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Home>Activities & Tours>Educator Itineraries>Writing and Signs in Ancient Egypt

Educator Itineraries Writing and Signs in Ancient Egypt

Length: 1 hr 30 mins - Level: 11-12 yr olds - Subjects: Art History, History, Literature, Ancient languages
Visiting days: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday

La princesse Néfertiabet devant son repas
La princesse Néfertiabet devant son repas_vignette

© 2002 Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps


The aim of the tour is to bring schoolchildren aged 11-12 to understand the ancient Egyptian writing system and the importance of signs, writing, and drawings in Egyptian society at the time. These subjects are explored primarily through myths and funerary cult. The tour takes a close look at five works and examines details of several other works from ancient Egypt.
During the tour, the students will be encouraged to:
- Understand the hieroglyphic writing system and identify some essential hieroglyphs – sesh (meaning “writing” and “scribe”), the royal titulary of pharaohs, and so on.
- Read an Egyptian image; and understand its composition and signs through the understanding of the representational codes at work.
- Grasp the importance of ancient codes represented on some of the exhibited works whose fragmented appearance can come as a surprise.
- Learn about the beliefs and burial rites of ancient Egyptians.


Materials required

- 1 sheet of paper, 1 pencil, 1 file folder

Fragment d'inscription gravée en hiéroglyphes soignés
Fragment d'inscription gravée en hiéroglyphes soignés_vignette

© 2003 Musée du Louvre / Christian Decamps

1Fragment of an engraved inscription in fine hieroglyphs

Sully wing, Ground floor - Room 6. Fragment of an engraved inscription in fine hieroglyphs, 25th-26th dynasty, 715 - 525 BC. Limestone. W. 35 cm; H. 28.5 cm; D. 4 cm

The visit begins in this room with a presentation of the different aspects of writing; from materials, types of text, and scribal equipment to writing systems and the history of decipherment. Follow the order of the display cases, or proceed by themes at busy times. Focus on a limestone fragment carved with hieroglyphs (“lady Takhiouati”), using the work’s label to decipher the symbols with the students. Use this opportunity to describe the hieroglyphic system, in which one sign may correspond to one sound, several sounds, or is not pronounced but ascribes the written word to a class of objects (determiner).

Tablette d'écolier : Kémit
Tablette d'écolier : Kémit_vignette

© 2003 Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

2School Slate: Kemit

Sully wing, Ground floor - Room 6. School slate: Kemit, 12th-13th dynasty, 1963-1650 BC. Stuccoed wood, and School slate: “Satire of the Trades”, 18th dynasty, 1550–1295 BC

Examine the two school slates in stuccoed wood and ask the students to spot the clues that show the slates belonged to apprentice scribes. Point out that on the top slate, the pupil’s writing and layout are clumsy, while the writing on the bottom slate shows greater skill. Use this opportunity to develop your students’ understanding of scribal training.
In the materials display case, look at the ostraka. Shards of pottery were used as writing surfaces for note taking or for longer texts.
In the scribal equipment display case, look at the palettes, reed pens, inkwells, pigment cakes, papyrus cutters, and so on.
Draw parallels with the world the students live in – they will easily see how the use of an ostrakon is similar to reusing a sheet as scrap paper, or how red ink was already being used to write titles, while black ink was used for the body of the text, and so on.

Fragment de stèle : « décret de Canope »
Fragment de stèle : « décret de Canope »_vignette

© 2003 Musée du Louvre / Christian Decamps

3Stele Fragment: Decree of Canopus

Sully wing, Ground floor - Room 6. Stele Fragment: Decree of Canopus, reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-222 BC). Diorite. H. 1.94 m; W. 0.45 m; D. 0.30 m

