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History, Hieroglyphs, and DNA: Cracking an unknown code

A connection needs to made with the students of how codes can be deciphered and understood. Often times, students do not have a sense of appreciation for the long and trying work with the DNA model, ultimately dechipered by Watson and Crick. The dilemma of solving the language of DNA was very similar to the problems encountered with the dechiphering of ancient hieroglyphs. This activity will help students to understand what it must have been like by simulating the "cracking" of an unknown language. This activity serves as an introduction to discussing the race to uncovering the DNA model.

If possible, obtain a photograph or poster which displays ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Explain to the students that historians knew these pictures were an actual language, however, no record was available at the time to decipher it. After many years of trial and error, the symbols were translated into words. The greatest aid to translation was the "cartouche" or signature. The word "cartouche" is of french origin and is a term used to describe an explosive cartridge for a gun. A cartouche is an oval-shaped ring, similar in shape to a gun cartridge, with series of symbols written vertically inside the ring. A cartouche was used when expressing a name of someone, especially of royal personage.

The only thing left was to decide who was buried in the tomb and observe the symbols in the cartouche. For this, researchers needed to turn to other cultures. Roman records were available which cronicaled the reign of Egyptian pharoahs. They also described their appearance, especially if physical abnormalities were present. This would be very important associating a particular ruler with a burial site. The Egyptians were very meticulous about depicting the human form. They belived that ka, or the spirit, would require the physical body in the afterlife. In addition to the mummified remains, statues and paintings adorned the tomb to help the ka recognize itself. It was crucial to depict the body exactly as it was in life, if the ka were to recognize iteslf. The cartouche was always written close by. ( The greatest insult in Egyptian times was to mutilate preserved remains, smash the sculptures, and chip the paintings from the wall. To do such a thing would force the ka to wander endlessly and vanish into obscurity. ) The only thing left to do was to match the Roman record with the physical appearance of the statues and pictures, find the cartouche, and translate the symbols.

First, give the students some of the historical background on cracking the hieroglyph code. In this activity, the students will be designing their own "cartouche" for their name. The students should not share what they are creating with the other students. Provide them with paper and art supplies to design their cartouche. Once completed, collect all of the cartouches and post them on the walls. Have the students try to dechiper the cartouches. See if they can figure out their classmate's cartouches.

Have the students answer the following questions: How difficult is it to achieve this task? How long do they estimate it would take to decipher an entire wall of writing?

The students should come to realize that dechipering an unknown code is often not an easy task. Scientists have been struggling with the genetic code for years due to its complexity. The students should have a greater appreciation for just how time consuming this task can be.

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