The great value of physical evidence is that it often seems more real to students than written primary sources. Humans are visual animals: we tend to believe what we see. We also tend to spend, proportionally, less time looking than reading in most history classes, which is a shame.
It’s ideal, of course, if students can see and even touch real objects. Some of the most memorable lessons I’ve ever taught have come through a chance to get backstage access at a museum. (And many museums are hungry for opportunities to demonstrate engagement with local schools; you may be surprised at what you can get if you ask). When you can’t get to a museum, though, the web has made artefact-based lessons easier than ever to put together. Most museums have excellent websites, and archaeological digs are beginning to, too. The Library of Congress and the French Archives Nationales both have stuff as well as texts. And don’t forget living history operations–they tend to be especially skilled at picking poignant examples.
Here are a few sites I particularly like:
Interactive map of Chauvet Cave (prehistoric cave paintings)
Interactive Northwest Palace (Neo-Assyrian site)
Bayeux Tapestry thumbnails (Medieval England)
Interactive map from the excavation of early American settlement Jamestown
The Library of Congress’s American Memory project includes a large collection of photographs
Metropolitan Museumm of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History includes lots of everyday items
Google Art Project offers street-view style walk-throughs of many museums, including the palace at Versailles, and also lets students curate their own galleries, which has lots of lesson-plan potential.
And here is a general introduction to teaching visual literacy from the truly excellent teaching website maintained by Facing History and Ourselves
What’s This? (Objects as puzzles)