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Writing Systems of Ancient Egypt

Grade Level: 6-8

Subject: Social Studies

Lesson Overview:  This lesson will introduce students to some of the earliest forms of writing in human history.  Students will be encouraged to think about the elements needed to develop a written language and to link the way  the characters are written to the media / technologies available to render those images.  Students will be introduced to the hieroglyphic writing system of ancient Egypt and will learn to use these symbols to write simple messages.  Students will then investigate the changes from the use of the recognizable images in hieroglyphics to the more representational scripts seen later in Egyptian civilization.  The significance of the move from carved media to the use of reed pens made from Phragmites and "paper" scrolls made from Papyrus in these changes will also be highlighted.

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New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards

STANDARD 6.1 (Social Studies Skills) All students will utilize historical thinking, problem solving, and research skills to maximize their understanding of civics, history, geography, and economics.

A. Social Studies Skills

bullet Analyze how events are related over time.
bullet Examine current issues, events, or themes and relate them to past events.

STANDARD 6.3 (World History) All students will demonstrate knowledge of world history in order to understand life and events in the past and how they relate to the present and the future.

STANDARD 7.2 (Culture) all students will demonstrate an understanding of the perspectives of a culture(s) through experiences with its products and practices.

Time Frame: Two class periods

Materials and Resources:


·        PowerPoint  (ppt format)  (pdf format)


·        Word list


·        Glossy paper


·        Large index cards or other matt paper (some glossy paper has a matt back in which case the same sheet can be used for both assignments unless the teacher wishes to display the artwork in the classroom later on).


·        Sharp pencils


·        Blunt pencils


·        Student Worksheets

       Wingding Rosetta Stone (editable file in word format)


     Wingding coded messages (editable file in word format)


      Wingding Answer Sheet (for teacher)


      Hieroglyphic Worksheet  (editable file in word format)




Explain what a symbol is


Use symbols to represent words and thoughts


Use a key for decoding messages


Identify certain Egyptian hieroglyphs and recognize their meanings and uses


Understand the importance of a key such as the Rosetta Stone in coding and decoding ideas in writing


 Understand that language is a changing medium and that the way we express ideas in writing changes over time


Discuss the impact that using Phragmites reed pens had on the development of Egyptian hieroglyphic forms. 


                                                Suggested Procedure


Set up poster board on blackboard so students are able to access it.  Make sticky tack readily available so students can attach notecards onto posterboard.

Exercise 1:  Symbolic Representation of Ideas

Students will be prompted to think of examples of different languages or symbols they use or see every day.  Teacher may start them off with some of these ideas and see what they come up with: stop signs, exit signs, bathrooms signs for girls or boys, stoplights and “Walk” symbols, text messaging (LOL, TTYL), sign language, facial and body language, “pig latin,” baseball signals, Ubbi Dubbi, gibberish etc.  Teacher will then tell students that today they are going to develop their own symbol systems to represent different objects, people or ideas.

Teacher will pass out glossy paper with a word and a thick wax crayon (or dull pencil) to each student, asking them to each create a type of symbol that would represent this word and then post them on the posterboard.  (NOTE:  SOME WORDS ON THE LIST ARE HARDER TO REPRESENT THAN OTHERS.  TEACHER SHOULD USE HIS / HER DISCRETION WHEN ASSIGNING WORDS SUCH THAT MORE CHALLENGING, ABSTRACT CONCEPT WORDS ARE GIVEN TO STUDENTS WITH STRENGTHS IN RESPONDING TO THIS KIND OF CHALLENGE)

When everyone is done, and the symbols are posted, the teacher will ask the students to guess the meaning of the symbols. UNKNOWN to the students, at least two students should be assigned the same word.  Hopefully, on occasion different students will represent the same word with a different symbol.  Similarly, students assigned different words may have used similar symbols to represent their words.  The teacher should use these instances to illustrate the importance of having a common frame set that everyone knows about when writing or reading / interpreting a written script of any sort.   In addition, in general students with the same words will tend to have similar symbols when asked to represent specific OBJECTS (e.g. duck, cake, shoe) and those symbols will tend to be recognized quickly and accurately by the group.  However, symbols for more ABSTRACT concepts (e.g. bigger, before, death) will tend to show more differences between students and will also be harder for the group to interpret accurately (e.g. a symbol for enjoy might be interpreted to mean happy or smile).   Clearly, the latter concepts will tend to be a greater challenge when trying to develop a shared written system from scratch for a large group of people.

