Reconstructing the Past: Lego Colosseum & 8 reasons why Lego is great training for an archaeologist

Before. Box I: Bag 3 After Box IV: Bag 35

Apart from the joys of building, does Lego offer an experience that can shape our character and how we come to view the world? 

Building Lego’s epic new Colosseum set has been a remarkable journey back into my childhood, the joy of opening a set on Christmas morning, the shake of thousands of pieces between my hands, the aspiration of a completed picture on the box. The comfortingly voluminous book of step by step instructions: if only life came in such a wondrous package.

Between following the piece by piece instructions, occasionally cursing at the small fidgety pieces that slipped through my fingers, the unfortunate pinches when my finger got trapped between the pieces, and cracked fingernails, my experience of building this monumental masterpiece as part of my #ColosseumChallenge has been reflective. I built for hours this Saturday, inspired by the passionate account of the Sutton Hoo excavations in Netflix’s “The Dig”, a fantastic account of one of Britain’s greatest treasures and a pivotal moment in the field of archaeology, as focus shifted to recognise practical knowledge of techniques, context, and fieldwork skills. These qualities are exemplified in the character of Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes), an eccentric amateur archaeologist. Lego taught and inspired me, quite literally, to “think outside the box”, not just in building but also in life. It got me thinking about the roots of my career as an archaeologist: there a number of connections between the skills I’ve learned, those that I was experiencing anew, courtesy of my Lego Colosseum. The following are a list of 8 key attributes of archaeological training that had their roots in my childhood love of Lego.

Image of the Colosseum at Night from Conde Nast
  1. A Puzzling Past: History is an hopelessly incomplete set of Lego. Archaeologists spend their lives trying to piece together fragments of the past into a puzzle that will never be complete. Part of reconstructing a narrative of the past is using every possible source. Ancient evidence is like a Lego set with few if any instructions: intuition, evidence and creativity must come together. How do we find this balance?

2. The importance of every piece.  You know that horrible feeling when you’ve built a section of Lego then notice a few missing pieces… Welcome to archaeology!  Like archaeologists, Lego builders can’t just love the finished product, they have to appreciate every piece and how a structure comes together.  Early archaeology was often like a treasure hunt, seeking rare and precious items to corroborate ancient myths: “The Golden Cup of Nestor”, “The Mask of Agamemnon”.  Modern archaeology, as seen in the unique character of Basil Brown, however, requires a broader understanding of an entire context: soil & local geography together with the history of a site. It was not the gold that revealed the ship at Sutton Hoo: it was the rusted iron rivets that held it together. New evidence is always emerging, so theories have to be dynamic & flexible. 

3. Building from the ground up: Understanding Layers.   While excavation is often backwards (from the top down) the value of understanding each layer is crucial; a discovery on one level can impact others.  In “The Dig”, Brown notes how later tomb robbers impacted structure of a mound.  While we don’t have tomb robbers in the Lego Colosseum, the structure of the foundation (Box I:) impacts the integrity of the entire building. Excavators don’t know what lies beneath and rather than building, they often destroy levels as they traverse downwards into the past. Like a builder of Lego, the causes behind issues on one level may not be evident until they uncover the next. You learn to look for structural weakness in your theories and anticipate issues, not unlike a Lego construct: what is holding this together?

4. Teamwork: Building a group dynamic: Most of my Lego experience was building with my brother and/or friends. The differences between peoples’ interests and skills quickly emerged: my brother was the certified archaeologist & master designer, and I was the layman, great at finding and putting specific pieces together.  Fieldwork teams in archaeology require a similar (if not broader) framework of diversity.  While there are more & less experienced individuals, the more specializations one has on a team, the more dynamic their final product. Being united by a common goal (and often on digs, common working and living spaces) brings people and ideas together. The same was of true in my experience building Lego: my brother and I fought less playing Lego than doing anything else.

5. Getting your hands in: Sensory evaluation & archaeology  Building Lego is a 3-D sensory experience that builds dexterity as well as an innate understanding of how structures work: the satisfying click when the pieces come together, the earth shattering crack when they crumble, the resistance of a solid build and the way a weak build shifts ominously between your fingers. The Indiana Jones films, set in a similar time (just before WWII) as “The Dig”, promoted an active approach to archaeology, vying against traditional stereotypes of “armchair archaeologists” who focused their research largely upon books rather than on-site experiences. Basil Brown’s approach captures this beautifully:

Robert Pretty: Mr. Brown’s been telling us all sorts of things. For instance, what’s the most important part of an archaeologist’s body?
Edith Pretty: I don’t know.
Robert Pretty: His nose. If there’s something there, he’ll know it by the smell.

