Raid the temples of doom

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Tom Deveson follows in the wake of Indiana Jones unearthing the secrets of the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs


The Ancient Aztecs is a real treasure chest, it is satisfyingly chunky and richly coloured with pictures from 15th-century codices. You slide back the lock and lift the lid and nestling on the inlaid tray, or concealed in the secret drawer, are dozens of bits and pieces that connect you to the ancient world of the Aztecs.

This doesn't mean that you can enact human sacrifices, or eat lizards and green slime, or use mind-expanding drugs, or slice off people's heads with razor-sharp pieces of obsidian. Although all these lurid activities are described in the accompanying booklet, carrying them out would bring Mrs Shephard's key stage cops to your school quicker than you could say "Huitzilpochtli".

But you can learn a lot from the abundant assortment of contents. Children doing their non-European history study unit will like sliding out the intricate complexities of the box. They can design their own glyphs, press out stickers of jaguars, quetzal birds and tapirs for an A3 map, and meet gods who wear frocks made with poisonous snakes and who rip the skin off the dead using winds made from knives. They can construct a model of the Temple of Tenochtitlan from stiff card; or fit green and turquoise feathers into a warrior's head-dress.

Teachers will want to check that the smaller items - bean dice for a board game and clay beads for a necklace - are not lost in the grab of hands and the fertile mulch of the classroom. They will also want to make sure the ocarina produces a clearer tone than the one offered in the review package. They might regret that some of the illustrations in the booklet are too small to be useful and that the text contains phrases like "symbolising natural events" that will challenge many readers.

But they will be grateful that so much has been so compactly and conveniently assembled. This is a more exciting way of remembering the Aztecs (who always called themselves Mexica) than eating avocado sandwiches, tomato soup and chocolate biscuits.

With Tutankhamun the children become archaeologists excavating the contents of a burial chamber. This flat box doesn't have the immediate appeal of the Aztec treasure chest but its constituent parts are similarly tempting. The fact that once again we uncover a civilisation seemingly wedded to death won't deter young learners from cutting, pasting and sorting with enthusiasm. Novelty overcomes necrolatry.

The booklet is large enough to be read and studied on its own. It gives a succinct account of the central role of the Nile, the nature of the gods and the all-too pyramidal structure of Egyptian society. It also deals with the excavatory work of Carter, the legend of the curse of the tomb and the story of the boy-king himself. With his eye-shadow and earrings, he might surprise those who wish to see a dress code established in schools.

The components of the pack's sarcophagus are charmingly varied. A frieze shows scenes from Tutankhamun's life, his privileges and responsibilities, his coronation and marriage and after-life. It's complemented by a smart poster of the shrine itself with many of its treasures and tutelary cobras and vultures protecting the throne. Another set of cards portrays the six principal deities, with their heads, bodies and legs all detachable to form a little theological puzzle.

Other things to assemble include a press-out version of a decorative royal collar and sets of hieroglyphic stencils for writing esoteric messages. The most elaborate of all, a real challenge for minds and fingers, comprises the three burial caskets. Fifty-two clear separate instructions and 125 different tabs ensure that assembly will be both complicated and successful. The characteristic drab ochres of the other items are here spectacularly contrasted with flashes of scarlet, blue and gold. These pieces appear tough enough to withstand classroom use, though there might be arguments about priority of access.

With history yet again at the centre of national debates concerning both "Britishness"' and pedagogics, it's good to see publishers investing in long-dead cultures and derided activity methods. It was after all that old Tory ideologue Burke who reminded us that the investigative method is "incomparably the best, because it tends to set the learner himself on the track of invention".

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