Then the students will be handed a regular (matte) note card and a SHARP pencil with another word on it.  Again they will be asked to draw another symbol to represent their assigned word and to and stick that to poster board.  The same exercise should be followed.

Once the students have done both exercises teacher should engage the students in a discussion of the experience of the two writing systems.  Hopefully students will volunteer that it was much harder to make the symbols in the first example.  Teacher should prod the students to provide an explanation as to why this might be.  The teacher should guide the students to the conclusion that the nature, complexity and speed of a writing system is strongly related to the tools that are used to render the symbols within it.

The teacher should then show pictures of carved hieroglyphics (PowerPoint slides 2-4) and ask the students:  How easy or hard would it be to make symbols using carving into rock?  (HARD) Into soft clay?   (STILL HARD BUT EASIER, BUT SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN RARELY USED IN EGYPT

The teacher should then engage students in a discussion of what it might have meant to Egyptian scribes when the technology of making paper from Papyrus and pens or brushes from reeds was developed (slides 5 - 8). 

Hopefully students will volunteer that this would have made writing easier (so it could be used for more day to day purposes) and faster (more efficient).  They might (with help) even volunteer the idea that, as writing became easier and faster and was thus used every day, the symbol system used to represent sounds and ideas would be shortened (teacher may want to make the analogy between this and the abbreviations commonly used in text messaging):

The teacher should then relate this back to the students’ experience with rendering their two symbol sets.

The purpose of asking the students to make their first set of symbols on glossy paper with a thick wax crayon dull pencil is to force the students to rewrite the symbols that they decide upon over and over again on the paper in order to make them visible to others.  This is intended to represent the experience of the Ancient Egyptians when carving their hieroglyphs into stone or clay using carving tools.  In the second exercise, using the plain paper with a regular pen/pencil, the students should see (with teacher guidance) how much easier it was to create a clean, clear symbol relative to their experience with the glossy paper and dull pencil in the first exercise.  In addition, they should notice (again with teacher guidance) that the symbol that they made in the second exercise was a lot clearer to see for everyone else. The use of the plain paper and regular writing utensil symbolizes the technological improvement that resulted when the ancient Egyptians started using the more versatile Phragmites reed pens. The greater clarity and precision offered by reed pens created a revolution within Egyptian writing systems that allowed writing to move from a complex and decorative symbol system mostly used for “special occasions” such as decorating tombs and other buildings to something that was easy and fast enough for every day use (like handwriting today).

If desired, teacher may want to tell students that when pictures are used to represent whole words, as in this exercise, the symbols are known as ideograms. The earliest known writing, which comes from Sumeria (the southern part today’s Iraq) about 5000 BC used ideograms.  However, in Egyptian hieroglyphics these ideograms had evolved so that the symbols represented sounds, as does our alphabet today.  When symbols represent sounds they are known as phonograms.

Exercise 2:  Decoding a mystery message.

The teacher should present students or groups of students with a piece of paper with one of the wingding encoded messages provided.  Hopefully the students will be suitably baffled.   Teacher should then show students some more of the hieroglyphics from Egypt (slides 9-11) and explain that for a long time archeologists were similarly baffled about what the symbols meant.

Ask the students what they need in order to decode their messages.  Guide them, if necessary to the idea that they need a KEY…. Something that translates the hieroglyphics into a form that we recognize and understand.  The teacher can then explain that, for hieroglyphs, that key came in the form of the Rosetta Stone  (slides 12 and 13 in PowerPoint)

Tell them that you have a “Rosetta stone” for their mystery messages.  Provide the students with the handout with the “Rosetta stone key” for their messages and allow them to work individually or in groups to decode their passages.  Once they are done, have the students share their translations with the group.

Exercise 3:  Writing in hieroglyphics

Ancient Egyptians used a couple of different types of hieroglyphics.  In the earlier forms, symbols often stood for entire words, whereas later the symbols stood for a single sound or a group of sound or syllables.  In this exercise we will be working with hieroglyphics that stood for specific sounds.

