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Archaeologists and Olmec head

Archaeologists study a monumental stone head discovered at the La Venta site in Tabasco State, Mexico. © Richard Hewitt Stewart / National Geographic Stock

Description: Students will develop a contextual understanding of Olmec art and archaeology—especially in terms of object/artifact images, related vocabulary terms, geographical setting, natural resources, and connections between Olmec symbolism and spiritual beliefs—prior to an in-person visit to the de Young Museum’s Olmec exhibition.

Objectives: Students will be able to “do” basic archaeology, especially creating hypotheses to answer specific questions, based on the Olmec objects exhibited, working through a progression of noticing/observing, wondering/questioning, and hypothesizing/forming realistic conclusions based on available visual, textual, and geographic evidence.

Students will be able to demonstrate measurable skills in: visual analysis, open-ended questioning, basic archeology research and theory, making connections between natural resources and archeological artifacts to a larger and more abstract belief system, and making connections between physical place (site) and physical object (artifact).

Part 1: Notice, Wonder, Hypothesize [one 45- to 60-minute class period]


  • Archeology PowerPoint presentation
  • Map of Central America
  • Object posters
  • Notice Wonder worksheet

Vocabulary: archeology, Mesoamerica, Olmec


  1. Before looking at the images of Olmec art, the teacher will lead two brief (approx. 10 minutes) introductory brainstorm discussions, on archeology and on Mesoamerica, using the “spider” or “sun” graphic organizer (drawn on front board) to elicit and evaluate students’ level of pre-knowledge on these subjects. [15–20 minutes]
    1. The teacher draws a “spider” or “sun” graphic organizer on the board with ARCHAEOLOGY at the center, then another graphic organizer with MESOAMERICA at the center. Students provide verbal responses to the topics, and teacher (or students) write their responses on the “legs” or “rays” of the diagram.
    2. Teacher can display or project the two archeological site/dig images provided in the curriculum materials to get students oriented and thinking on the subject.
    3. Though the student responses should remain essentially unfiltered and uncorrected at this point, there are leading questions the teacher can pose to keep discussion and ideas flowing, such as:

      Archaeology discussion questions:
  • What type of tasks does an archeologist perform while on the job?
  • Where do archaeologists do their work?
  • What are archaeologists trying to find out or discover?
  • What kinds of evidence or clues do archeologists look for?
  • How can archaeology be used to help us understand our past and present world?

Mesoamerica discussion questions:

  • Where is the region known as Mesoamerica?
  • What well-known groups of people or civilizations lived there in the past?
  • Who lives in Mesoamerica now? What countries are there today?
  • Why do archeologists continue to do so much work in Mesoamerica?
  • What do you know already about the different civilizations from Mesoamerica?
  1. In the second part of the lesson, students analyze and respond to four color images of Olmec art objects included in the Olmec: Masterworks of Ancient Mexico exhibit (as follows), which the teacher can post around the classroom at four different stations. There is one duplicate of each image, so eight stations can be arranged. [25–30 min.; approx. 10 min. per each stage of think-pair-share]

    Kunz axe
    Monument 52
    Colossal Head
    Votive axe & Celt

    Students will work at each station in a think-pair-share analysis (notice-wonder-hypothesize) format, taking notes on a formatted worksheet. For each artifact, students will answer these prompts (at first, alone in “think” phase):

    NOTICE (students write statements, notes, details)
    What specific details do I notice about this artifact? What do I see here?

    WONDER (students write questions)
    What question(s) do I have about the society or culture that made this art/artifact?
    What question(s) do I have about the function or use of this art/artifact?

    After taking brief notes (solo/“think” phase) on each artifact, filling in corresponding areas of the lesson worksheet while viewing and analyzing each artifact, students will compare their notes with a partner’s notes and add whatever details they agree with or want to consider as possibilities (“pair” phase).

    Finally, the whole class group will share results of this “first impression” exercise and compare and contrast each other’s ideas and reactions to the artifacts.
  2. In the third stage, after the “share” phase/group discussion, students will make a list of three to five high-priority questions that they will ask the docent directly on the museum exhibit tour. [5–10 minutes]
  3. Day 1 Homework or Lesson Extension
    1. Students receive a vocabulary worksheet with 12 terms (4 adjectives, 8 nouns/noun phrases) listed and defined. Class can read through the terms and definitions aloud if this activity takes place in class.
    2. Students complete Cloze (fill-in the blanks) exercise using the terms (could be pair or group work if done in class).
    3. Students write a holistic, unified paragraph using all of the terms in cohesion. Sentence/story starters are provided to initiate student writing.

Part 2: Olmec belief system and symbolism [one 45- to 60-minute class period]


  • Symbol PowerPoint presentation
  • Object posters
  • Symbol worksheet

Vocabulary: symbolism, interpretation, composite, Olmec


1. In this subsequent lesson, the students will return to visual analysis of the images/artifacts from Day 1 but look much more closely at their symbols and details, ideally using concepts and vocabulary learned in the Day 1 homework or lesson extension [25–30 minutes]
a. The teacher can begin this lesson by reviewing the Day 1 homework or lesson extension if time permits. Otherwise, the teacher should open class by orienting students to the image/artifact stations from the prior lesson. A possible introduction might be, “Today I want you to revisit these artifacts, look at their symbols, shapes, and details very carefully, and think about and hypothesize about the Olmecs’ relationship with the natural environment, the animal world, and the supernatural. What did they believe in, and what was important to them?”
b. As students again work through through the stations, in pairs or alone, they will fill out the symbol worksheet. On this sheet, students will analyze the images and confirm which artifacts (from the vertical column at left) contain or display certain symbols and materials (from the horizontal row at top) common to Olmec art. These include the cleft head, the maize/celt shape, “fiery” eyebrows, the axis mundi cross (X), “helmet” headgear, a downturned mouth facial expression, running-water “earfolds,” jadeite, and basalt. The teacher should model the layout and goal of the worksheet with the class or a select pair of students in order for this activity to work well.
c. Students should be guided to focus and think deeply about the last (far right) vertical column of the worksheet, which invites evaluation and synthesis. “I think the Olmec combined these symbols and materials to show . . . ”

2. In the last phase of this lesson, students should do two things: first, compare and contrast the results of their work in the activity above, again in the “share” format of the class-wide discussion modeled in the Day 1 lesson. [10–15 minutes]

Then, students should be directed back to their list of high-priority questions they generated for the docents on Day 1. Students should check how many of their initial questions they have already answered and finalize their list to three (or more) high-priority questions for the actual tour at the de Young.

2. Day 2 Homework or Lesson Extension:
a. Students will be given a blank outline of a map of the Olmec region, with the archeological sites plotted for each image (e.g., La Venta for Votive Axe, artifact 4 in Day 1 Lesson), as well as modern-era borders and blanks for major land and sea features, and city and nation place names (Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico, Guatemala, etc.).
b. Students will be directed to use Internet or print sources, such as textbooks, maps, or encyclopedias, or the labeled map provided in the curriculum guide, to locate and label on the map the names of the archeological sites, the numbers or titles of the artifacts found there (1–4 from Day 1), and finally, the current geological feature and city and nation place names. This activity can be solo, in pairs, in small groups, or with the whole class.