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Primary Magazine - Issue 34: A little bit of history

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Last updated 08 March 2011 11:18 by ncetm_administrator


Primary Magazine Issue 34Sphinx and Pyramid photograph from Microsoft Clip Art used with permission of Microsoft

A little bit of history
The Ancient Egyptians

In this article, we are being really cross-curricular once again, and looking at some of the ways that you can link mathematics into a topic on the Ancient Egyptians. If you are looking at this period of history, try some of the ideas. This will mean you can double up on the maths that you do during the day!

Ancient Egypt mind map

The activities suggested in this article are all suggested by this mindmap, which you may like to use - it will enlarge when clicked on; it is also available to download as a PDF document. Some of the titles in the article below have a small boxed plus sign (+) next to them: click on this and more content will be revealed.

orange circles
Setting the scene

Locate Egypt and then its capital city, Cairo, on a map of the world.

Map of the world based on image by Rogilbert
World map and Africa map based on image by Rogilbert

Map of Africa showing Egypt based on image by RogilbertFind the distance from Cairo to your school, and convert measurements to miles and kilometres. Point out the fact that Egypt is in the northeast corner of Africa. You could use this as an opportunity to rehearse direction, including the eight compass points. If you can get hold of small compasses give pairs of children one to use to guide each other around the hall, playground or school field. You could set up an orienteering activity. Kjetil Kjernsmo's website has a very useful and easy-to-understand illustrated guide which shows how a compass works and how they can be used in orienteering.

Egypt is about 1 085 km north to south, and 1 255km east to west; its total area is approximately 1 001 450 sq. km (386 662 sq. mi). The children could find the approximate equivalent measurements of the UK and work out how much bigger Egypt is. It is the 12th largest country in Africa. Can the children identify some of the African countries that are larger and some that are smaller than Egypt? Ask the children to identify the countries and sea that surround it using compass directions.

The Nile from space

The river Nile from space.
From the NASA Planetary
Photo Journal Collection
courtesy of nasaimages.org

Discuss the importance of the River Nile today and in ancient times (pretty much the same). Bring out the fact that more than 90% of Egypt is hot desert and has little rainfall, so the river is its main source of water. Use this as an opportunity to rehearse percentages. On the west side of the River Nile is the Libyan Desert which is part of the Sahara and on the east is the Arabian Desert. You might like to explore the article about deserts in Issue 30 of the NCETM Primary Magazine and carry out some of the activities suggested. The Egyptians depend on the Nile for water, food and transportation. In the past, it provided the ancient Egyptians with fertile land which helped them to grow their crops and raise their animals. In recent days, dams have been built. Before then, the Nile flooded each year, coating the land with thick black mud which was ideal for growing crops. You could explore the different depths from when it was lowest to when it flooded. You could also ask the children to make scaled-down drawings to show the differences. Discuss units used when marking the depths – why are they in metres, feet or similar, and not those connected to capacity?

Trace the river’s journey from its source in the Sudan to its mouth on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Measure its length using string and the scale on the map and then convert to miles (about 960) or kilometres (about 1545). You could compare this length to other well-known river lengths such as the Amazon, Thames, Severn, Mississippi and also between places e.g. from London to Paris, Birmingham to New York, and decide which is the closest to the Nile’s length. Of course, any distances you find need to be placed on an empty number line and the distances need to be compared by finding the difference from one to the other by counting on!

Tell the children that the ancient Egyptians lived along the Nile around 5000 BC and that around 95% of the population live there today. Use this as another opportunity to explore percentages e.g. find the population of modern Egypt and, using a calculator, find the percentage that would live by the Nile.

You could ask the children to research and make an Egypt factfile to show annual rainfall, temperature, time zone, population, currency etc. They could then make graphs and tables to show the information and, after finding the same facts about the UK, make comparisons with this country. You could also provide opportunities to include currency conversion.

Egyptian flag courtesy of the Open Clip Art library
image courtesy of the Open Clip Art library

You could spend some time exploring the Egyptian flag. Is it symmetrical? Why not? What could you do to it to make it symmetrical? The children could design an alternative Egyptian flag, in the same colours, which is symmetrical. You could use the flag for some fraction work e.g. what fraction is black? What fraction are the red and white strips? How else can we represent these fractions?

Measure distances to and from the major cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Giza. They could plan various routes to take using a map. Work out the time it would take to drive at an average of, for example, 60mph.

Discuss the tourist industry in Egypt. Have any of the children been there? You could display this information in a Carroll diagram. Do any come from Egypt? You could also make a Carroll diagram to show this. Mention that the main reasons for visiting Egypt today are to sail down the Nile, to visit the pyramids or to dive in the Red Sea. You could explore each of these and work out costs of making such a trip.

