Fake Artefacts – how a smelly jar and a yellow cloth made an engaging starter

Year 9 are currently looking at life in East Germany. Having read a bit around the topic I became fascinated by the Stasi, especially after reading Stasiland and watching the Lives of Others and wanted to teach this to my students.

One aspect that I found particularly interesting was how the Stasi kept people’s smells. During interrogation the Stasi put a cloth on the victims’ seat. That person would obviously sweat into the cloth, which they then kept in a jar. After the wall fell in 1989 they found thousands of these. This is beyond bizarre but reveals so much about the East German state and I knew that my kids would love this too.

So I decided I would fake up some smell jars to use in class. I grabbed  a few empty jars from the recycling bin (the smellier the better), cut up a yellow duster and shoved it in them. Then I printed a fake identification label on the computer (including the name of the agent from the Lives of Others)


As kids entered the room they had one per desk with an instruction on the board to work out what it was. They were allowed to open the jars, smell the jars and discuss. We had brilliant suggestions -a bomb, a poison, a face cloth, the list was endless. But none in the guessed it correctly. Next I showed them the opening 5 minutes of Lives of Others where the agent collects the smell and the kids realised what it was. The following five minutes discussion on what this revealed opened into a lesson where the students were fully engaged and interested.

When I taught this to a subsequent class a few kids shot their hand up instantly saying they knew what it was. When I asked how they said they’d been told by their friends from the other class. You know an activity works when they are talking about it outside of lessons! Not bad for some junk I collected from around the house.

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1 Response to Fake Artefacts – how a smelly jar and a yellow cloth made an engaging starter

  1. traceygooch says:

    Such a great idea – these jars in the Stasi museum in Berlin definitely left an impression on me

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