There is a knowledge that comes from hands-on and sensory engagement with objects that cannot be recreated. The ability to evaluate materials through cognitive pathways imbeds these materials in numerous memory frameworks and provides a practical understanding of how materials fit into a broader context.  How does it feel, how much does it weigh, is it solid and strong? These skills are crucial for an archaeologist as well: was a gold mask meant to be worn, was it decorative?  In an increasingly digital world, the value of physicality in engagements with materials should not be underrated. 

Imagine what this experience was like! A black & white Mosaic from the Parco Colosseo (Rome) depicts a man about to fight a very angry tiger: the text tells us that he won; the theta above the tiger reveals that it was killed.

6. Improvise! A tale of missing pieces. The Roman architect & writer Vitruvius (1st century BCE) describes the dimensions of an ‘ideal’ Roman theatre in his work (De Architectura), yet not a single surviving Roman theatre adheres to this ideal. Every work, like its builder, is unique. No one is perfect. In a set with nearly 10,000 pieces, there are going to be a few missing pieces. If we understand how a structure works, then we can make creative substitutions so always keep the extra pieces! I often discover that what I thought were “extras” are pieces I missed out, and these can be crucial both to improvising and to figuring out how I deviated from the instructions. Deviations or changes can the most fascinating aspect of a building.  

7. Built to Last? The value of building something tangible. The survival of ancient buildings illustrates the aspiration we all have to leave a lasting memory. While some might consider Lego to be merely fodder for the landfill, the structures we create are in many respects, more long-lasting than the digital creative worlds (e.g. Minecraft): only the former is likely to survive for future archaeologists in a landfill. My son is in tears when his Minecraft world is lost in a glitch or blown up by a marauding creeper;  these losses have no logic or lessons, they are part of an algorithm. Although I cried when my Lego builds crumbled, the experiences had a learning curve, a sense of responsibility (it was often my fault) and thus an opportunity to learn resilience. My structure was not lost in the ether, I could rebuild it, stronger & better from the rubble. The Colosseum was rebuilt numerous times: whether these were intentional additions, building errors, or an act of god (e.g. lightning struck the Colosseum in the early 3rd century CE, starting a fire in the highest wooden seating areas). Building blocks were reused and repurposed: the original building dedication (ca. 80 CE) was reused by another dedicator centuries later. Rome was constantly being reworked: material evidence provides vital clues to this process.

8. Reconstructing the Past: Where evidence meets Imagination. One of the most engaging aspects of archaeology are monumental reconstructions: when we try to imagine what a building looked like. These recreations are born of an understanding of a structure and the process that created it. We follow instructions not only to understand how to build a Lego set, but also to learn the broader building principles that will allow us to build independently. We can base an idea for a reconstruction on similar material from similar contexts, but the final product requires creativity & imagination. One of my favourite epigraphers, Prof. Silvia Orlandi (La Sapienza), who published & restored the inscriptions from the Colosseum (EDR) observed, “when we restore, we are dreaming…imagining what the missing section may be”. It reminds me of the first time I free-styled a Lego spaceship, it had aspects from previous Lego sets, but it was my own creation: a dream made real.

In short, Lego isn’t just good training for an archaeologist, it’s way of approaching the world and our place in it, of balancing life’s rules, expectations, and instructions with individuality, creativity and imagination.

Follow my journey on Twitter : @abby_fecit   #ColosseumChallenge

Published by

Dr. Abigail Graham

Classical Archaeologist and Rogue Epigrapher, lecturing at the University of Warwick. Coordinator of Epigraphic (studying inscriptions) training courses at the British School at Rome and the Centre for Study of Ancient Documents (Oxford). Passionate Enthusiast of the Roman world, particularly, connecting ancient and modern cultures. Current research: Reading monuments, ancient and modern perspectives. Incorporating theories of modern neuroscience, cognitive psychology and anthropology into our understanding of literacy and how people interacted with writing on public monuments and in rituals performances.

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