You could focus on the Red Sea, a topic in itself! You could do some data handling around the fish found there. The children could explore these on the internet. Diving websites are great for information on what can be seen. You could explore the different depths that divers go to, to see them.

You could use some of this information and find any more that is necessary to plan a holiday to Egypt to visit the pyramids at Gaza, a Nile cruise and a diving holiday – land-based or live-aboard! To do this the children could use the internet to find the costs and timings of flights, costs of accommodation and the amount of spending money needed for food, souvenirs etc. They could work out best time of year to go, and when they have decided the dates they could work out the time they need to leave their house to get to airport in time, when their flight will arrive in Egyptian time and how long that journey will take. All of this is brilliant for rehearsing and developing work in money and time.

green circles

History of Egypt

Originally Egypt was two separate kingdoms ruled by different kings. The two kingdoms developed along the Nile River. In about 3200 BC the pharaoh of the one of them conquered the other and Egypt became united. There is a long list pharaohs who ruled the country. You could spend some time exploring the idea of AD and BC on a time line and then draw one to show the reigns of the some of the different Pharaohs. Here are a few to get you started:

Tutankhamen's death mask photograph by The Laird of Oldham used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence

Tutankhamen's death mask


  • Tutankhamen: 1334-1325 BC
  • Ay: 1327-1323 BC
  • Horemheb: 1323-1295 BC
  • Ramses I: 1295-1294 BC
  • Sety I: 1294-1297 BC
  • Ramesses II: 1279-1213

You could ask the children to research some of these and come up with a potted history of each one, working out how they long reigned, age they came to throne and died etc. They could show their information on their own timeline and work out the facts mentioned by counting on along it as in a number line.

Look at the Egyptian art of the Pharaohs. Issue 24 of the NCETM Primary Magazine has more details on this and guidance for some great mathematical activities.

A lot of the Old Testament part of the Bible takes place in or around Egypt. Egypt also plays a major role in the life of many Bible people from Moses and Joseph to Jesus. You could use the story of Moses to set the scene for slavery and the building of the temples, pyramids etc.


It was really important to the ancient Egyptians that human bodies were preserved. They developed the artificial preservation known as mummifying. During this process all the major organs: liver, intestines, lungs and brain, were removed and placed in canopic jars. Each organ was placed in a different jar which was decorated with the heads of the four sons of the god Horus. You could ask the children to find out which son looked after which organ!

The children could make versions of these jars, measuring them and decorating them as below, ensuring their results are symmetrical.

Canopic jars photograph courtesy of the Woodlands Junior School  all rights reserved
Canopic jars courtesy of
Woodlands Junior School

Look at the mummifying process in more detail. You could explore the different lengths of bandages needed to mummify different-sized dolls, even a child, and compare. Use this as an opportunity to work on length and equivalent units of metres, centimetres and millimetres.

You could try making your own Egyptian body and mummifying it, using an orange and a potato! This is a good opportunity to practice measuring accurately. You will need some salt and bicarbonate of soda to do this. You could then measure the result and measure and make a sarcophagus, which incidentally is the Greek for flesh eater, to put it in


Animals were important to the ancient Egyptians, many were reared for food, some were kept as pets and others symbolised the powers of their Egyptian gods. You could ask the children to research the animals that were god symbols e.g. jackals, crocodiles, hippos and cats, and make up fact-files to show as many mathematical facts as possible e.g. life-span, size, number of young, and also to draw scaled-down drawings of them.

Dung beetle photograph by the Bruce Marlin used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.5) licence
Scarab beetle photograph by the Bruce Marlin

The scarab beetle is the most famous ancient Egyptian insect. The Ancient Egyptians believed that scarabs were associated with the god Khepri who pushed the sun across the sky, just like the beetle rolls a ball of dung. The children could find pictures of these and make copies or models. They should be sure to make them symmetrical and to measure their legs so that they are in proportion to their bodies. These were popular amulets – worn on a chain, cord or strap to protest against evil. The children could make their picture or model into an amulet, measuring their cords or straps to specific lengths.

Ancient Egyptian Gods

Egyptian god HorusThere were over 2 000 gods and godesses that the ancient Egpytians worshipped for a variety of reasons. Some of these were very important and thought to be responsible for religious and political power, others were thought to be demons and genies and others were living creatures chosen by ordinary Egyptians as their own personal gods.

You could ask the children to research some of the most popular gods e.g. Ptah, Re, Osiris, Isis, Horus, Seth and make posters showing as many mathematical facts as they can find about each one.

They could also explore what some of these gods looked like and from the descriptions draw pictures. They could look at body ratios and work from some of these to make sure that the gods are in proportion!

