The Pyramids of Egypt
The Egyptian pyramids were built over 4,000 years
ago and over the centuries have inspired as much puzzlement as awe.
Why were they built? How could a society with such primitive
technology - no iron, no wheels, only stone, wood and copper tools -
create monuments which are not only enormous but extremely accurate?
The Great Pyramid is the most famous, with over 2 million blocks of
limestone, each weighing around 2.5 tonnes, and fitted so well
together you can't get a piece of paper between them. Not only that,
the greatest difference in length between the four sides (each about
230m) is about 4cm, and the base is level to within 2cm!
In this workshop children will learn about the
mysteries of the pyramids through hands-on experiments in building
and levelling, imagining the life of a pyramid builder, and
constructing scale models of both the Giza pyramids and the Step
pyramid (the very first pyramid - that's me above in front of it).
The Giza model can be transformed from its current state to its
original, with the original smooth white casings, and the temples
for worshipping the dead king. In this way children will gain a rich
understanding not only of the shape and scale of the pyramids but of
their original meaning to the ancient Egyptians.
A detailed lesson plan is
provided in the next column.
Inside the Red Pyramid - the pyramid of Sneferu,
father of Khufu.
of Khufu, 5cm high - the only existing image of the king
of Khafre, son of Khufu
of Menkaure, son of Khafre, and his wife
Comments from Teachers
‘It was a really clear way of illustrating the
building of the pyramids. The children were
still commenting on the hands on activities
days after.’ - Teacher, Norris Bank Primary, Stockport
'Such a wonderful day! It was obvious that they girls enjoyed
themselves, and also that they learned great deal throughout the
day' - Teacher, Withington Girls' School
Lesson Plan: Morning
1. Introduction to pyramids and to
the day's activities (30 mins)
First I will set up the classroom for the later
activities. Then we will look at some photos of the more important
pyramids in Egypt, and discuss why they were built (as burials for
the pharaoh and to send them to the afterlife). Our main focus for
the morning however is on the amazing facts of their construction.
We discuss ideas about how the pyramids were made, and then how we
shall try to find out ourselves with some hands-on activities.
2. Experimental archaeology: Four
pyramid building activities (90 minutes)
This activity is a fantastic way for children to
get a concrete understanding of pyramid building and the
difficulties faced by the Egyptians in making these enormous
monuments. Archaeologists often find the best way to understand how
people of the past did something is to try it themselves. Children
will learn from experience in a similar way, using models. They will
think about the results of experiments to make conclusions, which we
will as a class at the end.
First I will give a
demonstration of one activity - showing how difficult it was to pull
blocks of stone on different surfaces and slopes,
and on a replica of an Egyptian sledge. Two children will help,
one pulling the block and one reading a Newton meter to measure
the force required. In this way we will see how hard it is to drag
a block on sand, on a sledge, on a harder surface, and also on a
slope (because the blocks had to be pulled up the pyramids on
ramps). Here there are strong links to the forces unit in the
After this children will be
divided into 9 groups and work in rotation on 3 activities (with 3
small groups on each activity at one time). These are:
using replicas of 3 ancient Egyptian surveying tools (plumb
line, level, and set square), children will examine surfaces
in the classroom to see if they are vertical, horizontal, or
right angles. They will think about how these tools might have
been used to make the pyramid blocks.
a ramp: there are many theories
about how ramps were built for workers to pull the blocks up
the pyramids. Children will test out some theories using
wooden models of a pyramid at 2 stages of construction (early
and late). They will make ramps with plasticine to see how
much material would be required and which method is most
stable and effective.
with blocks: children will try
building their own pyramid from strong plaster blocks, to try
out methods of stacking, and to see how specially shaped
casing stones were needed (and what the types of casing stones
are), in order to create the original, smooth look of the
pyramids. They will count the different types of blocks and
perhaps see a pattern in the numbers required for each level
of the pyramid.
Lesson plan continues in next column
The model the class makes
in the afternoon
Plan of Khufu's pyramid, showing queens'
pyramids, satellite pyramid, mortuary temple, enclosure wall, and
The pyramids of Menkaure's wives
The Great Sphinx, with Khafre's valley temple
front left and the Sphinx temple front right
A reconstruction of the Sphinx complex
The Step Pyramid
The Burj Khalifa, the
tallest building in the world at 829m
The Great Pyramid, at 146m,
held this record from 2,500BC to 1300AD
1. Lives of the pyramid
builders (20 mins)
For many years it was thought the pyramids were
built by slaves. We now know this is not true - the builders were
mostly ordinary Egyptians, called up to work for months or more at a
time, to quarry, pull stones, build ramps, make or sharpen the
copper chisels, provide food and water for the workers, and
doubtless many other jobs. Some were also highly skilled masons,
which we can see from the amazing accuracy of their stonework.
