A message in hieroglyphs.
Credit: Public Broadcasting Service
This lesson introduces students to the writing, art, and religious beliefs of ancient Egypt through hieroglyphs, one of the oldest writing systems in the world, and through tomb paintings. Hieroglyphs consist of pictures of familiar objects that represent sounds. They were used in ancient Egypt from about 3100 BCE to 400 CE.
In the first part of this lesson, the class creates a pictorial alphabet of its own and then learns and uses the symbols of the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet. In the second part of the lesson, students identify and represent in their own drawings figures from the Book of the Dead, a funereal text written on papyrus and carved on the walls of tombs to help guide the deceased through the afterlife.
What are some ways people have used to communicate in the past and the present? What writing systems have been developed in other cultures at other times? What can tomb paintings tell us about ancient religious beliefs in Egypt?
The ancient Egyptians created a form of picture-writing known as hieroglyphs around 3100 BCE. Each picture was a symbol representing something they observed in their surroundings. A simple drawing of the sun represented the sun, a drawing of a vulture signified a vulture, a drawing of a rope indicated a rope, and so on. But certain objects, and more particularly ideas, were difficult to represent with a single drawing.
So they resorted to a system of drawing symbols of things that sounded like what they were trying to convey. This was the ancient Egyptian version of a rebus. (A rebus is a representation of a word or phrase that uses pictures that sound like the word or phrase, or its syllables.) An English example of a rebus is a bee and a leaf drawn side by side; when read aloud, they sound like the word "belief." But this approach to writing could become cumbersome and confusing.
Eventually, a system evolved in which a symbol was drawn to represent a specific sound (a consonant). Several symbols were written together to make a word. This is the closest the Egyptians ever came to creating an alphabet. Vowels were not written, but were added (usually eh or ah) by the reader. For this reason, we don't know exactly what ancient Egyptian sounded like.
Hieroglyphs were written vertically (top to bottom) or horizontally (left to right or right to left). To read a horizontal line, one moved toward the faces of the animal symbols. (They all faced in the same direction.) There was no punctuation, and to save space, two small symbols often occupied the space of one larger one. The names of royalty were surrounded with an oval, known as a cartouche. Although there are thousands of symbols, the most commonly occurring are a set of 24, which modern archaeologists use as a working alphabet. They include vowels sounds, although in Egyptian the sound would have been that of a vowel linked with a consonant, such as ahhhhh or uhhhhhh.
Hieroglyphs were used at first by a small group of scribes to keep records. Later, they were carved (and then painted) on the walls of tombs and temples, on obelisks, and on sculpture. (Hieroglyph means "sacred carved writing.") They were also written with pen and colored ink on sheets of papyrus. In addition to the glyphs representing sounds (called phonograms), there were a small number that represent entire words or concepts (ideograms).
Tell the students to pretend that they have no form of writing. Then ask them how they can send a message to someone far away. Brainstorm until someone suggests that this can be done with pictures. Ask them what sort of pictures they would draw. These would have to be simple things familiar to the message sender and the receiver. Have the students think about their natural environment. What objects are most familiar? Encourage the students to think of trees, grass, stones, birds, squirrels, flowers and anything that is typical of your environment. (If you live in Arizona, symbols might include cactus and snakes.) Make a list on the board of objects that could be used to send a "picture message." Suggest they include human body parts, like hands, feet, eyes, and ears.
Now ask how the following message could be depicted with pictures: "The tree is split in two." One would simply draw a tree broken in two. Explain that they can actually make a written language using these pictures to express more complicated actions, such as: "The silly rabbit lost its carrot and had to go to sleep hungry." Ask for their ideas of how this can be done. Then explain the system of using pictures to represent sounds rather than specific images. For example, a picture of a tree could represent the sound (or letter) b. Using the list you've already written on the board, assign a sound to each one. (You might mention that a fun part of this activity is that spelling doesn't matter. It's what you hear that counts.) Make certain you have included the following letter sounds: a, aw, b, d, ee, g (hard), h, i, k (for hard c), l, n, oh, p, r, s, t, th, oo, and uh.
Now that you have your alphabet, work together to figure out how to write the sentence ("The silly rabbit lost its carrot and had to go to sleep hungry.") using the symbols. Write it on the board.
Tell the students about Egyptian hieroglyphs, referring to the information in the Introduction. Point out that the Egyptian system was the same as the one they've just invented themselves. Show them the Egyptian alphabet on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Nova: Pyramids.
The students will be happily surprised to see that the Egyptians used symbols similar to those they chose, although some are different, given the differences in environment. (The environment of Egypt is desert/river valley.) Point out that birds (there are three -- a chick, a vulture, and an owl, as well as feathers) seem to have been important to the Egyptians. So was water (the symbol for n). Explain that b is a foot (did you have one in your list?) and r is a mouth.
Hand out copies you have previously printed of the Egyptian alphabet to each child as well as blank sheets of paper and pencils. As a group, make up some short sentences. For example, "the moon is big." Ask the students to write a sentence on the paper using the Egyptian letters. Have them share the results. Then do another sentence.
Carefully read aloud what each symbol means, encouraging the students to ask questions. Point out that shen and ankh (meaning eternal life) and wedjat (good health) were especially important in Egyptian culture.
Tell the students that hieroglyphs were often carved on the inner walls of tombs as well as on stone tablets called stellae. Then go the EDSITEment reviewed website Nova: Pyramids.
On the screen that appears, click Programs A-Z, then scroll down and click Egypt's Golden Empire, on the next screen click Egyptian Experience, click enter, on the next screen click hieroglyph translator, and finally click extract one. This is an actual sentence in Egyptian hieroglyphs taken from a stella. With the students carefully observing, scan across from right to left, slowly reading the translation aloud. (Remember, always read toward the faces of the animal symbols.) Remind the students that this is an English translation of an ancient Egyptian message, since the language might appear a bit stilted to them.
Now that the students have an idea of how hieroglyphs were used, tell them they will be Egyptian scribes. Make certain that they have their copies of the Egyptian alphabet. Hand out the copies of the ideograms. Pass out large pieces of white paper and markers or crayons. Each child will write his or her name in hieroglyphs (first and last), followed by an ideogram of his or her choice. Remind them to put a cartouche around their name. Explain that the Egyptian scribes worked very slowly and carefully.
When the project is done, have the students share their hieroglyphs with one another. If time is an issue, you may have the students present their name hieroglyphs and ideograms in small groups while you walk around the room posing questions or giving comments. Then hang them proudly on a bulletin board.
Now that the students have some background about Egyptian writing, art, and religious beliefs, gather a collection of colorfully illustrated books about ancient Egyptian culture from your school library. Many stories are currently available which can be read aloud to the children. The Egyptian Cinderella by Shirley Climo (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1989) is a favorite with this age group. Older children could do research projects on their favorite gods or goddesses, finding stories about them derived from ancient Egyptian mythology. Material on this subject is available at EDSITEment-reviewed websites, including Exploring Ancient World Cultures, Odyssey Online, and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
2 class periods