How I teach - An earthy approach to history

The humble scarab beetle is a novel way into ancient Egypt
26th September 2014, 1:00am
Helen Moss


How I teach - An earthy approach to history

Ancient Egypt is a popular topic at key stage 2 and you can teach it in many ways, but one tool you may not have considered can really bring the subject to life: a scarab beetle.

Start by showing a line-up of ancient Egyptian gods and ask the class what they notice about them. When they observe that many have animal heads, talk about how the Egyptians' gods reflected the natural world around them. But it wasn't all about fierce falcons and jackals. They also worshipped another, more down-to-earth, creature.

Down-to-earth divinity

Ask for some guesses as to what this creature might have been, then play a video clip of a dung beetle in action. In groups, get students to think about what the ancient Egyptians saw in this humble insect to inspire the scarab god, Khepri. (Reasons: because it represented Ra, the solar deity, rolling the sun across the sky, and was also a symbol of new life.)

Show your pupils some pictures of scarab amulets. Many of these popular talismans had a hole drilled in one end. Can the class figure out why? They were worn for protection and luck, and the hole was to thread them on to necklaces. Compare these to modern lucky charms. Do the students have any?

Hand out some replica amulets - you can buy resin ones online quite cheaply - for children to handle and describe. Turn the scarabs over to examine underneath. Are those marks pictures? No, it is hieroglyphic writing. Can the students guess what the symbols might say?

Explain that some hieroglyphs stood for whole words whereas others stood for sounds, just like our own alphabet. Show some pictures of scarab-bottom inscriptions and pick out repeated symbols. Can the class spot the scarab? It stands for Khepri and also means to exist or to make.

Hand out hieroglyphic alphabet charts so that pupils can practise copying symbols and write their names inside oval cartouches. The cartouches can then be stuck to the underside of oval scarabs cut from card and worn as name badges (scarabs often doubled as name stamps and seals).

Explain that scarab messages often appealed to a god for protection. One of the favourites was Amun, who was known as the "hidden god". For this reason his name was often disguised using hieroglyphic code. Divide the class into teams and set the challenge of writing the name of one of the other gods in a hidden, cryptic way, by using codes, riddles or clues.

Get the teams to swap their efforts with each other and set each group the task of cracking the code first.

Finish by giving children a puzzling question to ponder: scarab amulets are often found in tombs - even wrapped inside mummy bandages - but why would people need to wear lucky charms when they were dead?

The answer, of course, lies in beliefs about the afterlife, but that's a whole other story. Maybe one for the next lesson.

Helen Moss is a novelist and author of The Secrets of the Tombs: the Phoenix Code, the first in a new series of children's adventure books

Top 10 ancient Egypt resources

1 Time warp

Take your pupils on a journey through time to ancient Egypt with this PowerPoint, which pauses at various points in history on its way to 3100BC to give facts about each period.

2 Luxor lexicon

This set of topic words can be used to support written work on ancient Egypt or to create a topical display.

3 Life and times

With these extensive activities, your class will be able to produce a comprehensive report on how the ancient Egyptians lived.

4 Mummy dearest

Follow the Egyptian mummification process step-by-step with this presentation from the British Museum.

5 Notes on the Nile

Sami the Nile crocodile explains why the river was so important to the ancient Egyptians in this engaging PowerPoint for key stage 2 pupils.

6 Decode hieroglyphics

Help your students to discover hieroglyphics with this set of activities, including writing their own message and a brief discussion of the Rosetta Stone.

7 Tomb raiders

These illustrated fact sheets will put key points about ancient Egyptian civilisation at your pupils' fingertips.

8 Finding the Pharaoh

A comprehension exercise based around a four-page text on the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. Questions set out to mimic an exam paper.

9 Pyramid particulars

Information cards that help pupils to explore how the pyramids were built and used.

10 Mapping Egypt

Develop your students' plotting and map-reading abilities using these blank maps of Egypt, which pupils are encouraged to fill in with places and features of interest.

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