Hieroglyphics were phonetic, which is to say that they used a symbol for each sound.  As a result, when writing an English word using hieroglyphs an accurate translation does not just substitute letter for letter between the English spelling and the hieroglyph for that word. 

To familiarize the students with some of these ideas and the rules of Egyptian hieroglyphic script, have students write their names using hieroglyphics using the key provided following the rules on the student handout (provided).

If students ask about the cartouche on the handout (teacher may wish to prompt this question if it does not arise on its own) explain that, in Ancient Egypt, names of members of royalty as well as those of the gods were always contained within an oval symbol termed a cartouche (slide 14). 


After students have finished drawing their hieroglyphics, the teacher should engage them in a conversation about how they found the experience.  All but the most artistically gifted students will likely have found it challenging to draw the symbols in such a way as to make them recognizable, let alone aesthetically pleasing.  Remind the students of the idea that was in one of the earlier slides in this presentation about how, when the reed pen came along, the scribes developed a more abstract symbology where the original hieroglyphic symbols were still recognizable, but much simplified (hieratic symbols).  Later still, the Egyptians developed a writing system where the symbols were so abstract that the original hieroglyphs were no longer recognizable (demotic symbols).  Show them pictures of the three different symbol systems (PowerPoint  Slides 15-17)

Note that the two more abstract scripts did not replace hieroglyphics.  Hieroglyphics continued to be used until the Egyptian Civilization fell.  However, the different scripts were used for different purposes.  Hieroglyphics were used for formal purposes like decorating temples, tombs and ceremonial documents.  Hieratic and, later, Demotic scripts were used for day-to-day purposes.  (PowerPoint Slide 18)

Based on their experiences ask students why they think this was….  Their answers should show an understanding of the idea that the faster, and easier (less fussy) nature of these scripts which would make them more suitable for the kind of high-volume writing that’s needed to keep records of things like crop yields, taxes and other day-to-day record keeping.  However, these scripts lack the aesthetic beauty of the original, more decorative symbols  (PowerPoint Slide 19).

Teacher should then prompt students to recognize that all languages tend to be created in pieces over many generations, and that all symbologies change over time.  Students may be interested to learn, for example, within the English language in just the time since the European colonization of America some changes have happened in our writing.  For example when the Constitution was written scribes commonly used the letter F to stand for an S sound and letter V was frequently used in place of a U.  (PowerPoint 21 and 22).

Some of these changes just represent changes in fashion. However, others represent changes that resulted from innovations in as the technology used for writing. As we’ve seen, the invention of the reed pen and papyrus (the first paper) was an example of this sort influence that new technologies can have on a society.  Another such revolution happened when we moved from handwriting and typed manuscripts with the invention of the printing press and another still may be underway as a result of the increasing use of text messaging.


Offer students the opportunity to send a SHORT message (about 3 words long) to each other written in hieroglyphics and following the rules they learned when writing their names.  Each student should then decode the note that they receive and check their translation for accuracy with the author. 


Students should be assessed on the following:

bullet Their participation in class discussions.
bullet Their behavior during class discussion and independent working times.
bullet The completion and neatness of their hieroglyphic name and cartouche

An example rubric is provided for teacher to use or modify as desired.

Accommodations and Modification:

Students with difficulty reading other languages are able to read a different set of questions in English.  Students with visual impairment can move closer towards the screen for the PowerPoint presentation or have the PowerPoint slides printed out.  Students with physical disabilities could explain the image they would create for replacement of the word they are given on the index card.   

Extending the Lesson

Have students research an aspect of life in Ancient Egypt that is of interest to them and prepare a written paper and / or have them make brief presentation on what they’ve learned with the rest of the class at a later date.  Alternately, have students research the original Rosetta stone.  What was it?  Who found it and why was it so important?

Web Resources







Fun application:


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© 2009.  Amanda Traina (Author), Louise Wootton and Claire Gallagher (Editors)

 Although the information in this document has been funded wholly or in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under assistance agreement NE97262206  to Georgian Court   University, it has not gone through the Agency's publications review process and, therefore, may not necessarily reflect the views of the Agency and no official endorsement should be inferred.

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