The Ancient World… in 100 words!

We’re in a big making-up-stories phase at the minute, coinciding with the 5yo’s current focus in school on independent creative writing. He loves writing all sorts of weird and wonderful little tales about monsters and ghosts and smugglers (thanks, Famous Five), so I’ve been gathering some books specifically designed to build vocabulary – and there are so many choices! We were especially happy to find The Ancient World in 100 Words by Clive Gifford and Gosia Herba. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but look at this beauty! I actually came across it in the monthly Postscript Books catalogue, and immediately ordered it – a big colourful hardback for £6.99? Yes please!

Let’s learn some new words!

The set-up is simple: each page focuses on a specific English word about the ancient world, with a full-page cheerful retro illustration and a brief definition underneath. There’s a great mix of vocabulary from the geographical to the mythological and the straightforward historical. There’s people, places, things – and importantly in our house, monsters!

Aristotle the philosopher vs. Medusa the gorgon is a battle I’d personally be very keen to see

A standout feature for us was that it isn’t just Greek and Roman – you’ll also find words linked to Ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, and Minoan Crete – a lovely way to open up the ancient world that little bit more. The illustrations themselves incorporate real ancient artwork, objects, and architecture too. The picture accompanying the Minoans for example reproduces the famous restoration of the ‘Ladies in Blue’ fresco from the palace of Knossos (handily pictured on the opposite page!) – dating to around 1525-1450BC. You can see the restored version and the original fragments in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

Minoan frescoes

Including real artefacts and archaeological sites is a great way of introducing more of the everyday parts of ancient life, too. It can be easy to fall into the trap of only showcasing the big events or the great individuals, but finding out what daily life was actually like for people in the past is just as fascinating! There’s plenty of smaller and more personal objects to balance out the big names and grand monuments – I was especially pleased to find some shabti dolls!

𓅱𓈙𓃀𓏏𓏭𓀾 wšbtj in Ancient Egyptian!

These little figurines (measuring anywhere between 5-50cm tall) were one of the many objects accompanying the Ancient Egyptian body in its tomb. Inscribed with spells and holding a variety of tools, these little friends served as your afterlife helpers – they would carry out whatever jobs you might need them to when they joined you in the Field of Reeds (the good place!). Quite often they have farming tools – seed bags, baskets, hoes – to help with farming. Useful!

Another everyday object we were very happy to see included was coins. They’re often such an overlooked type of evidence from the ancient world, but they can tell us so much – and, importantly, Greek coins have great mythological designs on them.

Super numismatics!

The word itself (‘coins’) might seem a little boring compared to some of its pals in the book – like Sphinx, Parthenon, Heracles! – but the summary it gives below is the interesting bit here. The 5yo was especially intrigued to learn that before people had money they relied on swapping or bartering (lots of silly conversations about what things are worth – what would you swap for a really nice biscuit?!) The discussion underneath also introduces more complex vocabulary like electrum and tetradrachm (tetrah-dram), so there are still plenty of opportunities for stronger readers to learn something new. Coins are cool.

Secret code time..

We’re also HUGE fans of anything that could be used for creating secret codes, so we were v excited to find this beautifully clear reproduction of the Phoenician alphabet! Not just your run-of-the-mill hieroglyph chart here, no. It’s a great basis for alternative ancient writing activities – whether simple tasks like sounding out and spelling your name the Phoenician way or writing more complex secret messages.

There’s so much to enjoy with this book, I can’t believe we haven’t encountered it before. We’re having a lot of fun picking a new word each day – and who knows, maybe one day school will get a creative writing story about a Sphinx..

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