An Ancient Egyptian Homework Assignment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Truly Timeless

Every gen­er­a­tion of school­child­ren no doubt first assumes home­work to be a his­tor­i­cal­ly dis­tinct form of pun­ish­ment, devel­oped express­ly to be inflict­ed on them. But the par­ents of today’s mis­er­able home­work-doers also, of course, had to do home­work them­selves, as did their par­ents’ par­ents. It turns out that you can go back sur­pris­ing­ly far in his­to­ry and still find exam­ples of the men­ace of home­work, as far back as ancient Egypt, a civ­i­liza­tion from which one exam­ple of an out-of-class­room assign­ment will go on dis­play at the British Library’s exhi­bi­tion Writ­ing: Mak­ing Your Mark, which opens this spring.

“Begin­ning with the ori­gins of writ­ing in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Chi­na and the Amer­i­c­as, the exhi­bi­tion will explore the many man­i­fes­ta­tions, pur­pos­es and forms of writ­ing, demon­strat­ing how writ­ing has con­tin­u­al­ly enabled human progress and ques­tion­ing the role it plays in an increas­ing­ly dig­i­tal world,” says the British Library’s press release.

“From an ancient wax tablet con­tain­ing a schoolchild’s home­work as they strug­gle to learn their Greek let­ters to a Chi­nese type­writer from the 1970s, Writ­ing: Mak­ing Your Mark will show­case over 30 dif­fer­ent writ­ing sys­tems to reveal that every mark made – whether on paper or on a screen – is the con­tin­u­a­tion of a 5,000 year sto­ry and is a step towards deter­min­ing how writ­ing will be used in the future.”

That wax tablet, pre­served since the sec­ond cen­tu­ry A.D., bears Greek words that Live­science’s Mindy Weis­berg­er describes as “famil­iar to any kid whose par­ents wor­ry about them falling in with a bad crowd”: “You should accept advice from a wise man only” and “You can­not trust all your friends.” First acquired by the British Library in 1892 but not pub­licly dis­played since the 1970s, the tablet’s sur­face pre­serves “a two-part les­son in Greek that pro­vides a snap­shot of dai­ly life for a pupil attend­ing pri­ma­ry school in Egypt about 1,800 years ago.” Its lines, “copied by this long-ago stu­dent were not just for prac­tic­ing pen­man­ship; they were also intend­ed to impart moral lessons.”

But why Greek? “In the 2nd cen­tu­ry A.D., when this les­son was writ­ten,” writes’s Jason Daley, “Egypt had been under Roman rule for almost 200 years fol­low­ing 300 years of Greek and Mace­don­ian rule under the Ptole­my dynasty. Greeks in Egypt held a spe­cial sta­tus below Roman cit­i­zens but high­er than those of Egypt­ian descent. Any edu­cat­ed per­son in the Roman world, how­ev­er, would be expect­ed to know Latin, Greek and — depend­ing on where they lived — local or region­al lan­guages.” It was a bit like the sit­u­a­tion today with the Eng­lish lan­guage, which has become a require­ment for edu­cat­ed peo­ple in a vari­ety of cul­tures — and a sub­ject espe­cial­ly loathed by many a home­work-bur­dened stu­dent the world over.

via Live­science

Relat­ed Con­tent:

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs

Try the Old­est Known Recipe For Tooth­paste: From Ancient Egypt, Cir­ca the 4th Cen­tu­ry BC

The Turin Erot­ic Papyrus: The Old­est Known Depic­tion of Human Sex­u­al­i­ty (Cir­ca 1150 B.C.E.)

The Ancient Egyp­tians Wore Fash­ion­able Striped Socks, New Pio­neer­ing Imag­ing Tech­nol­o­gy Imag­ing Reveals

Muse­um Dis­cov­ers Math Note­book of an 18th-Cen­tu­ry Eng­lish Farm Boy, Adorned with Doo­dles of Chick­ens Wear­ing Pants

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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