Abydos, All things Woy, Amun, ancient Egypt, Anubis, Australia, cartouche, epithets, fraud, Günter Dreyer, Geb, Gosford, hieroglyphs, hoax, Kariong, Khufu, nefer, Nefer-Djeseb, Nefer-Ti-Ru, obelisk, Old Kingdom, proto-Egyptian, Ray Johnson, Re-Horakthy, Rex Gilroy, Set, Son of Re, titles, Tomb Uj, translation
We’ve examined the backstory of the Gosford Glyphs, the main players in the story, some of the people who’ve fervently promoted the site as authentic, and have analyzed the inscription itself. Now let’s take a closer look at the hieroglyphs themselves.
I stress again that I am not an Egyptologist nor a professional historian. Nevertheless, anyone who has undergone a certain level of training in Egyptian hieroglyphs should be able, in the span of a few seconds, to determine that the Gosford Glyphs are indeed a hoax. I like to joke that it looks as though a sixth grader who likes hieroglyphs etched the Gosford Glyphs, but in point of fact the sloppy and cartoonish nature of the glyphs is not enough by itself to reveal them as a hoax. Plenty of authentic Egyptian monuments were not carved by skilled artisans simply because the people who commissioned them could not afford skilled artisans. Some authentic stelae and statuettes and the like were originally considered fake because of their poor quality, only later to be determined authentic (this was recently the case with a simple stela in the collection of the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago).
Rather, other aspects of the Gosford Glyphs establish beyond question that they’re fraudulent. The most important point is, all of the inscribed glyphs at the Gosford site really don’t say anything. At all. They tell no story. They are almost in total nothing more than a random scattering of Egyptian hieroglyphs. They make about as much sense as anything you or I might type by closing our eyes and pecking randomly on a keyboard. As with any written script, ancient or modern, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs required a fairly regimented system of rules following the grammar and syntax of the language.
So, one might ask, how do Australians like the late Ray Johnson and Rex Gilroy and other Gosford promoters get around this conundrum?
To be sure none of them really understand Egyptian hieroglyphs, or they would at once determine like everyone else has that the Gosford Glyphs are a hoax. Rather, they’ve come up with all sorts of creative and inventive explanations to get around the issue. Most of this stems from the original efforts of Ray Johnson to promote Gosford as real. It’s on him whom we must concentrate since so much of the silly fiction began with him.
One senses in Johnson’s enthusiastic efforts a degree of duplicity. One must wonder, how on earth did Johnson arrive at his “translation” when the glyphs at Gosford clearly don’t relate any narrative at all? It must have required a lot of work on his part to concoct the story and to build the myth from there. I have to wonder if Johnson even believed what he was preaching about Gosford, but he went to real lengths to pass off the glyphs as authentic. This includes letters fired off to people Johnson thought ought to know, such as this one from 1997 to the Gosford City Council and this one from 1994 to Dr. Dia’ Abou-Ghazi in Egypt. I wonder how Dr. Abou-Ghazi, a former director of the Cairo Museum, must feel about being dragged into this sorry tale. Johnson and the other Gosford promoters have folded her into the myth in a fashion that makes it seem as though she were in support of them, when in fact there is no evidence for this. She is merely a peripheral victim in the Gosford saga.
Johnson arrived at a creative explanation for the apparently random and scattered nature of the glyphs. He announced that they are in fact “proto-Egyptian,” of the sort used by ancient Egyptians when the writing system was brand new. Like Johnson argued in his day, those who’ve taken up the banner on his behalf insist that the style of glyphs at Gosford are so archaic that even most real Egyptologists can’t decipher them. So, one can’t help but ask, how is it that Johnson and his retinue somehow can read them so easily?
Now, for a moment of reality. The earliest-known Egyptian hieroglyphs come from a site in southern Egypt called Abydos. Specifically, they were discovered in Tomb Uj by the German Egyptologist Günter Dreyer. Tomb Uj was created in late prehistory, before the kingdom of pharaonic Egypt existed; the glyphs appear on ivory dockets and pottery fragments and date to around 3320 BCE (MacArthur 2010: 119).
Dreyer has proposed a system of translating these extremely ancient glyphs, but not all Egyptologists agree with him. While it does seem many of the glyphs are phonetic in nature, as later hieroglyphs would function, the fact is these glyphs are notoriously difficult to make sense of in some cases. I can’t say that the late Ray Johnson had Dreyer’s discovery in mind when he argued that the Gosford glyphs were “proto-Egyptian” in nature, but even if he did his argument doesn’t hold water. Here is a photo of some of the glyphs at the Gosford site:
For comparison, here is a sampling of some of the Tomb Uj ivory dockets with their hieroglyphs:
Clearly, in form and style, there is no comparison. If anything, as cartoonish as the Gosford Glyphs are, they are obviously more similar in form to hieroglyphs from most of pharaonic Egypt.
Some of the glyphs at Gosford do not even seem to be from the ancient Egyptian repertoire. One resembles a bell and another a spaceship (although alien encounters were not being implied…one hopes). Johnson got around this by stating the earliest stages of hieroglyphs numbered far more than most Egyptologists are aware of. Again, one wonders how Johnson, not an Egyptologist or historian, knew this fact when legitimate Egyptologists and historians do not. In any case Johnson argued that in the earliest stages of the script, there were more than 2,800 hieroglyphs. This would explain it, then.
Or not. Through most of pharaonic history, the repertoire of hieroglyphs exceeded 700. Some came and went, some were joined with others, and there were always a number of variants for certain glyphs. In point of fact the number of hieroglyphs was larger in the earliest periods, but reached its peak at around 1,000 in the Early Dynastic Period (Stauder 2010: 145). Some hieroglyphs were already falling by the wayside at this earliest time, and much of the full repertoire of glyphs recognizable from later periods was already in place by early in the Early Dynastic Period.
