Chapter Three: Activities for The First Writing

Chapter Three

The First Writing

UBWH 10-122, 15, UILE 110-111
KIHOW 28-29, KHE 9-10

Review Questions, The First Writing

What two types of writing did we talk about? Cuneiform and hieroglyphics
What two countries wrote in cuneiform and hieroglyphics? Egypt and Sumer
What three things did the Egyptians and Sumerians write on? Stone, clay, and paper (or papyrus)
Which is easiest to write on? Paper
Which ones lasted the longest? Stone and clay
Which one fell apart? Paper
What does “Mesopotamia” mean? Between the river.
Do you remember what “hippopotamus” means? River-horse!

Narration Exercise, The First Writing

Have the child tell you in three to five sentences what the history lesson was about. You can prompt the child with the questions listed above. The child’s narration should include something about both cuneiform and hieroglyphics; you should prompt him for these names. Acceptable narrations might include:
“The Egyptians wrote on stone. These were called hieroglyphics. The Sumerians wrote on clay. These were called cuneiform.”
“Writing on stone was called hieroglyphics. Writing on clay was called cuneiform. This writing lasted a long time. Writing on paper didn’t.”

Additional Reading

Seeker of Knowledge : The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs, by James Rumford
(Houghton Mifflin 2000). The story of Jean-Francois Champollion, who decided when he was eleven that he would solve the mystery of Egyptian writing. (RA)

Footsteps in Time: The Egyptians, by Ruth Thomson (Watts Books, 1995). Fun activities, including writing hieroglyphs, that can be completed by the child with minimal assistance from an adult or older sibling. (RA)

Hieroglyphs for A to Z, by Peter Der Manuelian (Museum of Fine Arts, 1991). Illustrations of a number of different Egyptian hieroglyphics. (RA)

Corresponding Literature Suggestions

The Shipwrecked Sailor : An Egyptian Tale of Hieroglyphs, by Tamara Bower (Atheneum, 2000). The picture-book story of a shipwrecked sailor, retold from an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph scroll; includes pictures of the original hieroglyphs. (RA)

The Winged Cat: A Tale of Ancient Egypt, by Deborah Norse Lattimore (HarperCollins, 1995). A young girl saves her cat from the afterworld by reading the signs over the gates. Plenty of great illustrations of hieroglyphs in this picture book, but not for parents who prefer to avoid myths. (RA)

Map Work

1. On the map provided, locate Egypt (remember they lived along the Nile River and around the Nile delta) and Sumer (outlined on your map). Remember, these are the two countries where people first learned to write.
2. Choose your favourite coloured crayon or pencil and shade in the areas where writing began.


Coloring Page

Using your coloured pencils, crayons or markers, colour the picture of the Egyptian scribe carving hieroglyphs into stone.



  • Craft Project: Make Cunieform Tablets

cuneiform alphabet guide (provided)
scrap of paper
small wedge (a thick Phillips screwdriver would work well)
drinking straw and heavy string (optional)
1. On the scrap of paper, write the message you will be translating and carving into the clay tablet. You could write your name to make a door plaque or a simple message to a friend or relative. Use your mind and imagination to determine what you would like to carve.
2. Roll the clay so it is a flattened rectangle, about ½ – ¾ inch thick. Feel free to trim the edges to make them neat and tidy.
3. Using your wedge, and following the cuneiform alphabet guide, carve your message into the clay tablet. The further you dig the wedge into the clay, the wider the mark will be. This is how the triangle shapes in the cuneiform alphabet were made by Sumerians. To make a narrower mark, press the wedge in the clay with less pressure. Alternately, if you are using a screwdriver, press the edge into the clay, wiggle it a little bit from side-to-side to get the triangle shape, then drag it straight through the clay to get the straight line. You might want to practise this before beginning your message. Once you are comfortable making the marks, re-roll the clay and begin carving your message.
4. If you want to hang your tablet, use a straw to punch a hole in both top corners.
5. Let the clay tablet dry according to package directions. If you are using clay gathered from outside, you can let it dry in the sun, or bake in the oven at a low temperature until the tablet is hardened and completely dry.
6. If you punched holes into your tablet in order to hang it you will need to thread some heavy string through the holes, and hang.

  • Craft Project: Make a Hieroglyphic Scroll

firm bristled paint brush
hieroglyphic letter guide (provided)
ink OR paint OR purple berry juice
ribbon (yarn or string would also work)
tape, thumb tacks
lightweight paper (several sheets – computer banner paper would also work well) OR for more historical realism, buy some sheets of papyrus paper from a craft/ art supply store
2 wooden dowels or sticks (slightly longer than the paper)
1. On a piece of paper, plan the hieroglyphs you will use on your scroll. Remember to use the sounds in the words, not the actual letters (that means “Christopher” would be spelled “Kristofer”). You don’t need to include silent letters (that means “night” would be spelled “nit”). If you really want to be authentic, check out some of the internet links listed above, or do your own search, for even more guidelines on Egyptian hieroglyphic writing rules.
2. Tape several sheets of paper together, side to side, to make one long strip (you can skip this step if you are using computer banner paper, since it is already one long piece).
3. Using a stiff brush (the Egyptians used reeds with one end crushed into a brush) and the ink, paint, or berry juice, paint the hieroglyphs onto your scroll.
4. Let the ink dry completely, which shouldn’t take very long.
5. Tack each end of the scroll onto a piece of dowel, or a stick.
6. Roll the scroll toward the centre, ensuring roughly half the paper ends up on each pole. The two dowels or sticks should meet in the centre.
7. Tie the scroll with a ribbon.