When presenting this work, it is important to highlight the fact that a language can be recorded using different writing systems. Use the students’ mother tongue as a starting point – it can be recorded using an alphabet, drawings (e.g. a rebus), Morse code, and so on. The language of ancient Egyptians evolved over the course of several millennia, and they used up to three writing systems simultaneously: hieroglyphs (used mainly for monuments), hieratic (for religious documents), and demotic (for administrative purposes).
Examine the diorite stele (the Decree of Canopus), which is split vertically. Half of it was preserved and is placed against the wall of the room. Students will be surprised to see that it is inscribed with hieroglyphs, demotic, and ancient Greek. The inscriptions become visible if the students lean so that daylight becomes almost parallel to the surface of the stele. The Decree of Canopus was brought back by Napoleonic troops who managed to keep this work, even though the Rosetta Stone (a much better preserved decree from the same time period), now on display at the British Museum, was taken from them. Then, talk to the students about Champollion and the history of hieroglyph decipherment.
From this point onwards, the tour will focus on the importance of writing in Egyptian society. We will look at the scribe, who had a prominent role in a very hierarchical and organized administration; the role of writing from a historical and sacred point of view; the importance of names in funerary rites; and the magical value of signs.

Le dieu Amon protège Toutânkhamon
Le dieu Amon protège Toutânkhamon_vignette

© 2003 Musée du Louvre / Christian Decamps

4The god Amun protecting Tutankhamun

Sully wing, 1st floor - Room 26. The god Amun protecting Tutankhamun, 1336 - 1327 av. J.-C. Diorite. H. : 2,20 m. ; L. : 0,44 m. ; Pr. : 0,78 m.

The scale difference between the two figures reveals their status – the god’s crown identifies him as Amun, and what is left of the nemes on the man’s shoulders identifies him as a pharaoh. Students quickly begin to wonder about the missing head (and arms) on the figure between the god’s legs: mention the presumed filiation between Tutankhamun and Akhenaten, which explains the damnatio memoriae that brought about the beheading of the statue. The writing (found at the back of the god) also reflects the desire to erase the king’s name from memory. A part of his name has been erased from his cartouche and only the god’s name within the pharaoh’s name was preserved (Tutankh-Amun – “living image of Amun”), so as not to incur the wrath of the deity.

Le scribe accroupi
Le scribe accroupi_vignette

© 2002 Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

5The Seated Scribe

Sully wing, 1st floor - Room 22. The Seated Scribe, 4th or 5th dynasty, 2600-2350 BC. Painted limestone, eyes inlaid with rock crystal in copper. H. 53.7 cm; W. 44 cm; D. 35 cm

Ask students to describe the statue’s posture, gesture (including the hole in his hand where a reed pen would have been placed), and physical features (absence of a wig, prominent belly despite the bony chest). Highlight the fact that the scribe’s extra weight was an indicator of his high social status. Point out that people usually wrote from right to left at the time.
Talk about the questions the work leaves unanswered: identifying information – name, function, and the period during which the scribe lived ¬– would have been inscribed on the limestone base the statue must have stood on. As a result, Egyptologists can only hypothesize about this individual.

Le prince Setka, fils du roi Didoufri, représenté dans l'attitude du scribe
Le prince Setka, fils du roi Didoufri, représenté dans l'attitude du scribe_vignette

© 1997 Musée du Louvre / Christian Larrieu

6Prince Setka, son of King Djedefre, represented as a scribe

Sully wing, 1st floor - Room 22.  Prince Setka, son of King Djedefre, represented as a scribe, 2565-2558 BC (4th dynasty). Quartzite. H. 30 cm; W. 23 cm (statue)

Compare the Seated Scribe to the statue of Prince Setka represented as a scribe – found in display case 4 of the next room – which remains well anchored to its inscribed limestone base. Use this opportunity to draw attention to the fact that some scribes were highborn princes.

