The Epic of Gilgamesh and Gingerbread Cuneiform: Studying Mesopotamia

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My teenager's combination World History/Art History study (that I'm still not entirely sure how I'm going to record on her high school transcript...) is a TON of fun. We read the history and the art history, study the major artworks, read some literature or mythology, do something immersive, and write about it. I love it, and so far it seems pretty teenager-friendly, too!

My favorite parts of her Mesopotamia unit were listening to The Epic of Gilgamesh (the teenager ships Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and I can't say that she's wrong), envisioning the Ishtar Gate (not to be confused with the Gates of Ishtar, a Swedish metal band), figuring out the Sumerian genealogy of gods and goddesses (always a hit with my mythology-obsessed kid), and making this gingerbread cuneiform.

The idea--and the gingerbread recipe!--come from this Edible Archaeology post. We also followed the author's suggestion to use a disposable bamboo chopstick as a stylus, which led to a whole adventure of eating at several local Asian restaurants over the course of a couple of weeks, since every restaurant we went to happened to have the separated chopsticks with round ends, not the snap-apart ones with square ends!

Finally, we were met with success--and absolutely DELICIOUS ramen--at this little place tucked into an apartment complex behind the grocery store near the mall:

With the proper bamboo chopsticks and a batch of gingerbread dough, we were ready to write!

We did not follow the author's highly ambitious example of copying a large cuneiform tablet, because WHOAH. Instead, we cut small squares, then used the stylus to copy some of the examples from my teenager's world history textbook:

A chopstick makes a PERFECT stylus!

Baked, the impressions still showed perfectly!

Cuneiform sign meaning "god" or "sky"

Cuneiform sign meaning "day" or "sun"

The student scribe takes an art break!

older Cuneiform sign meaning "barley." Doesn't it look like barley?

Since we did this project right before Christmas, we went ahead and used this dough to also make gingerbread cookies, and the kids made their gingerbread houses. Eleven years into this beloved tradition, I'm now a devotee of melted sugar as glue, and I still think the houses look messy and gross, but nevertheless, they bring me joy:

A lot of hands-on history projects are just fun little craft projects that don't teach a ton about history; if you want your hands-on history project to be valuable for history, and not just a thematically-related activity, you do have to be vigilant. When the kids were very little, for instance, letting them build Egyptian pyramids out of sugar cubes didn't teach them anything about the history of Egypt, but it was a good STEM project and they loved it. But having them create salt dough maps of Egypt and paint and label them was also fun, and reinforced some useful information about Egypt that we still know, such as the fact that Upper Egypt was south and Lower Egypt was north because that's the way the Nile flows, and that the Delta is shaped the same as the Greek letter. 

There's nothing wrong with doing thematically-related but non-valuable projects, even with older homeschoolers--my teenager created this gingerbread Stonehenge during her Astronomy study, learning little about Stonehenge but a decent amount about gingerbread construction and hand-building, and it was fun! But this gingerbread cuneiform, we found, taught us a LOT about cuneiform, and therefore about Mesopotamia. We were all surprised to see how exactly the square stylus recreated the cuneiform, and how well the imprints stayed when baked. You wouldn't be able to recreate that nearly so easily by drawing the figures, but you could get a LOT of cuneiform onto even a hand-sized piece of clay, and that clay would be portable, durable, and virtually immortal. 

That's a lot of knowledge gained for oneself while also decorating cookies, drinking eggnog, and listening to Christmas music!

We've spiraled through history throughout our homeschool years, or done interest-led unit studies non-chronologically, so I've built up a lot of Mesopotamia resources. Here are some of what we've enjoyed over the past dozen years:

  • irrigation activity. Irrigation was critical to the development of Mesopotamian agriculture! Here's an idea for how to model an irrigation system. I think it would be cool to use chia seeds so you could build an actual working model!
  • map of known ziggurats. Research these via YouTube or Google Images, place them in your salt dough map, glue thumbnail images to a wall map, flyover them in Google Earth, etc.
  • Mesopotamia flashcards. Use these flashcards for matching or memory work. 
  • popsicle stick war machines. If you read Story of the World (which you should!), you'll encounter Sargon the Great. You can use popsicle sticks to model some of the war machines that he used.
  • Royal Game of Ur. You can't study Mesopotamia without playing this game found in a tomb in Ur!
  • sexagesimal system. Mesopotamians counted in Base 60, something that you can still see reflected today in activities like measuring time (60 seconds, 60 minutes) and circles (360 degrees). Here's a starting point for researching the sexagesimal system, but I've found some great activities in books over the years that I pull out occasionally for math enrichment.
  • Treasures of the UCLA Library: Cuneiform Tablets. My teenager and I watched this short video before beginning our side-hustle as cuneiform scribes. 
  • write your name in cuneiform. This is a fun way to get just a taste of cuneiform writing.

And the beloved spines of our current World History/Art History study:

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