  • Craft Project: Make a Pharaoh’s Hieroglyphic Name Cartouche

cardboard (corrugated works best, but you can also use a double thickness of cereal box
firm paint brush (narrow to medium width)
hieroglyphic letter guide (provided)
hole punch, or darning needle
gold OR silver and black paint
scissors or utility knife
scrap paper
string (or shoelace) OR pin back and glue
1. Cut the cardboard using the scissors or utility knife (an adult should do this) into a long oval. It should be about 3-4 inches long, and about 1 ½ – 2 inches wide.
2. Using the hole punch or darning needle, make a hole at one end of the oval.
3. Paint the oval black. Let it dry completely.
4. On the scrap paper, following the hieroglyphic letter guide, plan your cartouche. A cartouche was worn by Pharaohs and their most important subjects. It should have your name on it. Remember, use the sounds in your name, not the actual letters. That means, you can leave out silent letters. For instance, if your name is “Charlotte”, you would use the hieroglyphics spelling “Sharlot”. Similarly, if your name is “Michael”, you would use the hieroglyphics spelling “Mikel”. The hieroglyphs on the cartouche should be arranged vertically, from top to bottom. More than one symbol (usually not more than two, though) can be on a line. The Egyptians liked to make them look appealing.
5. Once the paint is dry, following your plan, paint on the hieroglyphic symbols using the silver or gold paint.
6. Let it dry completely, at least overnight.
7. Thread some string through the hole you made (or glue a pin onto the back side). Wear your own personal cartouche whenever you want to feel like the Pharaoh’s best friend. Pretend to be the Pharaoh, for that matter!

Activity Project: Why Do Clay Tablets Last Longer than Paper?
Hieroglyphic scroll (use directions above – if using paint or ink, ensure it is water soluble)
clay tablet (use directions for “cunieform tablet” above)
1. Place the clay tablet and the hieroglyphic scrolls outside. Leave them there for several days.
2. After a week, look at the tablet and the scroll. Are they the same as when you first put them outside? How are they different? Open the scroll and look at the print. Is it changed at all? Depending on the weather, they may have been rained or snowed on, they may have sat under the hot sun’s rays, or in the misty fog. The weather will determine how they have changed. If it rained, snowed (which is wet like rain) or was foggy (also wet), the paper scroll is likely soggy. Maybe it is even torn. The print is likely hard to read as well. If it was sitting in the hot sun for many days, the scroll might not look very different. The clay tablet, though, will be the same as the day you set it outside to weather. Even if it is wet, the print will still be easy to read. You won’t see any changes in it unless you had a big wind storm, earthquake, or other phenomena that would cause it to fall, and possibly break – even then, you could piece it back together to read it.
3. Next, we will simulate a flood (the Egyptians did live next to the Nile, remember). If you haven’t already, roll up the scroll. Take it and the tablet inside. Fill the kitchen sink with water. Put the clay tablet in. Now, put the paper scroll in. Let them sit for 5 minutes (it was a really quick flood – if you leave it longer, the paper might fall apart!) How is the tablet? Wet, but doing OK, right? What about the scroll? Unroll it and look at the print. Can you still make it out? Good for you, if you can.
4. Now, roll up the scroll, if you haven’t already. Have an adult put them in the oven for you, at a low temperature (not more than 200F). This part of the experiment is simulating the hot, dry condition of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The paper scrolls and clay tablets of long ago spent many years in hot, dry weather. To speed up the process, we’re using the oven (after all, we can’t wait years for this experiment!).
5. In half an hour, peek into the oven. If the paper starts to char, turn the oven off immediately (the scroll can remain inside the hot oven, though). In another half an hour, have an adult remove the tablet and scroll from the oven. Does the tablet look any different? Can you still read it as easily as before? What about the scroll? Unroll the scroll and look at the print. Is it any different? Did the paper tear or break at all when it was opened? The hot, dry air in the oven caused any changes you might see. Hot air outside will do the same thing over long periods of time.
6. The clay tablet will be very hot, so let it cool for an hour.
7. While you are waiting for the tablet to cool, re-roll the scroll. Show it to someone (your family pet, baby sibling or parent is fine). Make sure you unroll it when you show it to them. Then roll it up again. Show it to someone else, making sure you unroll it, then roll it up again. Keep showing it to other people (if you run out of live people or animals to show it to, stuffed animals would like to see it, too), making sure you unroll it to show them the hieroglyphs, and re-rolling it after looking. Remember how many times you showed the scroll. After an hour of unrolling and rolling of the scroll, take a look at it. Has it changed in any way? The unrolling and rolling of the scroll simulated the use it might get if it were a real ancient Egyptian document. Did the paper tear or break from all this use?
7. The clay tablet should be cooled by now. If it isn’t, use oven mitts to handle it. Now you will simulate the use it might get if it were a real Sumerian clay tablet in ancient Mesopotamia. Show it to the same number of family, friends and stuffed pals as you did with the scroll. (Lucky for you, this won’t take as long, since there is no rolling and unrolling involved.) Has the clay tablet changed in any way after showing it so many times? Not at all. Your clay tablet sure is sturdy!

Likely by this point, your paper scroll isn’t looking very healthy (How many pieces is it in?). The clay tablet, on the other hand, is looking pretty much the same way it did before we began this experiment. If you wanted to test if further, have an adult build a campfire, and put the clay tablet in the fire. Even after burning for a several hours, it would still be in good shape. It might be black and sooty, but that can easily be wiped off (at least enough to read the print). If you put the scroll in the fire, I think you know it would burn within minutes. While a real ancient scroll and tablet wouldn’t be dunked in the water or baked in the oven, they would be exposed to the weather, including floods and the hot, dry air of the Middle East. The experiments you did simulated these elements of the weather, and reduced the waiting time (it might takes years for nature to do this much damage to a paper scroll). Now, you know why the ancient clay tablets lasted much longer than the ancient paper.

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