Pyramid of Khufu
Credit: Image Courtesy of PBS.org's NOVA
The word "pyramid" actually comes from the Greek word "pyramis," which means "wheat cake." The word "pyramis" was used to describe the ancient Egyptian buildings because they reminded the Greeks of pointy-topped wheat cakes. The ancient Egyptian word for the pyramids was "Mer."
—The British Museum
What we know about ancient civilizations comes from what those civilizations left behind. Sometimes it's a shard of pottery, part of a tool, a piece of jewelry. Archaeologists scour the earth for such remnants of ancient civilizations to piece together a picture of the past. But in Egypt there are clues to the past that are hard to miss: they're six and a half million tons, taller than the Statue of Liberty, and as wide as 10 football fields. You don't need a trowel and a brush to discover these artifacts; you can see them from space!
What purposes do the Egyptian pyramids serve? (Historically, they house and protect the pharaoh and his belongings after his death; presently, they lead archaeologists to evidences and understandings of ancient Egyptian culture.) How do the pyramids tell us about the peoples of ancient Egypt?
This lesson plan consists of three learning activities that build upon one another and should, therefore, be used sequentially. Activity 1 introduces the students to artifacts and archaeology. Activity 2 considers pyramids as artifacts and examines the scale of these great structures. Activity 3 asks students what clues pyramids give us about the ancient Egyptians. The lesson can be extended by considering other aspects of ancient Egyptian culture.
Review the suggested activities, then download and duplicate any online materials you will need. For optimal student engagement, bookmark specific web pages so that students can access relevant online materials directly; if a computer with Internet access is unavailable, print out required pages and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. (See Selected EDSITEment websites for a guide to locating online materials.)
Now that the students know where the pyramids are and how big they are, ask them what these great structures tell us about the ancient Egyptians by observing and analyzing the following tomb artifacts from
Remind the students that the ancient Egyptians built pyramids as tombs for their pharaohs. But what kind of a person would have such a great structure built? (Proud? Self-important? Powerful? Wanting to be remembered?)
See examples of pharaohs and court dynastic figures available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website, Exploring Ancient World Cultures, from the Cleveland Museum of Art:
The pyramids contained rooms that were filled with expensive objects that were buried with the pharaohs—furniture, jewelry, games, even food! Why did the pharaohs need such things? (For use in the afterlife, the world the pharaoh went to after he died.)
Also, explore individual tomb objects at the Metropolitan Museum site. Click on: Section from a Book of the Dead of the Priest Horus Imouthes (Imhotep); Menna and His Family Hunting in the Marshes; Statue of an Offering Bearer; and a model of a river boat.
The ancient Egyptians had no cranes or machines to help them move and cut the stone blocks used in the pyramids. They had to do it all by hand. Many of the blocks weighed the same as 25 refrigerators. Normally it takes two adults to move a refrigerator around in a kitchen. So your students can guess how big a job it was to move one of these blocks up onto the pyramid. What does this tell us about the ancient Egyptians? Ask your students, how do they suppose they were able to move these huge blocks?
The fact that pyramids pointed upward to the sky delivered another message about the ancient Egyptians. (Explain that the Egyptians believed that their pharaoh was a god and that he would rise up and join the other gods after his death. He would symbolically climb the pyramid's sloping sides to the sky, where he would live forever.)
Whether or not the pharaohs lived forever, their stone structures endure. More than 4,000 years after they were built, the pyramids of the ancient Egyptians continue to be monuments with a message.
We're going to look in particular at the Great Pyramid, which was built from about 2589 to 2566 B.C. The largest of the Giza pyramids is Khufu's Pyramid, after the pharaoh—or ruler—for whom it was built. (Khufu is sometimes known by his Greek name, Cheops.)
The Great Pyramid is the last survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, and until the early 20th century was the tallest building in the world.
This pyramid dominates the plateau of Giza. Students can get an excellent sense of the scale and magnificence of the pyramids from virtual reality views available through a number of EDSITEment-linked websites. Have the students take a flyby of the plateau by visiting Pyramids: The Inside Story, on the EDSITEment-reviewed Nova: Pyramids website. No one is allowed to climb to the top of the Great Pyramid, but at the Nova site the students can enjoy the 360-degree view from the top.
Building the Great Pyramid was a huge task. The students can learn about it by watching the flash animation at the British Museum's Ancient Egypt site, a link available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Odyssey Online. To illustrate the size of the Great Pyramid, have the students examine the dimensions at the Nova site and at its interactive photograph:
Tell the students that today they are going to dig into the past to find clues about lost civilizations. People who do this kind of job have a special name. Does anyone know what they are called? (Archaeologists, from the Greek word, arkhaio meaning ancient.)
Archaeologists search the earth for evidence of past civilizations. Like digging detectives, they try to find clues about how people used to live. Clues can come in all shapes and sizes. Show the students these artifacts from the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites:
From Odyssey Online:
Mention that all of these things are called artifacts.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a link available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, defines "artifact" this way: "something created by humans usually for a practical purpose . . . an object remaining from a particular period."
Have the class use this definition to give examples of artifacts familiar to them. Ask students, "When and where have you seen or heard of these particular artifacts? Where and when did the objects originally exist?"
Ask if anyone knows where we would find the pyramids.
Arrange for the students to locate Egypt on a map. Have them go to the map site on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource National Geographic Education. On the world map, click on Africa, then click on Egypt in the northeastern corner of the continent. This will orient them to Africa's place in the world, as well as Egypt's place in Africa. Odyssey Online also has a map of Egypt locating Giza and the Nile Valley.
Hand out to the students blackline printouts of the Xpeditions Africa map and have them color in Egypt. Have them circle the words El Giza. That's where the pyramids are that we are going to examine—the Giza plateau.
Now that students have located the pyramids, let them be classroom virtual archaeologists and find out what the pyramids tell us about the ancient Egyptians.
You can now turn back to the guiding questions for this unit: What do the pyramids and the artifacts found in and around them tell us about ancient Egyptians' attitudes toward death? What do they tell us about life in ancient Egypt? You can assign the following activities to individual students or to small groups to research and present findings to their classmates or to another class. PDFs provide the questions and basic resources for each group.
Then, have your students construct an Ancient Egypt timeline. For information and an example, see the timeline for the Metropolitan Museum's "The Art of Ancient Egypt."
As a whole class exercise or to assess each group or each student's knowledge, have students try the following online interactive exercises. If done as a whole class exercise, you may want to ask your student experts from each group to note any incorrect answers and to offer their explanations for the correct answer.
2-3 class periods