf, Professor of Anthropology

October 19, 2019

9:30 AM to 12:30 PM

This workshop focused on artifacts from the ancient Andes. The Hearst Museum has a particularly rich collection of ceramics and other artifacts from this region.

Objects from the Hearst collections used for this workshop:

a carved wooden board with an unknown purpose

a ceramic jar from the Moche

a loop-necked jar in the form of a child from the Moche

a set of 16 ceramic spindle whorls from the Moche

a ceramic vase in the shape of a spondylus shell, from the Lima region

a spondylus shell (for reference)

half-baked clay object from Moche

pan pipe from Ica Valley

jar in shape of pipe player from Nazca

Focus on Ancient Egypt

Rita Lucarelli, Associate Professor of Egyptology

March 16, 2019

This workshop focused on ancient Egypt and asked the question, "How can objects from the past help us understand the worldview of the people who made and used them?"

Objects from the Hearst collections used for this workshop:

bowl with snake in the center

stela fragment with Horus on crocodiles

Bes amulet

ointment dish with lotus motif

bronze mirror with figure of woman

stone sarcophagus (3D image available)

ivory clapper with head of Hathor

slab stela of Prince Wepemnofret

Focus on Timbuktu and the Trans-Sahara Trade

Mariane Ferme, Associate Professor of Anthropology

October 6, 2018

This workshop focused on trade in West Africa and to points north, across the Sahara. Artifacts illustrated the wide range of trade items in the region, beyond simply the trade in salt and gold.

Objects from the Hearst collections used for this workshop:

salt bar, used as medium of exchange


Bambara carved figure

Tuareg axe

Fulani hat

Songhai necklace from Timbuktu

paper amulet with Arabic inscription from Liberia

Tuareg charm necklace

Focus on the Indian Ocean Basin

Sugata RayAssociate Professor of Art History 

14 April, 2018

This workshop focused on trade in the Indian Ocean basin and examined artifacts that reveal evidence of cultural and economic interactions in that maritime sphere.

Objects from the Hearst collections used for this workshop:

carved begging bowl, made from a coco-de-mer

quilt made from printed textiles

aromatic gum myrrh

man's shoulder/waistcloth

Ming Dynasty bowl made for export to Southeast Asia

Online Resources

Twenty Questions to Ask an Object

The How to Read an Object workshop is derived from "Twenty Questions to Ask an Object," created by the Material Cultures Caucus of the American Historical Association. Teacher who attend a How to Read an Object workshop will learn how to use this process with both everyday objects and images of artifacts.

Twenty Questions to Ask an Object (revised for k12 teachers)

Twenty Questions to Ask an Object (slidedeck for classroom use)

Twenty Questions to Ask an Object (original AHA version)

Artifact Resources

If you're searching for images of objects for your students to practice this process of analysis, you'll need sources that provide you with images, information about the object's history, and information about the materials and dimensions. Here are some options:

Hearst Museum Collections Portal: Use this to search the collections held by the Hearst Museum here at UC Berkeley.

Google Arts and Culture: Some wonderful image-sets, but view before using in class to (1) make sure content is age-appropriate and (2) to see who compiled the image-set and assess their reliability as a source.

Required Works of Art for AP Art History from Khan Academy: There are other sources for this same content, but this one page combines a ton of useful images, videos, and other links.

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Many lesson plans and lots of background information for teachers to contextualize pieces. Elsewhere on the site you'll find a searchable database of items with tons of information about each piece. 

Field Museum in Chicago: See the learning guides that are specifically focused on object-based learning, using images from shows they've hosted.

The British Museum: They have an extensive collection with substantial background information available about many pieces.

Christie's Catalogues: Auction house catalogues provide a lot of information about the history and context of single objects. For example, check out the catalogue for Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds at Christie's.