Visual image: boxing boys fresco from Ancient Greece

Lesson Plan

By John Fines, published 17th January 2011

John Fines was working with a class of 28 Year 6 pupils, studying Ancient Greece.

John wrote:
Challenge is what the Nuffield Primary History project is all about, and I wanted the class to think hard about the Greeks and to question sources. My learning objectives were for the children to understand that we were dealing with a distant time and that the reconstructions we see at historical sites, and in museums and books, are interpretations - not necessarily established fact.

The fresco challenge was spread over the beginnings of two lessons, a week apart. I used just one resource: the famous fresco of two boys boxing. It dates from the Bronze Age, and is part of the Minoan culture associated with King Minos of Crete. Archaeologists found it on the neighbouring island of Thera (modern Santorini).

You can find a good reproduction of the fresco at here...

The fresco has been reconstructed, and about three-quarters of it is made up of modern infill. Before the lesson, I cut up a picture of the fresco to remove all the modern sections, leaving a jigsaw of about twelve pieces. I made a copy for each child.

Setting the challenge

At the start of the first lesson, I gave out the jigsaws. I explained to the children that the pieces they each had represented about one quarter of the reconstructed fresco. Their challenge was to make their own versions of the fresco, without looking at the archaeologist's reconstruction.

The children's reconstructions

The class brought their reconstructions in to the following week's history lesson. I was amazed at how well they had coped with the jigsaw task. In fact they rather took the wind out of my sails, as I had wanted to mock a little at the very idea that so few pieces could be reconstructed into a logical whole - but the children had managed to do exactly that.

I asked the class what they thought the subject of the picture was, and received the following replies:

A party; gods having a fight; ladies dancing; one handing something to another; playing instruments; one looks to me like she is going to slap the other round the face; showing off; selling something; a maid handing jewellery to her mistress.

I indicated that all the ideas were good, and almost all were equally possible interpretations.

The archaeologists' reconstruction

I showed the class the fresco as reconstructed by the archaeologists. They were a bit shaken to find two boys boxing.

But they look like girls!
They aren't wearing any tops, so they could be boys.

I asked: ‘Well, did the archaeologists get it right or wrong?' I had them look closely, and this brought more insights.
There's red at the top and black at the bottom, so that's right.
They are wearing jewellery. (I hadn't seen this myself, but hastily asserted the rights of boys to wear jewellery)
There's a boxing glove missing.
The boxing gloves aren't very convincing.

The class continued looking and discussing for some time, until I felt it was the right moment to say: ‘What do you think this exercise has taught us about doing history?'

Class discussion about doing history

Here are some of the children's replies to my question:
Often you don't get the answer you expect.
Sometimes you are surprised by the past.
There are no right or wrong answers; different people have different interpretations.
History's difficult - there are bits missing. You can never be sure.
The past comes to us in bits and pieces.

I was so pleased with these responses that I asked the children to write a couple of sentences in their notebooks describing what doing history is like.

When they had finished we all looked at some painted plaster one pupil, John, had created at home, and discussed the problems of painting wet plaster. Everyone admired his work and even thought that it having cracked in two pieces on the bus to school made it more 'like real'.