The Eight Features of Civilization
Marc Latasa

Lesson Context:
World (or Global) History is a required course spanning two years culminating in the New York State Regents. The course is designed to allow students the opportunity to see the relevance of history to their own lives, as well as introduce an understanding and tolerance of other cultures and people. However, to begin a study into civilizations and cultures, a foundation must be established: The Eight Features of Civilization.

In accordance with the New York State commencement-level standards and requirements for secondary school graduation and receipt of a high school diploma, this lesson focuses on the eight features of a civilization, a topic of the Ancient World (4000 BC-500 AD), and a component of the New York State required curriculum.

The model of a civilization is used to bridge different eras and cultures. The eight features are used to build a strong foundation in examining and studying various cultures. For instance, one feature of civilizations is cities. Students may examine the planned grid system of Mohenjo-Daro, Rome, and Manhattan. They may also compare the artwork of the Classic Greek statues with Michelangelo’s David.

Students, before this lesson, will be familiar with all eight features (cities, art/architecture, complex religions, organized governments, public works, social classes, job specialization, and writing). They will have learned the definitions of each and, more importantly, will have studied examples from different civilizations and eras. They will also have gone into their own community and found examples of each.

Many of these ideas and items are located in the Global History and Geography Social Studies Core Curriculum. Cultural diffusion, which is used throughout this lesson, is a major component of the course and is emphasized on the New York State Regents. Other concepts are:

  • Political systems, such as complex governments like the dynastic rule of China;

  • Belief systems, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Philosophies and schools of thought, such as Confucianism;

  • Urbanization, such as Pompeii;

  • Citizenship, such as the caste system or Japanese feudalism; and

  • Interdependence, such as a scribe, monk, serf, samurai, caliph, or griot.

  • These key items are used throughout the core curriculum, from the urbanization of the Yellow River Civilizations, the power of the Han dynasty, the political ramifications of the Mandate of Heaven, and the belief systems of the Muslims, Christians, and Jews during the Crusades.

    The goal of the lesson is for students to categorize a number of photographs into the respective feature and develop an understanding of both the features of civilizations and the ability to recognize these features, regardless of the civilization in question.

    Prerequisite Learning:
    Students spent a week studying the five themes of geography and another week on the Old Stone Age, the New Stone Age, and the Neolithic Revolution. They are knowledgeable of the impact of geography on a culture, the conditions of the Paleolithic Period, the importance of the Agricultural Revolution, and the development of permanent settlements in river valleys. At the beginning to the year students were given the rubric of the New York State thematic essay in social studies to become familiar with the requirements of the course. They will be expected to evaluate themselves before they hand in an essay.

    Day 1:

    Students will watch a power-point presentation on the eight features. Each will be given a handout to familiarize them with these criteria. Each feature will be defined with examples, both visual and auditory. This will build upon the previous homework of identifying and describing the eight features using the textbook.

    With a pre-assigned partner, students will move through a series of stations, each with a number of photos. Each station, around 6, will have three pictures that can be categorized into different features. On the back is a card identifying the item, such as the Cathedral at Barcelona, Michelangelo’s David, and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

    Students will act as curators of a museum and have to classify the photos into the respective categories. They will have to explain and defend their decisions using the definitions from the earlier sheet.

    Day 2:

    After finishing all the stations, pairs will share their answers and the reasoning behind their decisions. This will be a whole group discussion focusing on the reasoning behind the findings of each group. Students will also identify locations and places in their own community using the eight features. Key emphasis will be placed on how well the groups can rationalize their work. At the end of the class, the sheet with their answers will be collected along with the pairs’ sheet from their "museum." This will help identify strong and weak areas among the lesson so emphasis can be placed on areas that need further clarification.

    The assessment will be a thematic essay based on the NYS Regents format. Essays should follow a standard format. Students are encouraged to be innovative in their presentations and may use graphics or visuals for extra credit. They may use the Internet for additional, relevant material to support their themes. This assignment will begin in class and will be due one week after it is assigned.

    Time Required:
    Planning - around 6 hours of conducting research, keyboarding, computer work, setting up the room, making copies, enlarging photographs, and developing a power point.


    • Introduction and power point - 30 minutes

    • Station work - 45 minutes

    • Post-discussion - 20 minutes

    • Essay - 30 minutes (finished at home over one week)

    Two 40-minute class periods for entire lesson.