Johnson muddied the waters a bit more by explaining the glyphs might look a bit rough and contain errors because the men who cut them in the Early Bronze Age were not adept at such work. There is a hint of truth in this because not all scribes were blessed with noticeable skills, but let’s remember that this was supposed to be a royal expedition. We’ve already seen that the two principal players, princes Nefer-Djeseb and Nefer-Ti-Ru, are not attested as sons of King Khufu and are more than likely just made up, but allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment.
These were two royal sons supposedly setting out on a dangerous and adventurous voyage. The Egyptians really did like this sort of thing, and it was the stuff of legends. Whenever a royal expedition set out, be it for trading or war, professional scribes accompanied the expedition so as to record everything. On more than a few occasions, what scribes recorded on trading or military expeditions ended up as official royal propaganda on the walls of state temples.
So Johnson’s explanation falls flat here, too. The alternative is to believe that Nefer-Djeseb and Nefer-Ti-Ru were a pair of misfits who were embarrassments to the court, so King Khufu dispatched them on a perilous journey with half-assed scribes in the hopes they would all die somewhere far away. If that’s the case, then Khufu’s plan was a grand success and the Gosford Glyphs are the real deal.
I jest. It’s hard to avoid chuckling over things like this.
About the only places where the glyphs actually do spell something are several names. We can read them on the sandstone walls of Gosford. Still, even here there are obvious errors. We can focus on one pair of names, as seen below:
This image has been enhanced to make the pair of names stand out clearer. Immediately one notices the odd, squarish nature of the “cartouches” surrounding the names. They resemble something midway between cartouches and serekhs. The cartouche was a highly sacred symbol representing eternity—specifically the path of the sun; the name written inside a cartouche basically implied the owner of that name held dominion over everything around which the sun travels (in other words, absolutely everything). No true ancient scribe, even of minimal training, would carve cartouches like these. This would’ve been akin to an insult.
The name at left is Khufu and the name at right is our imaginary prince Nefer-Ti-Ru. The glyphs for Khufu are correct in form and orientation. However, the glyphs for Nefer-Ti-Ru are muddled and out of order, specifically the two at top. For that matter, the glyph at top-right, which is supposed to represent the “Ti” portion of the name, is not correct for that sound value. It more resembles the glyph designated S39, a shepherd’s crook (Allen 2001: 442), which carries the sound value awt (pronounced something like “ah-oot”).
These are not the mistakes of a poorly trained pharaonic scribe: these are the mistakes of a modern person not acquainted with hieroglyphs.
I might be nitpicking, as I tend to do, but now let us turn our attention to the glyphs positioned above the cartouches. The two paired above Khufu’s cartouche (left) are more or less correct and can be translated as “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” or “He of the Sedge and Bee” or “King of the Dualities,” depending on your preference. However, they’re oriented backwards—they read in the opposite direction from the name. A real scribe would never have committed such an obvious and egregious error. Those above the name of Nefer-Ti-Ru (right) are also oriented backwards. They read “Son of Re” (sA-ra), a title used by kings for most of pharaonic history.
However, two things are clearly wrong about this. First, Nefer-Ti-Ru was not a king at all. It’s not just that he’s imaginary and cannot be attested in the historical record—his name should not be in a cartouche and he definitely should not carry the epithet “Son of Re.” Moreover, although widely attested in the historical record, this title did not appear for kings until the reign of Djedefre, son and successor of Khufu (Quirke 1996: 47). This is the kind of mistake made by someone not well acquainted with ancient Egypt and the development of royal titles and epithets—but not something a real scribe would ever have done.
We can toss in here an instance for the name of the other main player, Nefer-Djeseb:
At the top is an imaginative blending of titles which seems to read “The king, Son of Re.” I’m not aware of this in the royal titularly, but then again, as with Nefer-Ti-Ru, Nefer-Djeseb was a prince and should not be referred to as Son of Re in the first place. In any case the fact that the name appears inside a box is decidedly odd. This is not attested for personal names in pharaonic Egypt. And the glyphs certainly do not spell Nefer-Djeseb. Rather, they seem to render something like “Nefer-es-ed-eb.”
I particularly like this photograph because it’s a terrific example of random carvings made by the original hoaxer. Most of the shapes around the name-box don’t even seem to be Egyptian hieroglyphs. The hoaxer must have been running out of ideas by this point.
In our analysis of the hieroglyphs themselves we have seen that in total they do not say anything. They are a random scattering of glyphs that relate no narrative, and so how Ray Johnson arrived at his “translation” is anyone’s guess. To be sure, what Johnson concocted is complete imagination on his part. We have seen how Johnson’s arguments about “proto-Egyptian” and “unknown” glyphs do not survive scrutiny. We have seen the clumsy and amateurish errors. We have even seen how some of the glyphs are not ancient Egyptian at all.
As I said at the beginning of this installment, one can determine in the work of a few seconds that the Gosford Glyphs are a clear hoax. Those who promote the glyphs continue to build on the farce, and they do so with conviction and passion, but it doesn’t matter. They’re not taken seriously for a reason. The more they contrive, the more they fail.
I’ll share one more installment to the hoax of the Gosford Glyphs. We’ll look at what others have to say about the site and will bring this business to a close. As always, thanks for reading.
Allen, James P. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 2001.
MacArthur, Elise V. “The Conception and Development of the Egyptian Writing System.” Visible Language. Christopher Woods, Emily Teeter, & Geoff Emberling, ed. 2010.
Stauder, Andréas. “The Earliest Egyptian Writing.” Visible Language. Christopher Woods, Emily Teeter, & Geoff Emberling, ed. 2010.
Quirke, Stephen. Who Were the Pharaohs? 1996