Uncovering a Mystery: Making a Hypothesis

Lesson Plan


Students will imagine what it might be like to be an art historian or art collector by hypothesizing possible uses of a discovered wooden leg in a descriptive journal entry.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 50 minute lesson

Standards Area

Language Arts


Students will be able to:

  • describe activities and challenges of being an art historian or art collector;
  • hypothesize possible original use(s) of the wooden Leg; and
  • create a written or illustrated journal entry from an art collector’s perspective that includes realistic, descriptive details.


  1. Warm-up: Give each student three copies of the handout that shows the shape of a leg. Have students design a background scene for the leg. Encourage them to be creative—they might want to draw the rest of a human being, turn the leg into a lamp, or create something new! Give them 2–3 minutes for each handout.
  2. Display the Polynesian Leg and ask students to look at it closely. Start by having them describe what they see.
  3. Have them brainstorm as a class what the Leg might have been used for. No idea is stupid! When they think they have exhausted the possibilities, encourage them to come up with three more ideas.
  4. Explain to students that archaeologists and art historians often have a general idea about what particular art objects were used for, but many times they do not know for certain. Even the Denver Art Museum isn’t sure why each piece of art was created!
  5. Have students pretend that they are art collectors who discover this wooden Leg in the Marquesas Islands. For older students, have them write a journal entry about the day they discover the Leg. Their entries should provide realistic, descriptive details that address “who, what, when, where, why, and how” questions. The students should also include some possible ideas about what the wooden Leg was originally used for and their reasons for thinking this way. Which possible use for the wooden Leg is the most likely given the relevant evidence?
  6. For younger students (and if time allows for older students), have them draw pictures in their journals of the Leg, illustrating different ways it might have been used.
  7. Encourage students to share their final writing pieces or show their drawings in small groups. Have students share one positive comment and one recommendation for improvement for each piece. You may want to make this a special occasion by bringing in snacks and hosting a writer’s breakfast or tea.


  • Lined paper and pen/pencil for each student
  • Handout with drawing of Leg, three copies for each student
  • About the Art section on the Polynesian Leg
  • One color copy of the Leg for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art



Late 1800s

Artist not known, Marquesas Islands, Polynesia

Who Made It?

This wooden leg was carved by an artist from the Marquesas [mar-KAY-zas] Islands, a group of volcanic islands in French Polynesia, located in the Pacific Ocean. The Marquesas are the farthest group of islands from any continent. In terms of the arts, they are well-known for their tattoo art, as well as for their carvings in wood, bone, and shell. The process of tattooing in the Marquesas was treated as a ritual and the tattoo artist was a highly skilled artisan. Even today, many Marquesans beautify their bodies, proclaim their identities, and preserve their memories and experiences with tattoos.

What Inspired It?

We’re not sure why this particular object was created. It’s possible that it served as the leg for a specially constructed raised bed, made only for certain priests to lie on following the performance of important sacrifices. Tattoos were believed to protect a person’s body from harm and this belief applied to objects as well. Tattooing the bed’s leg may have served to protect these priests’ tapu, or sacred, state by preventing contact with the earth. This leg may also have been a model placed outside of a tattoo shop, advertising the services of the artist inside.

In the past, tattooing was a major art form in the Marquesas Islands and it inevitably influenced other art forms. The tattooing style of the Marquesas was the most elaborate in all of Polynesia. Tattoo images were marks of beauty as well as a reflection of knowledge and cultural beliefs. They also signaled a person’s social status—a higher ranking individual would have more tattoos than an individual of a lesser rank. All-over tattooing was a development unique to this area. Both males and females were tattooed, although only men covered their bodies from head to toe. Designs were also different for women and men.


Tattoo Imagery
Tattoo Imagery

Tattoo images have been carved all around the circumference of the wooden leg. The carving is particularly detailed on the foot.


The large crack down the front of the leg happened before the leg came into the Denver Art Museum’s possession. It is evidence of curing of the wood as it aged.

Wooden Peg
Wooden Peg

The peg, or wooden block at the top of the leg tells us that it may have been attached to something else.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.