The god Horus by Jeff Dahl


Pyramids, sphinx and obelisks

Pyramids photograph by Darren Krape used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence

Pyramids photograph by Darren Krape

Great for shape! Begin with the plasticine shape activity outlined in A little bit of history from Issue 33 of the primary magazine. I’ve tried this with children from Year 2 upwards and it is a great activity:

Obelisk photograph by Patrick M used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

Obelisk photograph by Patrick M

Give each child a piece of plasticine and ask them to make a sphere and explore its properties: faces, edges, vertices, is it a prism, what can it do, what do they know in real life that looks like this, what 2D shape they can see if they hold it in front of them, how many sides, corners, angles, lines of symmetry etc.? They then turn their sphere into a cube – what are they doing? Flattening the curved face. Repeat the questions asked for the sphere. They then form a cuboid. Ask what they are doing – are they changing the number of faces, edges, vertices? What are they changing? Next, turn that into a square-based pyramid. Discuss the triangular faces – are they equilateral or isosceles or maybe a bit lopsided, forming a scalene? You could then discuss properties of each including angle sizes. When at the pyramid stage, ask the children to visualise what it would look like opened up, draw what they ‘see’, cut it out and make it up. It is unlikely to fit together perfectly, which leads into the discussion of how to make it better: make sure all the triangles are the same size, check the square has all sides exactly the same length. The children can then measure out an accurate net and make themselves a pyramid. Once they have done this, they make a plasticine cube again and do the same thing to make a net. This can be repeated for a cuboid with two square faces the same size as the cube, and also a triangular prism. If the children make several of each or work together to make one of each in a group of four, they can then experiment with their shapes to make an obelisk and a sphinx. This is a very effective way to visualise and construct nets for 3D shapes.

Sphinx photograph by Keith Yahl used under the Creative Commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en_GB licence

Sphinx photograph by Keith Yahl

For children in the EY/FS and Year 1, give them the same solid shapes and ask them to examine them and to try making them out of paper. (You will be impressed with the amazing results they come up with. Some of the children were drawing around the faces on paper and making their own nets.)
Find out the real sizes of these structures and then scale them down and make them up in these sizes for an Egyptian scene. Pyramid Builder provides a great opportunity for practising angles and percentages with a little bit of problem solving.

Egyptian number system

Issue 4 of the Primary Magazine has details of this. You could follow the ideas in this article, which includes converting our numbers to Egyptian, and vice versa, to rehearse place value. Try some code-breaking using Egyptian numbers!

Egyptian multiplication and division make a great investigation, and they make a lot of sense – can’t think why we don’t work this way! There are plenty of opportunities to reinforce doubling and halving, links between x/÷ and times tables.

The BBC Learning Zone, maths from the past, has a simple Egyptian problem involving fractions. It could inspire you or the children to make up some more similar ones. Math Cats has some other information on Egyptian fractions which you might like to explore.

Egyptian measurements

Egyptian measurementsA little bit of history in Issue 10 of the Primary Magazine has the details of Egyptian length. You could ask the children to estimate and measure each other and items in the classroom and outside in cubits, paces etc. This leads nicely into a discussion on the need for standardisation.

A little bit of history in Issue 11 has the details of Egyptian weight. You could explore converting these to our metric and imperial weights and explore weight in a similar way to length.

The Ancient Egyptians also had measurements for capacity. These included the "jar" (hin), measuring about 0.47 litres, the "barrel" (hekat, heqat) which was ten hinw or 4.77 litres, and the "sack" (khar), which was 160 hinw or 75.2 litres. The hin could also be divided into units as small as 1/32, as well as into thirds. You could use this information to find out what the different capacities looked like and also use it as an opportunity to practise estimating, measuring, comparing and converting to pints!

A little bit of history in Issue 13 has details of the way the Egyptians told the time. You could explore the information and ask your children to experiment with telling the time the Ancient Egyptian way.

With thanks to these websites for information:
  • BBC
  • Tour Egypt
  • Woodlands Junior School.
Image Credits
Page header - Sphinx and Pyramid photograph from Microsoft Clip Art used with permission of Microsoft
World map and Africa map based on image by Rogilbert in the public domain
River Nile from space photograph by NASA Planetary Photo Journal Collection courtesy of NASA/nasaimages.org
Egyptian flag from the Open Clip Art library in the public domain
Tutankhamen's death mask photograph by The Laird of Oldham some rights reserved
Mummification - Canopic jars photograph courtesy of the Woodlands Junior School  all rights reserved
Animals - Scarab beetle photograph by Bruce Marlin some rights reserved
Ancient Egyptian Gods - The god Horus image by Jeff Dahl some rights reserved
Pyramids, sphinx and obelisks - Pyramids photograph by Darren Krape some rights reserved
Pyramids, sphinx and obelisks - Obelisk photograph by Patrick M some rights reserved
Pyramids, sphinx and obelisks - Sphinx photograph by Keith Yahl some rights reserved

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