For centuries children of all ages and cultures have been fascinated with ancient Egypt. Because of this, Egyptian art can be a valuable tool in helping children both learn about and create art, because studying it strengthens their observational powers as it inspires their own art making.

And, leaving aside mummies, nothing in Egyptian art interests children more than hieroglyphic writing (pronounced “highrowgliffick”). In this writing system, which the Egyptians called “the gods’ words,” scribes wrote “words,” called hieroglyphs, which were actual pictures of the thing being meant by the word. So these 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;” the arm, the meaning of “give.” And some of the pictures could even stand for sounds, like the letters of our alphabet do.

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

Relief of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep

Coffin of Khnum-nakht

Section from the “Book of the Dead” of Nany

A great way to introduce your child to ancient Egyptian art is to visit a museum, or a Web site of a museum, and then do this activity. If you are lucky enough to live near a museum, check to see if it has an Egyptian exhibit, and take your child to see it!

This activity helps children learn about Egyptian art and culture, while exercising their imagination.

What you need

  • Clay
  • Toothpicks to provide “bones” to suppory clay limbs

 Here’s how to do it

Small statues, about the size of an action figure today, were placed in a tomb to help the mummy when it supposedly awoke and did work in the afterlife. They each looked like a small mummy with its arms crossed and each had written on it a spell from the Book of the Dead that was supposed to bring them to life. Called shawabtis (pronounced “shahwahbtees”), the statues were supposed to call out “Here I am!” when, in the afterlife, the mummy was given work. The shawabtis, having volunteered, would then do the work for the mummy. Although many Web sites have images of shawabtis, one of my favorites is from The Metropolitan Museum

Imagine having your own shawabtis to help at home or at school. What would you want them to do for you, how would the shawabtis do it, and how many would you need? Make your own “shawabtis” out of clay. They can be like the Egyptian shawabtis, or you can make them take the action poses they’ll need to magically help you.

Dr. Mike Norris is associate educator in charge of family programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

December 2005