Monday, November 7, 2016

Story of the World: Chapter 3 - The First Writing

Post contains some affiliate links, through which I can earn commission...mostly for books, which I suggest looking for at your local library. 

In this series I share our Story of the World lesson, but even if you're not using SOTW, if you're studying ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, you might enjoy the activities and info in this post about ancient forms of writing (Hieroglyphics and Cuneiform).  

This chapter of Story of the World was easy to break into 3 different parts, which I read to my son on different days to make it easier for his wiggly wompus short attention span.

Day 1:  Egyptian Writing
The paragraphs are split up differently in the original and revised versions, so I tried to note both locations below)

Paragraph 1- 5 (Original: 1-2)

There's something interesting that you won't find in most kids books on Egypt (and that isn't mentioned in Story of the World either)...that there were TWO types of writing in Egypt.


Hieroglyphics is the type of writing most people associate with Egypt...the type that looks like picture writing. This was the type of writing you'ld find carved into temple walls and monuments.   BUT, it was not the only type of writing being used in Egypt at this time....and not even the most common type.

Hieratic Writing

Picture by Nic McPhee - From British Museum - Adapted Under Creative Commons

The common Egyptian used a shorthand form of writing called hieratic.   It derived from hieroglyphics but was used alongside it (it didn't replace hieroglyphics).    While priests and monument carvers still used hieroglyphics, merchants and traders and everyone else was using hieratics to write their grocery lists and love notes.

I wanted to show my son not just hieroglypics, but hieratic too.  Luckily, one of the books we had, Time Traveler, had a description of hieratics and hieroglyphics, along with a great example of how they were used.  So, at paragrph 4, I stopped and used the Time Traveler description in stead, taking time to look at hieroglyphics in some library books about Egypt, and hieratic in pictures I found online.  When I taught this section at our co-op I also used this excellent free printable comparing hieratics and hieroglyphics I had found after our lesson the previous year at home. 

But I changed things up also because paragraph 4 (Original: 2) is a little inaccurate. 
The Egyptians use pictures to write with.  We call these pictures hieroglyphs.  The pictures stood for certain words. The Egyptians use to carve these hieroglyphs into stone tablets.
Hieroglyphs didn't just stand for words, they stood for sounds too...whether they stood for a sound or a word depended on context (the activity book shows this too).  I realize she was trying to keep it simple, but it doesn't take much more to tell this corrently.  When reading this passage you could change it like this...
The Egyptians used pictures to write with.  We call these pictures hieroglyphs.  The pictures sometimes stood for words, and sometimes stood for sounds.  The Egyptians used to carve these hieroglyphs into stone tablets.
AND, if you wanted to, you could add in info about hieratic to it like this...
The Egyptians used pictures to write with.  We call these pictures hieroglyphs.  The pictures sometimes stood for words, and sometimes stood for sounds.  The Egyptians used to carve these hieroglyphs onto stone tablets, or even into the walls of their temples.
The stone tablets lasted for a very long time--but they were heavy to carry, and carving the pictures into stone took weeks of work.
That's why most Egyptians didn't write in hierogyphys.  In stead they used a type of writing we call hieratic.  It was based off of hieroglyps, but simpler.  In stead of carving it on stone slabs, they would write notes in ink to each other on small rocks and bits of broken pottery, which were cheap and easy to find. 
You could follow that up by showing this printable picture of hieroglyphics and hieratic.  There's also some really great pictures of scribe tools (including papyrus plants, which comes in handy later in this chapter) in the DK Ancient Egypt book if you have that at your library.


I helped my child write his name in Hieroglyphics on a cartouche print-out from the free Ancient Egypt Unit Study at Royal Baloo  (in stead of the examples from the activity book, which I thought were so-so, we used the Hieroglyphics from History Pockets - Ancient Egypt because they were simpler and larger, so easer to copy from.  A quick online search will bring up lots of Hieroglyphics charts you can use for free that are also well done. 

