Unearthing the Past through Pop-Ups

by Jen LeMay

As a kid I always found the world an amazing mysterious place full of people in the present and made from the past. Today I’m an archaeologist intent on exploring and bringing to light those lives of the past, the cultures they come from and their everyday life. More specifically I’m fascinated by the Mediterranean-Ancient Greece & Rome, the great pharaohs that ruled the lands of Egypt, the Alexandrian Library, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, etc. While interning with James Madison University’s Special Collections & Preservation team, I’ve had the opportunity to pursue my passion in a very unique way. Recently my colleague, Fiona Wirth, and I have gotten to inventory a large collection of pop-up books in preparation for cataloging; pop-up books are full of interactive movement, pulling tabs, lifting flaps, spinning rotating volvelle wheels, and of course seeing images pop up in 3-D before your eyes—paper magic. However, not all are for kids as you might imagine.

Behold my favorite, “Ancient Rome: Monuments Past & Present” by archaeologist R.A Staccioli and translated into English by H. Garrett. This is not a normal pop-up book though, as it only has clear overlaid sheets that help reconstruct what monuments would have looked like in their full glory. The book starts by walking the reader through the Colosseum, to the Theatre of Marcellus with “a brief excursion to the Appian Highway” (Page 9), and ending at the Tomb of Caecilia Metella. I love how each monument is described in detail, its building, the activities that took place there, shows art that depicts the area, and shows their current broken but beautiful states. As an archaeologist I love the thought of creating uncomplicated texts of my work that can explain the history of my excavated sites to many people and make it enjoyable, like this book of such visual impact when peeling back the clear overlay that speeds up time and shows the site fully, creating pure awe in the readers and enticing them to read further.  

Second example, “Then & Now” by Stefania and Dominic Perring. This is another unique book with clear overlays that explore ancient places around the world, including the city of Pompeii and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and the city Teotihuacan which was first in the Americas and spanned the whole of Mexico and Honduras with many enormous monuments. I was excited to see this place come to life on these pages, as real as when I took a marvelous anthropology class “Aztec, Maya and Their Predecessors” with a wonderful professor, Dr. Matthew  Chamberlain. This book also contains Egyptian monuments like the Step Pyramid and the Temple of Karnak which was once beautifully painted and sitting along the Nile. I’ve been in love with Egypt since I was a kid, always following news on digs, studying the art of mummification, reading hieroglyphs (though I’m still terrible at this), and studying the ever beautiful, all powerful Queen Nefertiti. The Temple of Karnak was built in 1500BC and saw expansion until 1350BC, from the book you can learn a lot about places like this and how all the rulers of this land added to the temple until it spanned a vast five acres (Page 16).

Loving Egypt as much as I do, I was absolutely thrilled to find a “classic” pop-up book “Egyptian Mummies” by Milbry Polk. This book has all the interactive elements for embalming a pharaoh’s body on the very first page, shows the canopic jars each organ goes into and how each was wrapped afterwards and lowered into an elaborately decorated coffin with many protective charms. The Lisanby Museum on JMU’s campus actually has a neat display of Egyptian artifacts including a canopic jar that once held a pair of lungs! Lungs were always placed in the jar representing Hapi, a baboon headed god. On the last page, this book becomes a living scene of dedication to the deceased pharaoh, always honored as a god for hundreds of years after leaving this plane of existence. It consists of floating platforms, multi-tabbed props which unfold to rise up vertically and create walls, tables, statues.  A leap to the past, books are our time machines.

Canopic Jar of Hapi, Lisanby Museum

It’s been such a treat working here in the library and getting such a different take on my archaeological interests through these interactive pop-up books. I was also glad to see such scholarly subjects put into an easy-to-read, easy-to-see format for children, as I found a couple small pop-up books by Celia King on “The Seven Ancient Wonders of the World”, “The Seven Mysterious Wonders of the World” and even one on pharaoh tombs in Egypt, “The Tombs of the Pharaohs” elaborately illustrated by Sue Clarke. Seven mysterious wonders included Atlantis, the Egyptian Labyrinth, Easter Island and Stone Henge; each of these had a fact filled page on the history of each if known or hypothesized. The ancient wonders included the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus built in 353BC and one of my favorite places that still holds glory in my head, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon from around 600BC. King Nebuchadnezzar restored and expanded Babylon becoming the greatest city in Mesopotamia. He built this magnificent garden for his wife and queen, Amyitis, who missed her homeland and found peace with this new scenery. He also had engineers build a complex well system to continuously carry water to the plants, the only one of its kind seen in Babylonia which this small book illustrates.

Sue Clarke’s book on tombs is one of the best examples to keep kids interested in the old world and find relevance today, as pop-up books give freedom to the writer and paper engineer. “Tombs of the Pharaohs” is a triangular book which opens downward and folds out into unique pages, one with a Turkish map explaining the inside of a burial chamber and one with a large scarab beetle, especially memorable to readers who watched The Mummy series with Brendan Fraser (1999-2008), which devoured high-priest Imhotep as punishment and the character Beni, a scoundrel and tomb raider.

There are many fabulous books in the pop up collection, including ones on Shakespeare, da Vinci, the Victorian era, architecture, National Geographic animal life, and so much more. This has been a really neat project to be a part of, and extra wonderful finding such creative books that focus on my area of study. Below I have listed the books I’ve mentioned, and if they peak your interest or curiosity I suggest a trip to JMU Special Collections to see them in person.



Pop-Up Book List

Ancient Rome: Monuments Past and Present– R.A. Staccioli & H. Garrett
Staccioli, Romolo Augusto., and H. Garrett. Ancient Rome. Vision, 1989
Then & Now– Stefania Perring & Dominic Perring
Perring, Stefania, and Dominic Perring. Then & Now. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991
Egyptian Mummies
– Milbry Polk
Polk, Milbry, et al. Egyptian Mummies: a Pop-up Book. Dutton Children’s Books, 1997
Seven Mysterious Wonders of the World– Celia King
King, Celia. Seven Mysterious Wonders of the World: a Pop up Book. Chronicle Books, 1993
The Seven Ancient Wonders of the World– Celia King
Perring, Stefania, and Dominic Perring. Then & Now. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991
The Tombs of the Pharaohs– Sue Clarke
Clarke, Sue. The Tombs of the Pharaohs: a Three Dimensional Discovery. Tango, 1994



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