Make an Ancient Egyptian Merkhet (to go with the Magic Tree House Book 3)

Ancient Egypt is another one of our favorite themes, so I had to do a little digging to come up with an activity to go with the 3rd Magic Tree House Book (Mummies at Midnight) that my kids hadn't done before. This one is perfect...and it works as a STEM project too!

Click HERE to see all the activities we've been doing with the Magic Tree House Books! They're designed for kids about 6-9 years old, though my 12-year old and 3-year old have also joined us in all the activities so far--they're really easy to adapt to a variety of ages! You can also see my Ancient Egypt Unit Study HERE--I'm adding this activity to that collection too!

Before I tell you how to make a merkhet, I should probably tell you what one is. ;)

A merkhet is a type of clock the ancient Egyptians used that is based on the movement of stars or the sun. It is made from two pieces of wood attached to each other with a string that can be used as a sort of "sight" to measure the angle to different stars. Here's a picture of a famous one in the science museum in London:

There are different images floating around the internet explaining how this thing worked (based on, I assume, drawings in a burial tomb somewhere). Here are a few things to know about how the ancient merkhet worked:

1- The merkhet measured time based on the positions of stars or the sun. 

2- It was especially useful because the only other "clock" that worked during the night was the "water clock." 

3- Ancient Egyptians lined two merkhets up with each other and the North Star so the string on one of the merkhets would "draw" a north-south line. Then they could track the hours of the night as different stars passed over the line. You can see an image of how the merkhets would line up with each other here.

4- The Egyptians also used merkhets to align construction projects to astronomical events and directions. The Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, is exactly aligned with each side facing a different direction (north, south, east, and west). Most of the pyramids are aligned towards the North Star, and the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak is built such that on the winter solstice the sun rises precisely between the great gates and lights the entire temple! Many of the other temples are built in harmony with astronomical events too!

Using this information I designed a simple merkhet for us to make!  My version uses only one merkhet to track the passage of time. For this one, you hold the merkhet at arm's length with one end on the horizon. Tip the other end (the end with the string) so that it touches a star near while you hold the other end on the horizon. Mark where the string hits the ruler. Then come back an hour later and measure again. The string should land about 1/2 inch away from its original spot!

To simplify things, I decided to use a 12-inch ruler as my base, because it already has 12 inches conveniently marked and even subdivided. It is easy to see the string move along the ruler.

I sketched a little design (below) and let the kids figure out what they would need to build it.

They decided to attach the wood to the ruler with duct tape and hammer a nail in.

Drawing this out was an extra step for me, but letting them follow the guide turned the whole history lesson into a STEM project: it integrated aspects of science (astronomy), technology (choosing tools to connect the wood and string AND creating a piece of technology), engineering (following a design), and math (measuring). 

You're welcome to right-click on the design and print it if you want to use it.

Now that the merkhet was made, it was time to go outside!

Luckily for me, the fall has brought darker evenings, so we were able to get started just before 7:00 pm. I wanted the kids to have a chance to measure time with their merkhet.

The simplest way to make this work is to hold it in a hand extended as far away from your body as possible--this makes sure you measure at the same distance every time.

Place your thumb at the 12-inch mark and line it up with the horizon. Tip the ruler so the 0-inch mark is "touching" the star of interest. Note where the string lands along the ruler. Then come back an hour later and re-measure. How far has the string moved? (hopefully 1/2 inch!)

Let me know if you try making your own merkhet...I'd love to hear from you!

And if you're working on other Ancient Egypt projects, check out my Ancient Egypt unit--I have more than half a dozen hands-on lessons that I originally wrote for a homeschool co-op class I taught, as well as some other activities we've done at home! Most of the activities would be awesome in a larger classroom too!

And, as I mentioned above, we made the merkhet because we were talking about Ancient Egypt in connection with the Magic Tree House books! We've just finished Book 3 (Mummies at Midnight) with our online book club! You can see the other activities we've done to go with the Magic Tree House books HERE (as well as meet the other bloggers in our Magic Tree House group)!

And if you're looking for more homeschool unit studies, be sure to check out our growing collection here!

Happy Educating,
Carla & the kids who don't sit still!