    One week for assessment – using New York State rubric


    This lesson may also serve as an introduction lesson to a portfolio based on the connections and relevance of the civilizations and cultures of the world. Students may continually add work to the portfolio, such as document-based questions, thematic essays, reflections on current events, and graphic organizers, to flesh out a comprehensive and detailed file of many of the civilizations, from Mesopotamia to the Ukraine. At the end of the two years, this file, focusing on the key characteristics of the civilizations, will be invaluable in studying for the New York State Regents. Furthermore, students may have their work displayed, either in the classroom, in the hallways, or have a display of cultural awareness and diversity in the library.

    This work lends itself to the ESL students. They may bring in artifacts or pictures from their country of origin. One student this year brought in a picture of the president of the Dominican Republic and herself. The foreign born students are enhancements to a Global History class because they, themselves, are Global History, and living testament to the purpose of exploring "the human condition, the connections, and interactions of people across time and space."

    LEP students also need the information for the Regents. By working at their own pace, and by being given a variety of ways to demonstrate their learning, such as the work in a portfolio or studying the countless ways a society perceives "art and architecture", they may also learn the essential material needed for the New York State Regents. Working closely with resource room and special education teachers, teachers can modify the assignment to aid the student in learning, while still covering the material. Just because a student is dyslexic does not mean they cannot hear the sounds and rhythms of African tribal music. I have one student who hates to write. However, they are exceptional artists and designed a large poster board discussing the dynastic cycle of China. While she, along with all students, needs to be able to write an essay and interpret documents, this flexibility will help keep their interest and help them stay on task and receive the material.

    I believe the standards and methods of learning are met and demonstrated in this lesson.

    Civilization Exhibition
    American Museum of Natural History
    Now Showing

    You are a curator (director) of the Museum of Natural History and are preparing an exhibit on The Eight Features of Civilization. A partner and you will travel among a number of stations and decide where to correctly display the artifacts in the pictures.


    • Cities Public Works

    • Complex Religions Job Specialization

    • Organized Governments Writing

    • Social Classes Art and Architecture

    Each picture has some identifying information on the back. Explain why you classified your photo into which display.

    Each student will submit a five (5)-paragraph essay written according to the NY State thematic essay rubric. Essays must be typed or neatly handwritten (standard margin, 12-font size). Extra credit, will be given for graphics demonstrating exactly how items would be displayed. Use relevant, important, and related information to support the essay. Use of the Internet is encouraged.

    Eight Features of Civilization

    As farmers settled in fertile river valleys, they began to grow surplus or extra food. This extra food increased the population of the settlements. In time, the settlements grew into cities, such as Ur in Sumer or Babylon in Mesopotamia.

    Organized Central Governments:
    As cities developed and expanded, the food supply and irrigation systems needed to be maintained. Governments, such as councils or religious leaders, began to oversee the business and existence of the cities.
    Complex Religions:
    Religious leaders would conduct elaborate ceremonies to appease the gods (polytheism) and insure a bountiful harvest. Floods and droughts were blamed on the gods’ abger so rituals were conducted in the temples.
    Job Specialization:
    As civilizations became more complex, artisans and craftsmen were needed to maintain specific items and tasks. No longer could individuals do all the work. Now some concentrated on teaching, scribing, stone-cutting, and so forth.
    Social Classes:
    As jobs became specialized so did the status and needs of certain individuals. The need for a knowledgable and educated religious leader was more respected than an unskilled worker. Herders were needed and respected for the food, while masons were needed for building. The slave was on the lowest rung of the social ladder warriors and kings were on top.

    Records were needed to keep accounts on trade goods and food storage. Writing was needed because the information became too great. In addition, one needed to express more complex ideas such as "belief" and "social order" where pictures and words simply would not suffice.

    Art and Architecture:
    This expressed the beliefs and values of a civilization. Different styles were developed and copied by societies. Often the art was used to impress visitors and people about the beauty and power of a king or a community.
    Public Works:
    The government would order these, although costly, to aid and benefit the community. Such things as a wall to protect from attack or a canal to aid in irrigation would help insure the survival of a people.

    For Printable version of the above chart, see The Eight Features of Civilization.

    2008 NYSED