Mummy returns to school

10th June 2005 at 01:00
An Egyptian mummy has been found in a school in East Sussex. Donated to the school in the Sixties by a pathologist, it was then lost for nearly 40 years. How? And isn't this fabulous?

Tough on the mummy, though. Imagine waking up back at school with sixth-formers looking up your nose. What was school like back then? Did they worry about standards and the three Rs? Yes, especially in reading and writing. So, for hours, pupils copied texts extolling the life of scribes.

"Happy is the heart of him who writes; he is young each day." It didn't always work. Amazingly, some pupils preferred to get drunk on pomegranate wine and have sex. "Do not sit under the hussy's spell, drenched in perfume and garlanded with forget-me-nots!" Ooh, no, sir, wouldn't want to do that.

Then again, only some boys went to school - no girls. So they weren't trying to teach everyone everything. Only a tiny percentage of the population could read and write. Hieroglyphs were a mystery to most people.

Writing was the pharaoh of the three Rs. Teachers had Thoth on their side, the scribe of the gods. Thoth was the god of learning. He always wrote the truth. So protesting that a crocodile ate your homework was not a good idea.

The Ancient Egyptians may have marked with a red pen. A writing board from Thebes suggests so. It looks just like the neat first page of a new book.

This young scribe wrote careful snakes and steady suns. The teacher seems to have added things - wherever the pupil left a horned viper with no horns, or an oarsman up the Nile without a paddle.

Perhaps omissions were understandable. Writing hieroglyphs was like texting: you left out the vowels. "Wll nvr fnsh ths sddng pyrmd!"

Punctuation as we know it didn't exist, but pictures of living creatures faced the beginning of the text. "Snefru! Never start a sentence with an axe!" I wonder how they did exclamation marks. A wasp under a foot?

Accuracy was crucial. You might write on the pharaoh's temple one day. So repeat after me: there is only one goose in "Rameses"! A mistake could render a tomb useless. On one memorial, the parents' names are illegible.

Round the decay of that unhappy flaw, the lone and level sands stretch far away.

I reckon this mummy would be amazed at what we do today. Girls and boys of all abilities learn a vast range of subjects. Teachers manage with far less authority and no scary god behind them.

I think the mummy would want to return.

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