Understanding the Lives of Ancient Egyptians

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Deanna Kiser, Near Eastern Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2001

When teaching students about an ancient culture, one invariably encounters a fundamental problem: the students perceive the culture, especially one as far-removed in time as ancient Egypt, as an abstract entity. In other words, the daily activities and concerns of the earlier society’s participants are lost on modern people, who view the entire culture as dead. This affects new students to the field in particular. They have not had the training and immersion in the various aspects of ancient Egyptian culture that would enable them to extrapolate what it was like to have lived in that ancient world. I have found that helping Egyptology students to identify with the ancient Egyptians generates more enthusiasm for the subject matter and makes it meaningful to them.

One teaching strategy I have developed involves an exercise with a particular type of artifact, called tomb models. Tomb models are generally small wooden models with painted decoration that portray objects in ancient Egypt, in a very detailed manner. They often depict specific types of structures, boats or even activities. The Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley has an impressive collection of such artifacts, some of which are regularly exhibited, which I have found helpful during discussion sections. For the discussion sections of NES 18, “Introduction to Egyptology,” the class meets in the galleries of the museum. For this particular section, I first present a brief overview of tomb models, giving their customary characteristics, types and find locations. I also inform the students that the models were included in tombs to be magically brought into existence in the afterlife in order to serve the purposes of the tomb owner. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that the inclusion in the burial place of a detailed model butcher shop would ensure that such an establishment would produce meat for the spirit of the deceased occupant.

Next, the class is asked to participate in an exercise with the goal of gleaning as much information as possible about daily life in ancient Egypt by studying tomb models. The students are separated into groups, each with several photographs of a tomb model. They may also use the actual models on exhibit in the gallery. The group is asked to select a recorder to write down their observations and a reporter to present their findings towards the end of the discussion section. Each group is to address the following questions in their project, from most concrete to most abstract:

  1. What is the object and/or activity depicted by the tomb model?
  2. What can you tell the class about how this item was constructed, decorated, and defined in reality in ancient Egypt? Identify as much detail as possible and view the model like a blueprint for building such an item or setting a scene in real life.
  3. Who are the participants and what are the specifics of their dress, equipment and behavior?
  4. What was the purpose or role of the item in ancient Egyptian life?
  5. What can you observe or guess about Egyptian society from looking at this model? Consider gender roles, social hierarchy, ethnicity, and so forth.

In order to make the item as real as possible in the minds of the students, I make sure to assign the models carefully; I generally use a model house and model boat in the exercise, so students who tell me they are architecture majors or sail boats are given a specific model accordingly. Not only do they have a pre-existing interest in such objects, but they often have knowledge of terminology and function that can contribute to their group’s observations. During the reporting phase of the exercise, I try to add to the discussion as little as possible, pointing out only items that I feel are particularly important to understanding the model’s illustration of Egyptian culture. I avoid talking except when asked a question or when I see that a group is struggling; I find that my interruptions detract from the group’s participation and may give the impression that the students are incorrect in their conclusions.

I determine the success of the exercise through a variety of factors. First, do the students show enthusiasm both during the exercise and when they are asked if they would like to do a similar project at a later date? Second, whether they are involved in the project or instead, ask me many questions during their observation of a model. Third, the level of detail and ensuing interpretation the groups provide. Finally, what is the accuracy of their observations about daily life in ancient Egypt, as understood by scholars in the field? I generally find that the level of enthusiasm for the project is quite high, with students receptive to conducting similar projects later in the semester. The participation of nearly all the students seems to be the norm and they are interested in hearing other groups present their findings. As a whole, the interpretations of each group are accurate; the instances in which I find it necessary to correct students pertain to knowledge that the field of Egyptology is simply lacking or which cannot be found in the models.