KIDS’ BLOG! How “Thinking Outside the Box” Has Helped Archaeologists

Girl with Light BulbSuppose that you have a problem to solve, but nothing you’ve tried so far has worked. What would you do?  You could try “thinking outside the box.”

“Thinking outside the box” is a creative way to imagine other possibilities. It involves coming at the problem from a different perspective—one that hasn’t been tried yet.  The “box” is a fun way of picturing the ordinary ways of solving a problem.  It contains all the things that have been tried before.  When you think outside the “box,” you stretch your imagination and explore how else the problem could be solved.  Scientists, philosophers and inventers have all discovered that this method is one of the best ways to figure out the answer to a stubborn problem.

Archaeologists studying Ancient Egypt have had a big problem that has gone unsolved for decades.  Because there aren’t enough written historical documents dating back that far, researchers have been using radioactive carbon dating to verify when important ancient events happened.  This method tests ancient artifacts (objects) to see how old they are and is considered to be fairly reliable.

Map of Ancient Egypt before the first Pharaoh: Most of the people lived in the fertile lands along the Nile River.  This map also shows the Egyptian cities and the borders between them.

Map of Ancient Egypt before the first Pharaoh: Most of the people lived in the fertile lands along the Nile River. This map also shows the Egyptian cities and the borders between them.

The mystery that archaeologists are trying to solve is how to pinpoint the date when Ancient Egypt was finally united into one Egyptian state under its first Pharaoh.  No one really knows!  It is important, though, because originally there were two separate “Egypts”—each under a different ruler.  They were called Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. (Read the first footnote below to learn how they got their names.)[1] Until the two Egypts were finally combined into one kingdom, there were constant arguments and fighting about borders and possessions.  As a result, the area had become very unstable.

On the map to the right, you will notice that Egypt had a funny shape back then.  It looked like a long funnel from a Dr. Seuss storybook.  It was wide near the Mediterranean Sea and long and skinny along the Nile River.  This was because nearly all the people lived in the fertile regions along the both sides of the river.  Away from the river, the land was very hot and dry and difficult to survive in, so few people lived there.  At the top of the map is the area called Lower Egypt.  It started at the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea and included the entire triangular-shaped Nile River Delta.  Lower Egypt also included the area where the city of Cairo is today.[2] Upper Egypt covered the land from the southern edge of the Nile River Delta south to Lake Nasser.[3]

Ancient Egyptian Bowl Pre-dynastic, 3300-3006 BC

Ancient Egyptian Bowl Pre-dynastic, 3300-3006 BC

For years archaeologists had examined bowls and other artifacts buried in the pyramids to determine when the two Egypts might have united.  They used the radioactive carbon test to find out when these objects were made; this way, they could estimate when the first Pharaoh took over the throne.  Unfortunately, this test could only prove that the date was sometime between 3400 and 2900 BC.  That is a 500-year span of time!  This “guestimate” has bothered archaeologists because it wasn’t accurate enough.  Finally, a team of experts from the University of Oxford, led by Michael Dee, PhD, took up the challenge of narrowing that span of years down so that it would be more exact.

The Oxford Team “thought outside the box” and attacked the problem from two perspectives that hadn’t been tried yet:

1) First, they tested a wide variety of artifacts from that same time period.  This meant applying radioactive carbon dating not just to artifacts from burial sites, but to all kinds of objects, including over 100 samples of bones, hair and plants that are currently being stored at museums.[4]

2) Then they used a mathematical model, the Bayesian Model, to analyze their data and findings.  This method of looking at data is much more dependable than the ones that archaeologists had been using.[5]

By “thinking outside the box,” Dr. Dee’s Oxford team was able to shave 434 years off the estimated date when Ancient Egypt’s Upper and Lower territories were united.  Now they could say with 68 percent certainty that the two territories were united between 3111 and 3045 BC.  This tells us that Egypt became one state sometime within a span of only 66 years instead of 500 years.

Why is this so important?

Dr. Dee explains, “The origins of Egypt began a millennium (1000 years) before the pyramids were built….” There were no historical records for events occurring that long ago.  Archaeologists had to depend on objects from ancient burial sites to figure out what had happened back then.  With the Oxford team’s new approach, however, they were able to make the ancient Egyptian timeline much more accurate.  Now we have a better date for when the first Pharaoh took the throne and united Upper and Lower Egypt into a stable civilization.[6]

Why do archaeologists need models and hypotheses?

When scientists collect data, or results, from an experiment, they need to show what it all means.  They develop a hypothesis, which is a theory or idea that must be proven, from the data.  Archaeologists must do the same thing.  As they discover artifacts from an ancient civilization, they need to show everyone how those artifacts change what we know about that civilization.

Dr. Dee’s University of Oxford team did just that.  They took the results from the hundreds of samples that they had carbon-dated and used a mathematical model (the Bayesian Model that helps find the most logical answers even if all the information is not known) to create a new hypothesis.  Their hypothesis was that Ancient Egypt was united much earlier than anyone had imagined.  Their data proved their hypotheses, showing that the event took place between 3111 BC and 3045 BC, rather than much later.