Experts now believe the pyramid builders were
highly motivated, happy to work for their pharaoh, to ensure his
journey to the afterlife and the goodwill of the gods, so that Egypt
would continue to prosper.
In this section of the day, using photos of
archaeological findings, we will try to understand what life was
like for the builders - their lodgings and food, their work, their
medical care and their burial - and discuss whether the evidence
shows us that they were slaves or ordinary Egyptians.
Note: if time in the afternoon is short we may skip
this section so we have time to make the model.
Reconstruction of a bakery at the Great Pyramid.
2. Make a scale model of the pyramids (100+
For the main activity in the afternoon, the
class will make scale models of the pyramids (1/560th scale). Most of
the class will create the Giza pyramids, while a few will make a model
of the Step pyramid and the Sphinx with its
two temples. Please note that extra adult help is
required in order to make the full range of items.
We will make two versions of the Giza model: one as
the pyramids are now, darkened with age and lacking their smooth casing
stones (except for the top of Khafre's pyramid). This 'current'
model can be converted into its original version, with smooth white
faces resulting from their specially shaped casing stones (which the
children learned about in the morning).
In addition, some children will make the
mortuary temples which were a vital feature of the original pyramid
complexes, as well as the enclosure walls for the pyramids
themselves and the covered causeways which led from these temples to
the valley temples.
Remains of Khafre's mortuary temple (his valley
temple and sphinx are seen in the background)
This 'original' version will give children a
much deeper understanding of why the pyramids were built -
as religious centres for ensuring the pharaoh's spirit went to the
afterlife, and when there was nourished by the care of the priests
in the world of the living.
Making the model will not only teach children
about the size, shape and purpose of the pyramids, it will also give
them a chance to practise some very important craft skills, such as
cutting, gluing, folding and sellotaping. To create this model,
accuracy and concentration will be needed, so this is an excellent
opportunity to improve these qualities.
to its complex nature, extra adult help is required for this
activity. In addition to myself we will need
at least two active adult assistants. If this is not possible, we
will omit some of the activities (making the temples, sphinx,
enclosure walls and causeways) and instead make
more of the modern building pictures. If the children finish the
main activities they can make the ones we omitted, or I can leave
the resources for you to make them another day.
Making the models
The children will work in small groups, making
their own part of the model, as follows:
Base - a few children will
glue together large pieces of cardboard to create a 240X90cm
base for the main model. They will glue on sand to create a more
realistic look, and using a template draw a 'map' of where the
pyramids will stand.
'Current' pyramids - some
children will use templates to draw triangles onto light brown,
fine corrugated card. They will cut these out, sellotape these
together to create the 'stepped' current look of the pyramids.
They will make the three main pyramids plus four small, queen's
pyramids and two so-called 'satellite' pyramids that stood next
to Khufu's and Khafre's pyramids.
Small step pyramids - one
or two children will paint the two step pyramids thast belonged
to Menkaure's queens (these are plaster casts).
'Original' pyramids -
children will use templates to draw 'nets' onto strong white
card, which they will then cut out. These nets are folded and
glued into pyramid shapes which fit neatly onto the 'current'
Mortuary temples - a few
children will cut out card nets and fold and glue them to make
mortuary temples. These were attached to each pyramid and were
the main site for the religious worship of the dead pharaoh.
every day priests would offer him sacrifices of animals and
other food and drink, as well as giving his statue a clean and a
change of clothes. There was a special rite in which they would
walk around the pyramid, speaking prayers and offering incense
Enclosure walls and causeways
- a few children will complete the pyramid complexes, with the
high walls surrounding each pyramid, and the covered walkways
which led down to the so-called valley temples.
and temples - one group will make an example of
a valley temple, that of Khafre. Next to Khafre's valley temple
was the Great Sphinx, a 73m-long lion-bodied statue of Khafre,
as well as a special temple for the sphinx. These are plaster
casts which children will paint, gluing on then Sphinx, with a
causeway leading back up to Khafre's pyramid.
Step Pyramid - a group of children will make
the Step pyramid of King Djoser, by painting a detailed plaster
buildings - using templates and card, some
children will make pictures of a number of buildings, to stick
on the wall behind the model and give a sense of the scale of
the Giza pyramids. These include smaller buildings such as the
White House, Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, and some which have
held the record for tallest building in the world. The Great
Pyramid (146m) held the record for 3,800 years until 1311 when
it was beaten by Lincoln Cathedral (160m). Later record holders
include the Washington Monument (169m), the Eiffel Tower (300m),
the Empire State Building (381m), the CN Tower (553m), and
(currently) the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (829m).