Legendary Trade in the Ancient World

By Alma E. Guinness [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Alma E. Guinness [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
This 45-60 minute lesson on trade in the ancient world is designed as part of a larger unit plan focused on introducing civilization as a historical concept. While this civilization unit plan take Sumer as the exemplar, this lesson could easily be adapted for other historical periods or early civilizations. The intended audience is sixth grade students at an American public school. This lesson assumes that students are already familiar with how agriculture allowed individuals to produce a food surplus and how this allowed some individuals to specialize in something else. If you have not addresses this, I suggest that your start by teaching a mini-lesson around this and how that makes trade a necessity.

Goals: Students will demonstrate deeper understanding of trade and be able to contrast how individuals might trade goods at a market to meet certain needs verses how trade networks operated between civilizations in the ancient world. This is a comparing activity from the comprehension level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Students will have little choice in this activity beyond the illusion of deciding which items to trade and with whom.

Process: For my 24-32 student classrooms I would recommend 8 types of goods, 5 bundles of each good , and 10 goods per bundle (all one type of good). With 50 of each good to go around it ought to be is sufficiently challenging for all students to trade to obtain at least 1 of each of the 8 goods. As far as trade goods, colored construction paper with the labels gold (Orange), food/grain (yellow), spices (black), wood (brown), cotton (white), wool (gray), pottery (red), and precious stones (blue) make viable stand-ins. Additional, trade goods might include olive oil, copper, tin, and glass.

Students will each receive one bundle of goods and instructions that they should trade with as many people as necessary to obtain at least one of every good. They may trade goods with someone even if the good that they are trading is not the type that they started with. Playing music during trading and turning it off for discussion and instruction can be helpful.

You can repeat this simulation a couple of times with the instructions above, asking them at the end of each simulation what they observed. During the discussion, collect and sort the items back into batches. If necessary, you can tell them some of your own observations. In particular, you might point out the emergence of centers of trade in specific locations in the room (usually around patches of open floor space), patterns where some students just trade one of what they have for one of what they need, while others might trade all of their excess items for two or more of something in hopes that they could make a better trade later, and perceptions about the relative value of different items.

One key line of inquiry that should be pursued that they are unlikely to develop on their own is, “do you know who had all the goods in your collection during this round of exchange? Do you know where all the goods you had ended up?” “Where did all the wool come from? Who did it start with? What about the pottery?” They will likely have a good idea about who they traded for what.

For this next round you can throw in the wrinkle that they can only trade from their desks and cluster the goods together. Explain that because most people didn’t travel a great distance to trade their goods. Most people trade with their neighbors who would trade with their neighbors. These long chains of trading linked civilizations into “trade networks.”

Some people will be able to connect with 8 others from their desks, but many others will not be able to connect to that many and even those with eight partners may find it difficult to reach most of the goods.

At the end of this round of trading, I will ask them observations. They should notice that they had to chain their goods from group to group and that they have much more trouble telling you where any one good came from.

I like to ask students to follow-up this sort of activity with a “process” as homework. I request a paragraph (at least 5 sentences) about what we did and what they learned about trade at a market and as part of a trade network.

If your class if more comfortable with specific prompts you can use:

What did you learn about trade today that was different than what you had previously thought about the topic? Was there anything that you thought was particularly challenging in this activity? What was different about trading when you could walk around and when you had to stay seated?

5 thoughts on “Legendary Trade in the Ancient World”

  1. This lesson looks like fun. Lots of movement and student interaction. I think your post does a good job of describing the steps so that other teachers can benefit.

    I’m always looking for ways to demonstrate the then / now connection. How about having students check some clothing labels to see where things were made. (No they cannot take their clothes off) Might get them thinking about trade roots. Or the night before the lesson they could inventory some items from home to see where they were made?

    I like this video The Silk Road and Ancient Trade: Crash Course World History #9. Could be useful for a wrap up activity.

    1. Crash course is great and I relied on it heavily prepping for the social studies content exam.

      I like the idea of connecting the ancient to the modern. One of my constant refrains with the students is that we are very similar to people in other places and times; what separates us is experiences and perspectives.

  2. I love this simulation idea because it makes trade real and tangible for students. It seems accessible to students of all readiness levels, and the experiential (and competitive) aspect could engage any student’s imagination. I also really appreciate the reflection aspect of the lesson. It lends more meaning to the simulation as students have to think, “Why did I do this? How did it work? What can this tell me about trade in ancient civilizations?”

    I have a couple of suggestions for this simulation. First, if you could name the tables after the civilizations you are studying, or if you are only studying Sumer, you could make them different city states. The goods in students’ bundles at each table would then differ depending on where they are, for example, more wool in Egypt, more spices in the Indus Valley, etc. My other suggestion is that there should not be an equal amount of each good, but depending on relative value there should be more or less. There should be less gold than grain, for example. This might help add in the idea of value for students, and show how difficult it can be to find and afford everything you want/need in this type of trading economy.

    1. I like the idea about messing with the number of goods and giving groups names that are representative of the different civilizations. I am a little reticent to try that at this point with my sixth graders as they are obsessed with fairness and this will be the first unit in the curriculum. What do you think about doing it with these additions later in the year as part of a lesson on the silk road? It could be an assessment of what they retained.

  3. I still love this project too. I think my stock exchange project that I do in my unit plan will be similar and I might pull some of your ideas for it if it’s okay? I also like seeing how you changed it after our peer review. Nice job!

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