The Bayesian Model is a great way to organize data and point out any duplications.[7]  It helped the archaeologists find accurate patterns in the data they collected.  This is why the Oxford team was so successful.

There are actually many other practical uses for the Bayesian Model.  Doctors use it to rule out false results on EEG brain scans, and scientists apply it to help predict the weather.  The Bayesian Model is also being used to create “simulations” (a way to test ideas) for environmental, engineering and policy studies.

Now we have a much better understanding of when the first Pharaoh united all of Egypt.  Because of this, historians and other archaeologists will have a more accurate timeline to work with.  “Thinking outside the box” is a great tool for getting answers.  Check out the curriculum activities for some fun ways to “think outside the box”!


Activity for Grades 1-3

Make Your Own Halloween Costume:

At Halloween, there are so many costumes to choose from, but have you ever thought about making a costume that no one has made before?

To do that, you would have to “think outside the box.”  You would need to use your imagination and come up with an idea that no one else has thought of.

Draw a picture of a Halloween costume that does not look like any costume you have ever seen before.

  1. Start by walking around the house and really looking at everything.   Are there any objects that you could make into a costume?  Think about the “SpongeBob” cartoon and the Disney’s children’s movie, “Beauty and the Beast.” The artists who drew them turned objects like a sponge and a tea kettle into characters that move and talk.  Pick an object from your house and imagine that it is a character in a cartoon.  Give it arms and legs and a face.  Imagine what kind of personality it could have.  Try a couple different objects to see which one you like the best.
  2. Another place to get ideas is from your storybooks.  You can pick a funny or scary character from a story and change it so that it looks completely different.  Think about how that character would look if it had different hair, ears, eyes, mouth and nose. Change the color and style of its clothes.  Think about what makes your new character special and give it a name.   You can design your costume based on this character.
  3.  On a piece of paper, draw yourself in the Halloween costume you just imagined by “thinking outside the box.”  Who knows?  You might want to make this into a real costume that you can wear on Halloween!

Printable Timeline and Fun Games Related to Egypt Studies:

BM& AG for Kids – Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery for Kids Website

Ancient Egyptian Cities- Worksheet and Map:



1. Why was the northern territory called “Lower Egypt” and the southern territory called “Upper Egypt”? The Egyptians labeled their land based on whether the territory was up-river or down-river.  Since the Nile River flows north and empties into the Mediterranean Sea, they labeled the south territory “Upper Egypt” because it was upstream. The north territory became “Lower Egypt” because it was downstream.



Egypt territoriesThe red blocks above show the territories that archaeologists traditionally call Ancient Egypt.  The top two are Lower Egypt.  The middle block of land is sometimes called Middle Egypt; however, usually it is considered as part of Upper Egypt.  Although this map shows a wider territory than the first map, the Egyptian people did not fill up this land.  The majority of them lived close to the Nile River.

4. “New Work Sets Timeline for the First Pharaohs,”

5. “Model Selection in Medical Research: A Simulation Study Comparing Bayesian Model Averaging and Stepwise Regression”

6. “New Work Sets Timeline for the First Pharaohs,”

7. Adrian Raftery: Research on Bayesian Model Averaging, Hypothesis Testing and Model Selection

Other Resources for Parents and Teachers

Time Cat: The Remarkable Journeys of Jason and Gareth:

Time Cat

As a follow-up to this Kids Blog, children can imagine traveling to long ago places and times. This book is available through Reading Rockets.Org, a literacy resource website for teachers and school administrators: )

By: Lloyd Alexander

Age Level: 9-12

Reading Level: Independent Reader

Summary: Gareth, Jason’s cat, knows that a cat’s nine lives are really nine trips. Since a cat can take a friend along, Jason & Gareth travel to long ago places and times. This modern classic is certain to intrigue readers while introducing them to a bit of history and historical sites.

Ancient Egypt:

Ancient Egypt Book

This book is designed to bring Ancient Egypt alive for your students. Activities are designed to increase student involvement and response.

By Ruth Akamine Wassynger

For grades 4-8 – 64 pages

*SPECIAL NOTE to Teachers: Let your students know that the dates in these resource books and worksheets may not match the most recent discoveries talked about in the Kids Blog.  This is because these are very recent findings that have come out after these materials were printed.  Encourage students to always research the most recent updates of the topics they are studying and discuss how the new findings affect the historical records.

Ancient Egypt Map and Description of the Land:

2 responses to “KIDS’ BLOG! How “Thinking Outside the Box” Has Helped Archaeologists

  1. I am extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the
    layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself?
    Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a great blog like this one

    • Thank you so much for your comment! We will continue working hard to bring well-written, researched, informative and fun posts to our blog. Our theme is Coraline, but we have modified it quite a bit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s