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Hands-on hieroglyphics

Dive into ancient history and unlock the magic of Egyptian writing for your child.

By Dr. Mike Norris, Consulting Educator

Between mummies, buried gold, and pictographic codes, no wonder kids love those ancient Egyptians and their wildly dramatic culture. Tap into your child's weakness for all things Egyptian and give him a fabulous glimpse into the history of language.

Hieroglyphics (pronounced "highrowgliffick") was a writing system in which words are simple drawings of the thing being described. In this sense, Egyptian writers — called scribes — were artists as well as writers! But that wasn't all. These pictures could also stand for things connected with themselves; for instance, the picture for "mouth" could have the meaning of "speak," for "arm," the meaning of "give." Some of the pictures could even stand for sounds — like the letters of our alphabet do.

These links to Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art show how ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphic writing in their world:

Relief of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II

Coffin of Khnumnakht

Section from the "Book of the Dead" of Nany

Making a hieroglyphic picture

This activity offers kids a way to learn about ancient Egyptian pictograms and thereby understand a little more about how our writing has evolved.

What you'll need

  • Drawing paper
  • Pencils or crayons or paint
  • Scissors
  • Glue

How to do it

As a warm-up, try to communicate the following words through poses or simple actions: "cat," "walking," "dog," or "tree." Now, using pencils or crayons, make two separate pictures, one from each of the following sentences: "Under a hot sun, a cat went into a house" and "The light of the moon showed the dog the tree." Can you point out which part of the picture means the sun, a cat, or a house? Or a moon,  dog, or tree?

Next cut out these parts of the pictures (best done with the help of an adult). On a fresh sheet of paper, glue the parts that make up the sentence: "The cat went to the tree in the moonlight." Have your child show his pictograms to someone not familiar with the activity to guess what this "Egyptian" sentence means!

Dr. Mike Norris, a 14-year veteran of education at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is currently head of the team that brings the museum to families, both inside and outside of its walls. He holds a doctorate in art history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and frequently consults with his 9-year-old son about the museum's family programs.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/9/2009:
"This comes at such an appropriate timing. King Tut exhibitis going to be in San Francisco at the DeYoung Museum and I have scratched my head trying to figure out hopw this could be made memoriable with a solid build up before the children attended the show. This is perfect. and Thank you so much for the suggestion."
03/4/2008:
"this is cool but why couldent they just write and speak normally"
04/26/2007:
"Thank you for this article, because it seems to combine something interesting to kids with a natural learning experience that covers actually writing, art, history, archaeology, etc. "
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