We did the online Egyptian Tomb Adventure Game.  It fit well with this section because it has some hieroglyphic "decoding" worked in, but it also has some map work and exploration about mummies, symbols, and Egyptian burial practices  (so, you could save this for the chapter on mummies).  This was very cleverly done, and my son liked it quite a lot.

 When we did this chapter with our co-op group, I gathered up smooth rocks at a local garden center, and also broke ups an old terra cotta pot, which we painted hieroglyphs and hieratic on with red and black paint (the most commonly used ink colors in ancient Egypt).  Kids learning to be scribes in Egypt would practice hieroglyphs on flat rocks and broken potter writing hieroglyphs on these is just as "historical" as writing on papyrus.  I also made reed "brushes" and scribe pallets (a craft I found in Make It Work: Ancient Egypt) for the kids to use.   Probably should have let them help me make them, but the craft involves an sharp knife, and there was mixed ages.



For Stone Painting
  • Red and Black Paint (goes in Pallet if you make that)
  • Flat-ish stones and/or a terra-cotta pot (and hammer + trash bag or safety glasses) 
For Scribes Pallet:
  • Balsa wood strips (find at hobby store)
  • Harder wood strips for base (optional...see note in instructions)
  • Wood Glue 
  • Round object (see step 8)
  • Cardboard to cut on (a cereal box folded flat works well)
  • Utility Knife

For Reed "Brushes":
  • Any old reed-like weedy grass
  • Scissors


1.  Collect stones or break a terra-cotta pot.  It's a toss up which is better to use.  The terra cotta is smoother and easier to paint on, but has jagged edges  (though not as sharp as glass). Many garden centers have stones you can buy, or will not mind you taking smaller broken pieces from larger flat stones they sell.  But if you choose to break a terra cotta pot with a hammer in stead, wear safety glasses OR put the pot in the plastic trash bag before breaking to keep broken bits from flying up.  Make sure to sweep area thoroughly afterwards.  (Fun alternative if you have a second story:  clear all people from the area and toss the pot from a 2nd story window.  You can tell I enjoy destruction...just a bit).

2.  For the pallet, I liked using Balsa wood strips for the top part, but a harder wood strip in the same size for the back, to add strength.  Because I was making several of these it was actually cheaper to do this (the harder wood cost less than balsa), but if you were making just one it would cost less to cut one strip of balsa in two and use it for both top and bottom. I found my pre-cut wood strips at Hobby Lobby.

4.  Cut the bottom and top strips to exactly the same length (8 - 10 inches). 

5.  The original craft called for cutting out the ink wells with a craft knife, but I thought it would be easier to press them in the soft balsa wood in stead (you can see how this turned out in the pictures).  It does make for a shallower bowl, so if you want to cut them out with a knife for a deeper ink well, do so during this step.   Otherwise, I think it would probably avoid some of the warping I got later to press them after gluing (though I have not tried this)   For the area to hold your reeds cut a rectangular strip from near the bottom of the top later of balsa wood...leaving about two inches at the top for your inkwells, as shown below.

7.  Glue your top balsa piece to your bottom wood piece...put a book on top to press them pieces together while they dry. 

8. To press out your inkwells (if you haven't choosen to cut them in step five), find a hard object with a small rounded surface.  I used the handle of a small hammer.  You could also use a screwdriver handle or even a marble.  Press the rounded object into the balsa wood hard until it makes an indentation.  (The example below shows only one layer because I made the mistake of pressing before gluing the top and bottom layers).

This is one step that even a young child can help with.  Wha-la...your scribe's pallet is it need some reeds to fill it.

9.  Go outside and look for some weedy grass...something long and skinny, not wide and flat.  Cut off any "seed heads" and cut into segments just shorter than your reed holder.

10.  Last, put a drop of red and black ink in your pallet inkwells, grab your rocks or terra cotta pieces, and start painting hieroglyphics and hieratics!


