Artfully Ancient Learning

A recent archeological endeavor in present-day Tell Atrib, Egypt, has revealed a rare and incredibly concise depiction of the pedagogical and creative methodologies of ancient Egypt. The site where these artifacts were uncovered was once known as Athribis, a city that was important to flourishing Egyptian, Byzantine, Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic Christian populations. The various written languages transcribed on the artifacts include hieroglyphics, Greek, Arabic, Demotic and Coptic, which exemplifies the city’s multicultural history.

The archeologists’ excavation uncovered roughly 18,000 fragments of pottery, called sherds, inscribed with a variety of educational content including mathematical problems, grammar exercises and a variety of sketches and pictographs. When sherds are utilized in this manner, they are called ostraca (flakes of limestone used as personal writing pads; see: Babcock, 2012). According to lead archeologist, Christian Leitz, many of these sherds were likely utilized by students and educators in an academic setting (Cassella, 2022).

It is fascinating to see the drawings, which signify one of the earliest stages in the iconic Egyptian canon of art. The ages of the children who created these drawings are unknown. However, we can see that their motor skills are fairly developed. While these drawings do not have the proper proportions of the mature work from ancient Egypt that we might be familiar with (i.e. the Canon of Proportions), they clearly follow other cultural and aesthetic frameworks.

The children’s renderings of human figures, deities and animals are presented in the twisted perspective, which is a stylized pictorial convention used to give emphasis to distinguishing features. Ancient Egyptian art is notable for this imaginative depiction where a single figure is shown in both a profile and frontal view. If we analyze these drawings in terms of contemporary knowledge of artistic development in children’s art, then we might categorize these particular drawings within the preschematic and schematic phases. The age range that corresponds to these phases of development is between four and nine years. In the preschematic phase, figurative drawings of human beings are often compared to tadpoles (Freeman, 1975), due to their enlarged heads on top of a smaller body. Drawings of people are minimal with limited corporeal features and expressions. This is due to the children developing the schema (idea) of what they want to visually communicate. The drawings show what the child perceives to be the most important elements of the subject (Lowenfeld, 1947).

An ancient Egyptian sherd with three children’s drawings.
Courtesy of the University of Tübingen’s Athribis-Project.

The three figures in the sherd pictured above are indicative of a fluid period between the preschematic and schematic phases. In the latter phase, children’s drawings become more anchored, meaning that there is a directed focus on proportion and adding details to body parts. It has been observed that children usually begin representing people by drawing the head. Many art educators have noted that since the head takes precedence it is depicted disproportionately to other body parts. One theory for this includes the symbolic importance of the head and facial features among young children (Di Leo, 1970). Art educator Norman Freeman (1980), ascertains that the head needs to be made quite large, in order for the young artist to be able to fit in all of the details within the face. Since children generally work in a sequential manner starting with the head, it can take up an ample amount of space on the drawing surface, which means that there is less room for the other facets of the body to be prominently displayed (Freeman, 1980).

These contemporary theories and observations could arguably be utilized to analyze these ancient drawings; because the heads are much larger and contain more detail than the rest of the figure, while legs are truncated and minimal in their design.

Bird alphabet in Hieratic from an ancient Egyptian school.
Courtesy of the University of Tübinge Athribis-Project)

One of the most interesting pieces among the aesthetic artifacts is a very early conceptual hieratic typographic alphabet, where each letter is represented by a bird whose name starts with the corresponding letter. Through this alphabet, we get a sense of how visualization and literacy play a role in the understanding and development of a lexicon. Furthermore, it is a blatant example of how the Egyptians approached language and art through a multidisciplinary lens. The taxonomy of birds depicted via typography is one of the earliest examples of art-centered learning across the curriculum.

While we are able to use our knowledge of artistic development to envision and make hypotheses about the way children learned 2,000 years ago, these archeological findings clearly indicate how timeless, relatable and essential art and education are to the human experience.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Babcock, Jennifer. “Ancient Egyptian Ostraca: A Reevaluation,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Blog, 10 October 2012. https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/features/2012/ancient-egyptian-ostraca

Cassella, Carly. Huge Discovery of 18,000 ‘Notepads’ Documents Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, Science Alert, 7 February 2022. https://www.sciencealert.com/the-discovery-of-18-000-pottery-shards-document-daily-life-in-ancient-egypt

Di Leo, Joseph. (1970). Young Children and Their Drawings, New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Freeman, Norman. “Do children draw men with arms coming out of their head?” Nature, 1975, no. 254, pp.416-17.

Freeman, Norman. (1980). Strategies of Representation in Young Children: Analysis of Spatial Skills and Drawing Processes, Cambridge: Academic Press.

Lowenfeld, Viktor. (1947). Creative and Mental Growth, New York: Macmillan Co.

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