In February, Culturebaby was in an adorable pointing phase, and as a lifelong lover of all things Egyptian, nothing made me prouder than when (alongside her pigs, cows and crayons) she identified Tutankhamun, waved good morning to him, gave him a kiss and fed him a rusk. Little did she know that this would have made little Tut extremely happy, and that she was following the traditions of ancestors thousands of years old. Ancient Egyptians took real food with them into the afterlife, and relatives were expected to continue to replenish this to ensure that the soul of the deceased had food for eternity. This innocent act may also have rather irked the grander men who followed the famous boy king's reign and took pains to erase the memory of him and his Aten worshipping predecessor Akhenaten (belief in one god was seen as heresy then). Ironically of course, the reason why Tut is a household name is not only because of his great treasures (fabulous as they are, they would have been pretty meagre when compared with the grave goods of grander Pharaohs) but because they were found in tact. And why? Because his small tomb was hidden below rubble from the construction of tombs for later grander kings, which were robbed of their treasures in antiquity. Happily this neglect saved the young Pharaoh, and consequently Tut and his friends are alive and well in our household... well in our picture books anyway.
Much of Culturebaby's experience of Egypt to date had been from a small but much loved trio of picture books, which we review below. So with that in mind we went to see the mummies at the British Museum in the flesh (quite literally). We had popped into the collection here and at the Ashmolean when Culturebaby was much younger, but at 16 months, walking and understanding so much, it was just the right time for her to find the experience really exciting. A great way to start unlocking the Egyptian collections is to focus on the familiar. Culturebaby is a huge fan of animals, and so we went searching through the collections for our favourites. At this stage, Culturebaby had quite a repertoire of animal noises and loved pointing at the correct animal when asked "where is the...?" We had a great time finding mummified cats, crocodiles, cows and birds; bright green models of hippos; coffins with images of snakes and beetles; and depictions of gods with the heads of dogs, hippos, crocodiles, hawks and cats (to name but a few). Several of the cases are also at toddler height, and as Culturebaby loves walking so much, she was able to take my hand and lead me (narrowly avoiding being stomped on by bigger Egypt enthusiasts) to what she found interesting too. With the help of action songs we were also learning parts of the body, and we thoroughly enjoyed identifying ancient heads, shoulders, knees and toes in a number of gallery locations!
Beyond our fab trio, I've been shocked at the lack of decent Egyptology books for under fives. My love affair with Ancient Egypt began, not at a sensible nursery or school age when a deluge of great books already soak the shelves, but apparently, according to Culture Grandma, from the age of one. I mentioned in an earlier post that The Manchester Museum Egyptian galleries were my favourite space, I was on first name terms with the mummies before I was two and have been captured on numerous photographs sporting an Egyptian headdress and clutching a portrait of Tutankhamun. Yes, perhaps I was a little odd, but perhaps not. Perhaps my mum just supported my early interests, took me to such fascinating and stimulating galleries, read to me, did projects with me and used her creativity to bring this magical civilization alive. I don't think children should have to wait until they are older to have the opportunity to fall in love with this infectiously wonderful topic, but parents need the materials and ideas. With this in mind, we were delighted to discover a February half term session for Under 5s at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. This was enagaging and well designed and should be replicated everywhere!
First we were invited into the education rooms for a creativity session. Culturebaby's older pals made cobra head-dresses, necklaces and decorated mini coffin lids. They also made their own mummy puppet-on-a-stick. Younger toddlers were also not neglected. There were Egyptian themed treasure-baskets, sticklebricks to build a temple, and, most excitingly, a sandpit full of Egyptian statues to excavate. Culturebaby threw herself into the task, quite literally head first, and proved to be an adept little Egyptologist, uncovering a number of interesting objects. We were then offered a tour of the Egyptian galleries for the under 5s. They had clearly thought about their mini enthusiasts' interests very well, and provided a voyage of discovery around the collection with an animal theme. The children were encouraged to identify the appropriate statues, compare them to modern photographs, make animal noises and look for interesting details, as well as learning a bit about them. Culturebaby was really able to engage with this, pointed and made the appropriate noises and when she was asked to identify a snake on a crown, she pointed and then touched her head. This tour then culminated with another great activity. The floor had been covered with a really big sheet of paper with tissue paper nile, trees and desert. The children were invited to select an animal they had just seen, colour it in and add it to the appropriate habitat on the floor. The children loved this activity, and even Culturebaby was able to join in. We were really lucky to be able to be part of this session, but even if you can't find anything similar - you can do some of it yourself easily.
So, here's our three must have books for your toddler Egyptologists:
1. One Blue Hippo, An Ancient Egyptian Counting Book - This beautiful little board book is produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, based on their collections, though we picked up our copy at the British Museum Shop. The recommended reading age is 3+ but this was a favourite with Culturebaby from very early on as it is compact, sturdy, colourful and contains simple but beautiful photographic images of creatures from Ancient Egyptian Art. Starting with the iconic blue hippo (a version of which Culturebaby clearly recognised in the BM collection) and then counting to ten from cats to cows and beetles, this book can engage the very young but also those learning to count. It prompts the reader to search for and recognise its contents in museum collections, and (as the activities we mention above also did so well) it plays on the interests of this age group - making the ancient accessible and relevant. There's also a handy two pages at the back with information on each artefact for the parent or slightly older child.
2. Tickle Tut's Toes by Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo - This fabulous little book, from the 'Touch the Art' series, was an amazon discovery. Though it is aimed at ages 4+ because it has parts that can unravel, I'd really disagree with this and say the best audience is a supervised 1-2 year old. Like the engaging 'That's not my...' series, the appeal of this book is the touchy feely elements. Little paws can explore mummy wrappings, sandy sarcophagi and corrugated pyramids. It contains photographs, and a simple rhyming text. Whilst I'd say the design isn't perfect and the text is a little American, it is commendable in that it is the only thing of its kind that I've found. And it was this book, well thumbed already, that prompted Culturebaby to recognise and feed its striking eponymous hero, which is frankly good enough for me. Again there's a section at the back with context and information for each image.
3. We're Sailing Down the Nile, a Journey Through Egypt by Laurie Krebs and Anne Wilson - Barefoot Books are gorgeous. They aim to create bright, colourful books for children that combine beautiful artwork with captivating storytelling and this one is no exception. This beautiful book was a gift from a friend who clearly knows me extremely well!. Again aimed at the slightly older child, and with several pages of accessible factual material at the end which would be perfect for a primary school project, this book would have several lives in any household as it is also perfect for a toddler. The initial part of the book combines beautiful illustrations with the story of a family's (geographically accurate) journey down the Nile from Abu Simbel to Cairo. It is so accessible because it is bright and simple, with characters, and its text has a repetitive and rhyming progression.
If you're also interested in something slightly more lighthearted, we can also recommend a trio of other fun items. The British Museum has produced a series of historically themed rubber ducks. 'Ra' and his Viking and Roman pals Canute and Augusduck Caesar are now permanent fixtures in our bathtub. We also discovered a great 'dress up Tutankhamun' set of fridge magnets at Manchester Museum and finally in TKMaxx we fell across 'Tutankhamouse' a Pop-up Adventure. Again rhyming and with fun paper engineering, this small book seems to be loosely based on the biblical story of Joseph and culminates with a Sphinx made of cheese. Accurate it is not, but a fun intro to Egypt it certainly is. Sadly several statues have been beheaded (do supervise)...