Ancient Egyptian Life


Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

What information did ancient Egyptians leave behind that can help us understand their lives?

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are a language made up of symbols and pictures. Ancient Egyptians often carved hieroglyphic messages into important buildings, like temples or burial structures. An ancient burial structure called a mastaba can be found in the Field Museum, which contains walls and walls of preserved hieroglyphs that tell the story of the mastaba’s resident mummy.

Floor-to-ceiling hieroglyphs in the mastaba of Unis-Ankh

Imagine you are an archaeologist, a scientist who studies human history. You have discovered a large stone building called a mastaba, which is an ancient Egyptian tomb. You are excited to learn more, but the mummy who was originally buried in the mastaba is missing! What clues can you use to figure out who the mastaba was built for? Notice the carved shapes on the mastaba walls in the picture below. What do you think those are? Can those shapes help us understand who was buried in the mastaba? 

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

How do you think ancient Egyptians communicated with one another? 

One way they communicated was through a written language made up of pictures called hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs are signs or pictures that represent sounds and, sometimes, words or ideas, which are part of an ancient form of writing. Ancient Egyptians carved hieroglyphs on places like burial sites to share important information about the people buried there. Think about the mastaba again. What information do you think ancient Egyptians wanted to share on the mastaba to let everyone know who was buried there? Ancient Egyptians used an oval-shaped frame, called a cartouche, to show the name of a pharaoh or other royalty.

Use the hieroglyphs pronunciation guide below to decode the name inside the cartouche to see if we can learn who was buried inside originally. 

Tips for “reading” hieroglyphs: Different sounds are associated with each hieroglyph. Hieroglyphs can be read in almost any direction—ancient Egyptians wrote from left to right, right to left, or top to bottom. Animal hieroglyphs always face the beginning of the word or sentence. Below are the hieroglyphs in the cartouche at the entrance of the mastaba. 

What do the hieroglyphs spell? How would you sound out the hieroglyphs? Can you pronounce the name in the cartouche? It’s Unis! The mummy who was buried in the mastaba was named Unis-Ankh, who was the son of a pharaoh in the 5th Dynasty who lived over 4,000 years ago. Even though Unis-Ankh lived so long ago, hieroglyphs allow us to continue to learn about ancient Egyptian life. What would future archaeologists be able to learn about how we communicate today? Do we communicate in pictures like the ancient Egyptians? What about emojis?

Like hieroglyphs, emojis can use pictures to communicate words or ideas. What emojis have you seen or used before? How did those emojis communicate words or ideas? Use emojis to create a message. Give it to someone without telling them what it says, let’s see if they can interpret the message. Do you think interpreting messages in emojis might be a challenge for future archaeologists? What else do you think future archaeologists will be able to discover about our life?