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Art in time: exploring the art of ancient Egypt.

One of the advantages of teaching art in an elementary magnet school in our system is the opportunity to design and teach in-depth units of instruction to elementary children. Students are allowed to choose elective classes that meet twice a week for a semester, so I can plan courses that focus on such diverse topics as weaving, nature, texture and drawing. Particularly challenging are those courses designed for third through fifth grade Gifted and Talented children.

Recently, I developed a unit on the art of ancient Egypt, adapting it for two of my GT classes: Drawing and Painting and Printmaking. It was to be my first attempt at using a discipline-based approach, and I was scared. I had never incorporated art history, art criticism or aesthetics into my curriculum to any degree. One thing was clear - I would have to devote more class time than usual to looking at art.

I began by preparing a collection of slides and prints for a two-period dialogue on the culture and art of ancient Egypt. The children had numerous comments and questions as we proceeded - a good omen. I am not an art historian, so when a student asked a question I didn't have an answer for, I admitted my ignorance and we investigated together.

In Their Own Words

We covered a lot of ground during our discussions. The content is summarized by the following list, written and compiled by the children themselves. * All the art we looked at was more than three thousand years old. * The ancient Egyptians developed their own alphabet made up of symbols called hieroglyphs. * The ancient Egyptians worshiped many gods. One of their gods was their king, or pharaoh. * Pharaohs were often buried in big tombs called pyramids. Pyramids have very thick walls, and each one took many slaves a long time to build. * Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul or ka would come back to the dead body or statue of a person to live forever in the afterlife. They also believed that tomb paintings, symbols and real objects buried with the dead, would help that person to be comfortable in the afterlife. * Because of their strong belief in immortality, Egyptian art (painting, sculpture, and architecture) was designed to give a feeling of stillness, permanence and timelessness. * Egyptians used many symbols in their art. The more art we looked at, the more we saw the ankh, the eye of Horus, the scarab beetle and the cobra. Because the Egyptians depended on the Nile River for their lives, many of the symbols (water, boats, the lotus blossom) were used to represent the Nile. * Egyptian artists would often draw objects, symbols and hieroglyphs to tell a story three different times in the same painting. * Egyptians believed that writing a person's name would help the person live forever. There was a special way to write a name in hieroglyphs inside an oval. This is called a cartouche. * In paintings of people, ancient Egyptians would make the important person bigger than the other people. People were usually drawn with the head to the side, eye to the front, shoulders to the front and feet to the side. After establishing some background in the imagery and history of ancient Egyptian art, we began our studio assignments. First, each student used markers and pencils to design a cartouche using Egyptian hieroglyphs. Then, using numerous Egyptian figures as sources, each child combined images into a new figure, adding whatever was necessary to personalize it into a self-portrait. The figure and cartouche were then combined with other Egyptian symbols, images and patterns into a single drawing.

Children in the Drawing and Painting class carved their compositions in low relief into thick slabs of clay. After firing, the slabs were painted in acrylics and turned into tomb paintings. Printmaking students adapted their drawings into three-color reduction block prints, using some of the new, soft, block printing material.

Due to sustained interest, what I had planned to be a five-week unit grew to last virtually the entire semester. Along the way, my students helped me locate quite a bit of resource material. Before the semester was over we had consulted the sources listed at the end of this article to learn about Egyptian art.


Before beginning this unit, I was war-y of teaching discipline-based lessons to elementary students. I was afraid they would quickly tire of the slides and discussion, and want to rush on to something else. instead, I found that their interest actually prolonged the unit - they brought up questions and sources I had never thought of. It was exciting for all of us - we made a lot of discoveries together.

In the weeks that have passed since the conclusion of the Egyptian unit, I have been pleased to note the children's retention of relevant historical information, their ability to respond to and interpret Egyptian (and other) artworks, and the increased popularity of the Egyptian exhibit during visits to the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Encouraged and excited by what I consider to be a successful unit, I am now in the process of designing more of them - some for my elective classes and others for my larger groups of homeroom students.


Boyd, Anne. Ancient Egyptians Activity Book. New York: Cambridge Press, 1981. Calhoun, Catherine. Egyptian Designs. Owings Mills, Maryland: Stemmer House Publishers, 1983. Edwards,I.E.S. Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures. New York: Random House, 1977. Manniche, Lisa. The Ancient Egyptians Activity Book. London: British Museum Publications, 1985. Shuford, Jill. Ramses the Great: The Pharaoh and His Time (Teacher's Resource Guide). Charlotte, NC: Mint Museum of Art, 1988. Wild, Anne. The Egyptians Pop-Up Book to Make Yourself. Norfolk, England: Tarquin Publications, 1985. Hall, Alice 1. "Dazzling Legacy of an Ancient Quest". National Geographic Magazine, 1977, Vol. 151, No. 3 pp. 293-311. _____. "Pollution Damages Pyramids." Weekly Reader, November 17, 1989, Vol. 71, Issue 10, Edition 4. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. Boulder, CO: Alarion Press, 1988. Filmstrip/tape . Egypt: Quest for Eternity. Stamford, CT: Vestron Video, 1982. 60-min. video tape, National Geographic.

Timothy Y. Cherry is Art Specialist, Wake Forest Elementary Magnet School, Wake County Schools, Raleigh, North Carolina.
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Title Annotation:includes a resources list
Author:Cherry, Timothy Y.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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