New archaeological findings suggest “naughty pupils” in ancient Egyptian schools were made to write lines on pottery as punishment…..
Shani watched from the door of her mudbrick dwelling as her seven-year-old son Aaru trudged up the road from school. Her heart melted, as it always did, at the look of weariness in his little face. Her heart sank, as it always did, at what he was carrying.
He was bringing home another pot. He must have got lines again.
Writing lines was a new punishment thought up by progressive modern teachers, who felt that the beatings of Shani’s own schooldays (the phrase ‘which had never done her any harm’ came unbidden into her mind here) were barbaric, as well as tiring for the teachers themselves. They believed instead that writing, over and over, about their misdemeanours would better impress upon the children’s little minds the gravity of what they had done. The fact that it might engender a dislike of writing was not regarded as important.
Besides, it was hard to fill a school day when history went backwards, when geography consisted of one country and when all art was of a man in the pose of a tightrope walker, wearing a fancy-dress hat. Writing lines kept children occupied, so papyrus was provided, and sentences were wrote by rote.
It was the pharoah who came up with the idea of having the lines written onto pottery instead. This was an attempt to get rid of the clay that washed down the Nile during rainy season, forming a gloopy paste that quickly and surprisingly solidified, dotting the riverbank with lone sandals. Misbehaving children – essentially all children, at some time – were placed in front of a wheel with a sodden lump of wet greyness, and the world went to pot.
At first parents had been delighted when their children brought home misshapen pots made by their own little hands, with their own little hand-prints still on them. But the number grew, and dwellings became overwhelmed. The pottery quickly became a marker of one’s parenting. Mothers arriving for that month’s Scrolls Club would look quickly around the hostess’s room, mentally logging the number of pots, and nodding grimly if the number was high.
They couldn’t even be re-gifted. Nobody wants a clay urn patterned with the words ‘I must not say that Karim smells of poo’.
Parents resorted to ‘accidents’. Pots were continually being dropped, falling mysteriously off solid-looking shelves, or being broken by a dad practising his swing for the not yet invented game of golf.
This is why archaeological digs unearth many, many broken fragments, but very little intact pottery.
Shani, though, loved Aaru’s pots. Each one was hand-made by her wonderful boy, and acted as a glimpse into his days. Since his standard reply to “how was your day” was “fine”‘, sentences such as ‘I must not climb the pyramid’, ‘I must not eat the apple Meena gave teacher’ and ‘I must not call Meena a suck-up’ gave a vivid insight into the vibrancy of a typical Aaru schoolday.
And the vase with the words ‘I must not forget that cats are gods’ told an almost complete story of the scratches on his arms that he had refused to explain.
Each one, though, saddened her a little, as they spoke of a dressing down by an adult, of a little hung head, of the barely audible word ‘sorry’.
Aaru reached the door now.
“Hello, love,” said Shani.
“Hello, Mother,” said Aaru (parents in ancient Egypt were referred to as ‘Daddy and Mother’, the word ‘Mummy’ having been appropriated for a different use).
The two walked into the kitchen and Aaru sat at the table. Shani poured some water into a cup (‘I must not put a frog in the staff toilet’) and handed it to him.
“How was your day?” she asked.
“Fine,” he replied.
“That’s good,” said Shani. She waited for a few seconds, then said softly “I see you’ve brought home another pot.”
To her surprise, he looked embarrassed. Wow, she thought, this must be really bad.
He handed her the pot. She turned it around. All that was written on it was the word ‘Mother’.
She looked at him quizzically.
“I didn’t make this on the naughty step,” he said. “I made it in Arts and Crafts. I wanted you to have one that says I love you, not one that says I did something wrong again.”
Shani hugged her wonderful son. Tears ran from her huge eyes, joyous tears that would fill all the pots of Egypt.