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Ancient Egypt,  Hieroglyphics


An Explanation of Hieroglyphics

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Hieroglyphs, characters in any system of writing in which symbols represent objects (such as tools, animals, or boats) and ideas (such as motion, time, and joy). The ancient Greeks first used the term hieroglyph (meaning "sacred carving") to describe decorative characters carved on Egyptian monuments. The term is now mainly used to refer to the system of writing used by the ancient Egyptians.

Archaeological discoveries suggest that Egyptian hieroglyphs may be the oldest form of writing. The earliest evidence of an Egyptian hieroglyphic system is believed to be from about 3300 or 3200 BC, and the Egyptians used hieroglyphs for the next 3,500 years. They were most prevalent during a 1,700-year period when the Egyptians spoke and wrote Old Egyptian (3000 BC-2200 BC) and Middle Egyptian (about 2200 BC-1300 BC). Only a small portion of the Egyptian population, primarily royalty, priests, and civil officials, used hieroglyphs because they were difficult to learn and time consuming to create. Ancient cultures in China, Mesopotamia, and the Americas used similar writing systems, but these systems were not related to Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The hieroglyphic system used in ancient Egypt had between 700 and 800 basic symbols, called glyphs. This number grew in the last centuries of ancient Egyptian civilization, because of an increased interest in writing religious texts. Egyptians wrote hieroglyphs in long lines from right to left, and from top to bottom. They did not use spaces or punctuation.

Egyptian glyphs are divided into two groups: phonograms, which are glyphs that represent sounds, and ideograms, which are glyphs that represent objects or ideas. The Egyptians constructed words by using a combination of the two types of glyphs. Readers must generally use both phonograms and ideograms to determine the significance of a word or phrase.

Phonograms represented the sounds of single consonants and combinations of consonants. A phonogram that represents the two consonant sounds s (on the right) and r (on the left) is:

The Egyptians did not write vowels, so it is impossible to know exactly how they pronounced hieroglyphic texts. When speaking, they may have expressed vowel sounds to distinguish various words that, in writing, look identical.

Ideograms could represent either the specific object written or something closely related to it. For example, the hieroglyphic symbol of a pair of legs might represent the noun movement. When combined with other glyphs, the symbol could represent the verb to approach, or the concept to give directions.


The Egyptians usually constructed their hieroglyphs by putting phonograms at the beginning of a word, followed by an ideogram, which is called a determinative when used in this fashion. The determinative specified the category to which the word belonged, such as motion words or animal words, and clued the reader in on the intended meaning. Following are several examples of hieroglyphs with the sounds s and r that combine phonograms and determinatives:


When speaking, the Egyptians might have differentiated between these words by adding vowel sounds—for example, by saying sor, ser, or sur. Because they did not write vowels, however, they used the determinatives that appeared to the left of the phonograms to specify each word’s meaning. Writing phonograms and determinatives in different combinations enabled the Egyptians to develop thousands of words without having to create a single distinct glyph for each thing, action, or concept.

The ancient Egyptian word for hieroglyphs, literally translated as "language of the gods," indicates their importance. Priests used hieroglyphs to write down prayers, magical texts, and texts related to life after death and worshiping the gods. When preparing their tombs, many people had autobiographies and hieroglyphic guides of the afterworld written on the surfaces of tomb walls and on the insides of coffins. The Egyptians believed that these texts helped guide the dead through the afterlife.

The use of hieroglyphic inscriptions was not limited to religious purposes. Civil officials used them to write royal documents of long-term importance, to record historical events, and to document calculations, such as the depth of the Nile River on a specific day of the year.

The Egyptians also used hieroglyphs to decorate jewelry and other luxury items. They carved the symbols into stone or wood, and incised or cast them in gold, silver, and other metals. They painted hieroglyphs on various surfaces, sometimes putting down simple figures in black ink, and other times using detail and bright colors. Occasionally artists carved semiprecious stones or rare woods into hieroglyphic shapes and then inlaid them into walls or pieces of furniture.

A standardized form of hieroglyphs developed rapidly in the earliest years of Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (2920 BC-2575 BC)). Little change in the system took place during the following 2,600-year period of Egyptian civilization.

Hieroglyphs were very time consuming to create, so the Egyptians developed a cursive script called hieratic in the early years of hieroglyphic use. The characters of the hieratic script were based on the hieroglyphic symbols, but they were simplified and little resembled their hieroglyphic origins. Hieratic was used for the bulk of writing done with reed pens and ink on papyrus. In the 7th century BC the Egyptians began using a script called demotic, which was even more simplified than hieratic. After this point hieroglyphs continued to be used in carved inscriptions on buildings, jewelry, and furniture, but hieratic was used for religious writings, and demotic for business and literary texts.

A major change in hieroglyphs took place under the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305-30 BC), when Egypt was ruled by a Greek dynasty. During this time the Egyptians created many new glyphs. Priests were especially interested in writing religious texts in more mysterious and complex manners. The priests often used new glyphs to form specialized codes and puns understood only by a group of religious initiates. After the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC, the use of hieroglyphs declined, and eventually their use died out. The last firmly datable hieroglyphic inscription was written in AD 394.

After the fall of ancient Egyptian civilization in 30 BC, the meaning of hieroglyphs remained a mystery for about 1,800 years. Then, during the French occupation of Egypt from 1798 to 1801, a group of French soldiers and engineers uncovered a large stone now known as the Rosetta Stone. This stone bore an ancient inscription containing the same text written three different ways—in hieroglyphs, in the demotic script, and in ancient Greek. The stone was taken to Europe, where scholars translated the ancient Greek and used the information to decipher the other two texts.

French Egyptologist Jean François Champollion was the first modern person who was able to read hieroglyphs. It had been noted that certain groups of hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone were surrounded by a carved oblong loop. The loop, called a cartouche, separated the names of kings and queens from large bodies of text. Champollion knew enough of hieroglyphs to confirm that the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone contained the name of one of the Greek rulers of Egypt, Ptolemy V. As Champollion examined more cartouches, he observed that some of the glyphs matched between Ptolemy’s cartouche and the other cartouches. Champollion determined that certain glyphs in the cartouches phonetically spelled out the names of certain Greek rulers of Egypt. Using this knowledge and an ingenious reading of ideograms in other cartouches, he deciphered the names of the native rulers Ramses and Thutmose.

Champollion’s discovery showed him definitively that there were two categories of glyphs, phonograms and ideograms. Champollion then began to use this information to decipher the large body of Egyptian hieroglyphs on objects that had been taken to Europe. In 1828 he led a group of artists and architects to Egypt with the goal of drawing pictures of tombs, temples, and monuments and copying down as many hieroglyphic inscriptions as possible. He later translated the hieroglyphs from the drawings. The work of deciphering the hieroglyphs went on after Champollion’s death and continues up to the present day, continually providing new information about life in ancient Egypt.

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