Day 2:  Cuneiform

Paragraphs 6 - 9 (Original 3 - 5)
On the second day of our lesson we looked at the page about writing in our  Mesopotamia book while we read, and found Mesopotamia on our wall map.

Afterwards we wrote a message with cuneiform in clay (I had whittled a stylus the night before.)   They aren't hard to can find a how to here.   There's also a great video with someone demonstrating writing cuneiform here. We also made some other things with the clay afterwards.

My son wrote a message to his friend, also doing Story of the World

My can't really see the triangle shape on the tip.

Our clay creations - my son made the vase and I mad the crocodile.  (I was pretty proud of that crock...used the stylus to make the scales on his back)

NOTE:  There were some significant changes to paragraph 5/8 in the Revised version, which you can see here.

Day 3:  Papyrus

Paragraphs 10 - 12 (Original 6 - 8)

This is another place where the book has an error.  Papyrus was not made by "mashing" papyrus into a pulp...this is how people learned to make paper later in other places, but this was not how it was made by the Egyptians, the first inventors of paper.  The Egyptians cut papyrus into thin strips, pounded them flat, soaked them in water, then wove the strips and flattened it even more with stones.   Other places didn't have papyrus, so had to figure out other ways to make paper.  (The first paper made out of pulp I believe was from China).

You can see how the Egyptians made papyrus in the video below.  They also demonstrate how strong this paper was (really quite tough).   It holds up much better than modern paper does, which is why we still have some sheets of papyrus from thousands of years ago (but of course, as the book points out, it doesn't hold up as well as stone, so we don't have as much of it).

So, we just watched this and then I sort of summarized what Story of the World said about how paper was useful in ways stone or clay wasn't, but how it  didn't last as long as stone or clay so that meant that we have less of what Egyptians wrote on papyrus than what they wrote on stone.     We talked something the book also doesn't mention---that common people didn't use papyrus OR stone because it was expensive, but would write on broken pieces of pottery,  which also last a long time.  (Broken pottery is called "ostraca" in by archaeologists...and writing messages on it was common in many ancient cultures). 

While I didn't talk about leather, I was curious if that was used by the Egyptians to write on as well, and I found out that it was when I stumbled on an article about the  Oldest/Longest Ancient Egyptian Leather Manuscript Ever Found.   I learned that animal skins were "considered a very precious writing material in ancient Egypt. It was the principal writing medium to record holy texts and great historic events as it was more practical than papyrus due to its flexibility and durability."  However, papyrus, while less durable in the short term, held up better over time in Egypt's dry climate, where "leather objects quickly perished."  They may have perished even more quickly because Egyptians hadn't learned how to tan leather to soften and preserve it, like people to the north of them in Europe had.


We did not do an activity related to papyrus.  However, there is an activity for making your own "faux papyrus" using paper strips here. I'm also very curious whether you could make any sort of paper, in small amounts, by pounding, weaving and drying regular grass (the wide flat kind).  It would not have the same exact properties of papyrus, but it would be a fun experiment to try.  I've heard that "fake papyrus" has been made from palm fronds, so if you live where you could get a palm leaf, that would be something fun to try also.

Linking up on A Little Bird Told Me, Blessed MOMdays, The Homeschool Nook, and more great link-ups!


  1. I love all of your hands-on activities for Ancient Egypt! We did cuneiform on white clay and then tinted it with black ink, but I think I like your terra cotta one better.

    1. What a good idea to tint it...I was happy to find some brown air dry clay, but I know the white is much more common.

  2. We love SOTW. We are doing book 4 now and love them all. Thanks for sharing these :) from THE HOMESCHOOL NOOK

    1. :-) I love hearing that from someone who has gone (almost) all the way through them! Thanks!

  3. Super cool! We just studied this time period in our history. Thanks for sharing:)

  4. Way way cool! I love Ancient Egypt! Can I copy the crocodile you made?

  5. What awesome hands-on crafts. This is why my kids love it so much.

    1. Thanks! These were some of my kiddos favorites. :-)