The Wonders of Ancient Civilizations

Bring excitement and interest to your social studies with a unit on ancient civilizations.

By Ann Whittemore

Egyptian Farmer Hieroglyphics

The study of ancient civilizations is captivating and fascinating and can enrich any curriculum. Instilling an understanding of our human past is important because ancient civilizations have helped shape our who we are today.  Begin your investigation by considering this question:

  • What characteristics must a group of people exhibit in order to be considered civilized?

What Makes a Civilization?

V. Gordon Child developed a list of traits that help define the concept of civilization: A social group must have developed subsistence strategies (such as agriculture), obvious settlement patterns, stratified society, an economic system, literacy, organized government, as well as evidence of culture such as art, religion, and literature. So how do these characteristics influence the ways we teach lessons on Ancient Civilizations? Each of these aspects provide key areas to focus on. In any given grade level, you can center your lessons or unit around each of the key elements that comprise a civilization and then provide evidence of each in a given ancient society. I will focus this article on ideas involving the ancient Egyptians, but you can modify these ideas for use with any ancient civilization.

Ancient Egyptian Civilization:

  • Culture

I believe that prior to understanding civilizations, learners need to define culture. They should come up with a definition of what makes a culture. They give examples of various groups that exemplify those traits. Then they can work into understanding culture through the characteristics of civilization.

  • Agriculture

The ancient Egyptians settled along the Nile River and cultivated crops that thrived in their environment. They had a well-developed agricultural system. In fact, they had enough storable resources to sponser the building of the pyramids. In ancient times, food was often the basis of economy. Those who had more food were able to buy the labor of those who had less. For example, workers building the pyramids were paid in daily food and beer rations. Have your class explore the foods and resources used by the Egyptians. They will research how that food was used, cultivated, processed, stored and consumed. They can then present their findings to the class as a TV commercial or print ad. 

  • Economics

Once a civilization has a storable and reliable food source, it can begin building a trade or economic system. The Egyptian economy relied on a barter system where grain was traded at a controlled, set price. Grain sacks were weighed to determine their value. This system led to strong economic stability, widespread trade relations, and the advent of a writing system. Have learners weigh out sacks of “grain” and then trade in a mock marketplace. After participating in this ancient economic simulation, have pupils write a few paragraphs describing the experience, comparing it to the economic system used today.

  • Writing

Egyptian hieroglyphs are fascinating. Interestingly enough, Egyptians wrote an abundance of poetry, literature, and myths describing the world around them. Early Egyptians developed a numeric system to document trade and economic interatctions. Learners can explore how Egyptians represented numeric quantity, and can compare this sytem to the one we use today. Next, have them develop a numeric system of their own using the foundations from the ancient Egyptian mathematical system. Role play is always fun, have students group up and become Egyptians. Each group will look to the Internet to find a story, poem, or ritual to act out. They will then recite the ancient texts, adding intonation to their performance. This would also be a great time to have them write a short poem describing their life as an Egyptian.

  • Government and Religion

This is a tricky topic. Egyptian government and religion were intricately tied together. It centered around the pharoah who was considered to be a god and a man. They had hundreds of gods that were involved in every aspect of daily life, meaning that the religious and the social system were intertwined. How and what you cover with regard to government and religion will depend on the nature and age of your class. You can have each child choose one Egyptian god to research, they will locate information regarding the god’s powers, interactions with nature, interactions with man, relationship to other gods, and how they think that god influenced law, government, and daily life. The end result can be an informational essay accompanied by a well-developed comic strip which shows the impact of this god. 

  • Art

Egyptian religion had a major influence on Egyptian art. Egyptians believed, as do many West African cultures do, in sympathetic magic. This means that drawings, hieroglyphs, and art were considered to be magically potent or alive. Have learners view a variety of Egyptian artifacts. Each pupil (or small group) chooses one art or craft to research. They will need to determine if their art form was considered religious, its symbolism, and if any gods were associated with it. They’ll use their findings for an oral or written presentation. Tip: I like to have learners take notes while others give presentations. I also award points to kids who participate by asking the presenter questions.

As a last idea, it's fun to build ancient civilizations out of recycled materials. You can assign groups a given civilization, and then it’s up to them to research and create a miniature representation of architectural accomplishment from that civilization. However, this can take time and resources that may not be available. Another option is to look online to find downloadable programs that allow learners to either travel through an ancient civilization in real time, or to make a virtual civilization.

However you decide to approach your study of ancient civilizations, enhance the learning experience with a variety of creative activities that will reinforce unique aspects of the culture.