La princesse Néfertiabet devant son repas
La princesse Néfertiabet devant son repas_vignette

© 2002 Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

7Princess Nefertiabet and her food

Sully wing, 1st floor - Room 22. Princess Nefertiabet and her food, reign of Cheops  (Khufu), (2590-2565 BC), 4th dynasty. Painted limestone. H. 37.7 cm; W. 52.5 cm; D. 8.3 cm

Ask students to sit facing display case 5 and to describe the stele element by element: the woman; the objects surrounding her; the pieces of text.
The artifact is interesting for two reasons:
- Its standardized depiction of the human body. Note the two left hands, two left feet, the front-view eye on a side-view face, a side view of the abdomen but a front view of the shoulders.
-The text surrounding the deceased woman and the rectangular shape of the stele, which acts as a cartouche.
Note her royal origins and her name inscribed above her (“The King’s daughter, Nefertiabet = Beautiful One of the East”), and the lists of food and items (such as make-up and linen) that she would need in the afterlife. Use this opportunity to look at the Egyptian numbering system: a lotus stem is used for “one thousand” (and when repeated, the motif means “infinity”), a spiral for “one hundred”.
Explain that, without a name, the deceased could not gain entry into the afterlife, because in order to be summoned to the Court of Osiris, the deceased had to be called by name. Explain that hieroglyphs are read in the opposite direction to the walking animals. You can then ask them to show you which way to read the writing on this stele. They will notice that there is more than one reading direction: the princess (herself a hieroglyph), her titles, and her name written above her head are read from right to left, while the rest is read from left to right. This organizes the image: the woman is receiving “written” offerings that mirror her position.
Why “write” offerings on a stele? Signs have a magical function and a performative value. Writing – or, in this case, reading – a sign creates and materializes the object it represents for the deceased, and, as a result, guarantees the princess enough food and toiletries for all eternity.

Momie recouverte de ses "cartonnages"
Momie recouverte de ses "cartonnages"_vignette

© 1998 Musée du Louvre / Etienne Revault

8Mummy in its “cartonnage”

Sully wing, Ground floor - Room 15. Mummy in its “cartonnage”, Ptolemaic period, 3rd - 2nd century BC. Plastered and painted linen.  H. 166 cm.

You could read Herodotus’s text on mummification to your students. It dates back to the 5th century BC and is the only known source on the subject (The Histories, Book 2, 86-88).
As there is often a long line before this display case, you can wait your turn by studying the tools used to perform the Opening of the Mouth ceremony (fingers, adze, simulacra of vases), in the display case opposite the mummy, or by looking at the sarcophagus.
You could make the mummy the highlight of your visit – it never fails to impress students, and the fact that it is displayed in a glass cabinet is usually a discussion starter. Take this opportunity to talk about the fate of mummies in the West from the 16th century onwards (they were used to make magical powders, or bought as exhibit pieces for curiosity cabinets, for instance) and also to emphasize the importance of preserving mummies for current scientific research. Students may bring up the subject of “the mummy’s curse”, which would be a good opportunity to talk about the expedition led by Howard Carter, the man who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, or about films.

Sarcophage du roi Ramsès III
Sarcophage du roi Ramsès III_vignette

© 2005 Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

9Sarcophagus box of Ramesses III

Sully wing, Ground floor - Room 13. Sarcophagus box of Ramesses III, 1184-1153 BC (20th dynasty). Granite. 18 metric tons. H. 1.8 m; D. 3.05 m; W. 1.5 m

Certain pieces can be used to illustrate the myth of Osiris, very popular with pupils. The djed pillar (representing the spine of Osiris) used to decorate sarcophagi; Ramesses’ sarcophagus box features Isis on one side and Nephthys on the other; sheets of papyrus are displayed in display cases along the staircase leading to the box, showing a devotional scene with the deceased being presented to Osiris, and the weighing of the heart before the Court of Osiris (point out the ibis-headed Thoth as court clerk, carrying a scribe’s palette).

Momies de chats
Momies de chats_vignette

© 1998 Musée du Louvre / Etienne Revault

10Cat mummies

Sully wing, Ground floor - Room 19. Cat mummies, animal mummies and coffins display case

Before leaving the Department of Egyptian Antiquities, enjoy a little detour to display case 8, which houses animal mummies, complementing their human counterpart. Lead the students to work out that these mummies served a different purpose. They were offerings to the gods rather than physical receptacles of the soul. Point out the absence of inscriptions on the bandage strips and cartonnage of animal mummies, which illustrates a fundamental status difference.