Habits of Mind

  • Communicate

Digging into Archeology

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Understand how social scientists learn about ancient societies from their material records
  • Practice visualizing and describing complex scenes and information
  • Research and write about ancient Japanese society



For archaeologists and anthropologists who study ancient cultures, burial artifacts like this one provide a wealth of information. You can use this Haniwa to help your students practice deciphering complex information, just as these social scientists do.

Explain to your class how archaeologists can learn complex information about people and cultures who lived centuries ago, by looking closely at their artifacts. Present the Haniwa, and guide your students in envisioning how it must have looked when it was guarding its grave.

Ask students to imagine that they are archaeologists who have come across an ancient tomb surrounded by Haniwa figures. Have them draw and describe their findings. They should remember to include details about the arrangement, number, sizes, and shapes of the figures. What can students learn about ancient Japanese culture from this display?  Students can research ancient Japanese society to inform their drawings and writings.


  • What is this figure wearing? What does its dress tell you about it?
  • Describe this figure’s expression and body language. What does it communicate about them?
  • Look closely at the details, including the incised lines and painted decorations. What effect do they add to the object? How did they get there?
  • Does any part of this object look mass-produced? Defend your answer.
  • Look carefully at the shape of the figure. What words would you use to describe it? Would you say that the composition is naturalistic, or more schematic and simplified?
  • If you look closely at this Haniwa, you can see evidence of the artists’ labor: lines inscribed by hand, marks on the surface of the clay, and strokes of pigmented paint. Looking at the statuette, can you tell what processes the craftspeople might have used to make it? How long do you think it would have taken? Be sure to note the size of the object.

  • How would you describe this warrior’s stance? What mood does this figure communicate?
  • Though we are viewing this Haniwa alone, they were intended to be viewed in groups of hundreds or thousands, circling burial mounds. Imagine what such a gathering might have looked like. What effect might this sight have had on passers-by? Why might a deceased person desire such an effect for their grave site?
  • Haniwa have been made in many forms—humans, horses, dogs, boats, even tiny houses. What message might a warrior, like this one, have sent? Why might someone choose to put a tiny warrior like this at a grave site?
  •  Many details about this Haniwa, including its short, thin arms and minimal facial features, are not naturalistic. Why do you think the artisans who made this figure have chosen such a schematic style? Be sure to consider the way it was intended to be displayed.
  • Often, the only way we can learn about people who lived long ago is by analyzing their tombs, the only material remainder of their time on Earth. Consider the purpose of these Haniwa. What can we guess about the person whose tomb this figure once guarded?
  • Consider the way contemporary Americans mark their graves. How can they communicate information about the deceased? How is it like, and unlike, this tradition of 5th-century Japan?

The sculpture represents an armored and helmeted warrior as he reaches for his sword. Originally, it would have guarded the burial mound of an important person. In early Japan,clay sculptures in a variety of forms were placed around graves to protect the deceased and to help hold together the earth. Hundreds, or even thousands, of individual figures might surround each tomb. These sculptures are called Haniwa,meaning “circle of clay.” Haniwa ceramics have been found in many different forms, including humans, horses, dogs, and inanimate objects such as houses and ships.

This warrior figure is particularly appropriate for a sentinel. Composed primarily of simple geometric shapes, this figure is typical of Japanese sculpture of the time. The warrior is highly stylized and unrealistically proportioned, with arms that seem too thin and too short. His face is masklike, with slits for the eyes and mouth and a straight ridge for the nose. The stiff militant stance and alert expression emphasize his role as guardian of the deceased. Since the warrior was intended to be seen outdoors and from a distance, the artist did not need to select the highest quality of clay or to embellish the figure with elaborate detail.

Japan has a long and continuous tradition of ceramic arts. Haniwa figures were made from coarse clay using simple techniques. The clay was kneaded into long strands, which were arranged in spirals to form the rough shape of the figure. Although the outside of the sculpture was smoothed by hand, the coils of clay remain visible on the inside. While the clay was still wet, clothing and accessories were added to the figure and decorative details were cut or scratched into the surface. Additional features were attached after the sculpture had dried sufficiently to be handled.

These hollow Haniwa figures required relatively little clay and readily withstood the firing process—important considerations since it was usually necessary to make large numbers of sculptures in a very short time. Unglazed, the figures were often painted. This warrior retains traces of pigment that are easily seen despite centuries of exposure to the elements.

The powerful clans that dominatedJapanese society at this time began erecting huge burial mounds that would equip the deceased for the afterlife. By the early 5th century, these mounds had grown to massive proportions. However, the introduction of Buddhism in about the 6th century brought with it the custom of cremation and the development of new sculpture traditions. The creationof Haniwa figures gradually declined and eventually disappeared. Yet the culture that had created these sculptures continued, and the same sense of form embodied in Haniwa figures recurs throughout Japanese art.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider