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For our final installment we’ll look at three actual ancient inscriptions from the Field Museum of Natural History. I stress again that my articles on hieroglyphs won’t equip you to be able to conduct translations or learn the ancient language, but hopefully you’ll get a sense of how hieroglyphs work. And now you can see them in context.

I’ve divided each inscription into bite-sized chunks and color-coded them to help make the process easier to follow. In the second article I mentioned that you cannot translate by trying to search out individual glyphs but must learn to recognize groupings of glyphs. This is similar to how in English you don’t read by picking out individual letters but instead by recognizing whole words by of groupings of letters. I’ve seen beginners just starting the study of the ancient language wrestling mightily because they’re obsessing over an individual glyph but missing the grouping to which it belongs. That must be avoided.

In my color-coding below, you can see how I myself look at an inscription and recognize groupings of glyphs: the color-coding follows my own way of seeing things, even though other translators might see these inscriptions somewhat differently.

I’ll provide two references to help you follow along. The first is the standard codification of hieroglyphs as set by Sir Alan Gardiner long ago (see here). The second is, again, the system of Manuel de Codage by which we can parse the glyphs into known sound values (see here). The words in italics in this article are the transliterations of the sound values.

So, let’s begin.

The sarcophagus of Amunemonet

This is a pink-granite sarcophagus dating to the New Kingdom. On stylistic grounds, I’d tentatively date it to late Dynasty 18 or early Dynasty 19 (c. 1300-1200 BCE). It comes from the sprawling Saqqara necropolis in which New Kingdom officials established their own section of cemetery. The mummy was not recovered and the lid is not extant.


Sarcophagus of Amunemonet, New Kingdom; the detail shows the section we’ll be translating

The sarcophagus is inscribed on all exterior sides but not on the inside We’ll be looking at just the proper left side of the head end (see the detail in the photo; the head of the mummy would’ve been positioned at that end). The inscription is hard to see clearly in dim lighting and photographing it can be  a challenge, so I transcribed it as follows:


Transcription of the inscription

From which direction do you read it? If you recall from the last article, look at the direction the glyphs are facing and read into them. So, in this case you read from right to left, top down (never bottom to top in hieroglyphs). Now to break it down:

  1. The rearing snake and paddle in the first, red-shaded block are commonly seen in religious inscriptions (i.e., prayers, spells). Together they say “Words spoken” (transliterated Dd-mdw). This announces that a person or deity is speaking the following words. In this case it is the owner of the sarcophagus who’s speaking.
  2. The staggered glyphs in the second, blue box show how hieroglyphs can be tucked under others and spread about, but still follow a sensible order. Here at top we have a vertebra with spinal tissue poking out, below which is a glyph often referred to as either the placenta or sieve, and then two reed leaves. This spells out “the revered one” (imAxy). In other spellings a quail chick (w) replaces the reed leaves.
  3. The following, red box is a simple preposition. The placenta and mouth glyphs spell out “before” (xr).
  4. Here we have a name. The clue is the final squatting glyph—a determinative. The glyph includes a curved beard sticking off the chin, which is an indication of a deity. We start with a pair of glyphs that look like chevrons, then a square, and lastly the pair of reed leaves. The name is Hapy (transliterated HApy). This is one of the gods of the canopic jars, specifically the baboon-headed god who guarded the lungs.
  5. At the bottom of the register we arrive at the start of the identifiers of who was buried in the sarcophagus. You should recognize the scribal kit from the previous article: scribe (sS). The plant in front of it is the glyph for king (nswt). There’s no determinative here like in the example in the second article, but it’s immediately identifiable as sS-nswt, “scribe of the king.” Remember, because of honorific transposition, the king’s glyph appears first even though not spoken first.
  6. At the top of the second register is another identifier, or title. This one is abbreviated, although spelled out more completely in other places on the sarcophagus. You deal with a lot of abbreviations in inscriptions and must learn to recognize them. In this case it’s a rolled-up papyrus scroll seen from the end, with strings hanging down from the side. This is another scribal title and in full the title is sS-Sat, literally, “scribe of documents.” It’s often translated as “secretary.”
  7. The next, red block tells us for whom the person was a secretary. The water ripple (n) in this case is a preposition: ” to” or “of.” The basket over the top of two strips of land is one of the most common epithets of a king: nb-tAwy, “Lord of the Two Lands.” So, with 6 and 7 together we have sS-Sat n nb-tAwy, “secretary to the king.” This would’ve been the owner’s most important title.
  8. All of the glyphs in this long, blue box tell us the man’s name. We have a reed leaf (i), game board (mn), water ripple (n), what’s thought to be a side view of ribs below that (m), another reed leaf (i), a fish (int), another water ripple (n), and a little bread loaf (t). All of these spell out the name Amunemonet (imn-m-int). The name means “Amun is in his valley.” Amun was the main state god at this point in Egyptian history. The glyph of the three hills is a determinative for “valley,” to remind you of the intended meaning of int in this case; the squatting man is the determinative hinting that all of this is a name. This is an example of how a word (or name) can carry more than one determinative.
  9. The little grouping of glyphs in the third and final register is an epithet we encountered in the offering formula in the second article: “true of voice” or “the justified” (mAa-xrw, see Block 13 in that example). This is usually (although not exclusively) an indication that the owner has died and is considered worthy of an eternal afterlife.

So that’s the inscription in this portion of the sarcophagus. The same inscription is repeated all along both sides but mentions different deities each time (the next one to the left, for example, is Qebehsenuef, the falcon-headed canopic god who guarded the intestines). At the head is an inscription for the goddess Nephthys and at the foot one for Isis. Essentially, Amunemonet is on his way to the afetrlife and is entreating these deities to let him in.

Before moving on, there’s a fun fact about this sarcophagus. Not seen in the above photo is a hole that had been bored through the bottom of the head end, near the ground. It doesn’t belong there, of course. The sarcophagus was excavated in the ruins of an early Coptic Christian monastery in 1907-08 and purchased by our museum. This monastery had been abandoned by the eighth century. The monks had dragged the sarcophagus onto the grounds of their monastery, and likely used it as a bathtub.

The coffin of Nakhti

This is one of the oldest coffins in our collection. On stylistic grounds it can be dated to Dynasty 11 and to the region of Asyut, in Middle Egypt. It’s around 4,100 years old. The mummy is long gone and probably was little more than bones when the coffin was found in modern times, but the coffin itself is in an excellent state of preservation.


The coffin of Nakthi, c. 2100 BCE

Typical for coffins of this period, the body was placed on its left side so that the head lined up with the pair of Horus Eyes on the “east face.” This allowed the soul reclining inside the coffin to see out and observe the rising sun, as well as to keep an eye on relatives and friends to make sure they were coming to visit the grave and leaving offerings.

There are a lot of glyphs but we’ll be looking at just the top-right of the east face:


The start of Nakhti’s offering formula

If you followed along in the second article, you might be able to recognize the color-coded glyphs as the start of an offering formula. The glyphs here face to the right, so you read them right to left.

  1. This is the telltale arrangement for the start of countless offering formulae from pharaonic Egypt: plant (the bread loaf is a phonetic complement for the plant), reed tray with bread mold, and triangle. Together they say “An offering which the king gives” (Htp-di-nswt). The plant stands for “king” (nswt) and comes first because of honorific transposition, the reed tray means “offering” (Htp), and the triangle is a bread cone which means “to give” (di). You might notice how the arrangement of glyphs is a little different from the example of an offering formula in the second article, but that’s common for offering formulae. Just the same, you’ll see these three glyphs together and should automatically know, “It’s an offering formula.”
  2. The second, blue box is the name of a god. The squatting figure with the curved beard is a hint, just as with Amunemonet’s sarcophagus. The preceding eye and throne are telltale arrangements for the god Osiris (wsir).
  3. Here we have the name of a city. You know this because of the circle-glyph with crossroads, at the left end of the red box. The basket at front is the familiar glyph for “lord” (nb). The djed pillar and quail chick are phonograms that spell the city’s name: Djedu (Ddw). This was one of Osiris’ main cult centers, and was in Lower (northern) Egypt. The glyphs say nb Ddw, “Lord of Djedu.” The modern name of the site is Busiris.
  4. The next small grouping also has a squatting figure with a curved beard but is not a name. It’s a determinative for the banner and club, which spell “the great god”(nTr-aA). This refers to Osiris.
  5. The final grouping is another city name, although the circle-glyph at the bottom-left corner is damaged and a little hard to see. We start again with the “lord” basket and then have a chisel (Ab). The leg behind it (b) is a phonetic complement reminding us that the final sound of the chisel is a “B.” We then have a set of hills above the circle-glyph which carries the sound value Dw (a “djoo” sound). This is the ancient city of Abdju (AbDw), the site of Abydos in Upper (southern) Egypt and Osiris’ primary cult center. In total we have nb AbDw, “Lord of Abydos.”

The rest of the formula goes on about Osiris and concludes with the name of the coffin’s owner, Nakhti (“Strong one”). The register below it, also reading right to left, mentions numerous deities who provide for and protect Nakhti.

The stela of Sensobek and Intef

Our final inscription comes from a replica on display in our Egyptian exhibit. The original limestone monument is in the collection of the British Museum (EA577) and was on display at the Field Museum in 2003 as part of a large temporary exhibit called Eternal Egypt. It’s an enjoyable artifact for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a “talking stela” whose glyphs light up in time with a recorded narrative that explains to visitors what each part of the inscription says. The stela is well suited for this purpose because it is large and all of the glyphs are easy to see.

Second, it’s a good example of a monument with mixed hieroglyphic orientation: part of it reads horizontally in both directions and part vertically, from right to left. It also contains an example of a set of glyphs which bisects a line of inscriptions between two figures and is shared by both figures. This is the fun of hieroglyphs.

The stela dates to early Dynasty 12 (c. 1985 BCE) and tells us primarily of two men: Sensobek, who is the main figure on the stela, and his father, Intef. Sensobek’s mother is also mentioned. Aside from the interesting inscription the stela is also a good example of the balance ancient craftsmen sought to capture in figural and hieroglyphic art.


Stela of Sensobek and Intef, Dynasty 12 (c. 1985 BCE)

We start at the top-right and read from right to left all the way to the third register. At the center of this register is the set of glyphs that bisects the third register. I’ve indicated this by surrounding them in a dotted blue box and with arrows pointing both left and right. To the left of the bisecting glyphs you read right to left; to the left of these glyphs, left to right. Just note the direction the glyphs are facing. And remember that figural art and hieroglyphs work together. The figure at left faces to the right, so the glyphs immediately above him are facing into him; the same goes for the figure at right, only in reverse.

  1. By now you should recognize this grouping of glyphs as the start of an offering formula, as we’ve seen before: “An offering which the king gives” (Htp-di-nswt).
  2. Here is the throne and eye, which you might remember from the previous example is the name of the god Osiris (no squatting-figure determinative appears in this case). Below the eye is the familiar “lord” basket glyph (nb). Behind the basket is a standard atop which protrudes a feather. This is the word “the West” (imntt). Behind that is a little bread loaf, which acts as a phonetic complement to remind you that the final sound in imntt is a “T.” We won’t worry about the little vertical line. All told we have nb-imntt, “Lord of the West,” the west being where all the deceased souls resided with Osiris, who was their ruler.
  3. That brings us to the second register, with an agricultural tool, an eye, a falcon, and a glyph that represents an animal’s esophagus and gut. The eye here has nothing to do with Osiris but works with the preceding tool to form the sound value mAA, which means “seeing, to see.” The esophagus and gut represents the sound nfr and, strange though it may seem, was a very common word to express goodness, beauty, perfection, and similar concepts. Altogether, this block says, “Seeing the beauty” (mAA nfr).
  4. You might recognize this pair of glyphs from the previous example, even though the two glyphs are arranged a little differently. The banner and club express “the great god” (nTr-aA), another reference to Osiris.
  5. You might also recognize this grouping of glyphs from the previous example. They say,” Lord of Abydos” (nb-AbDw), the site in southern Egypt that was Osiris’ primary cult center. You often see this in inscriptions accompanying Osiris.
  6. The last grouping in this register forms a preposition. The reed leaf (i) and water ripple (n) spell the word “by” (in). By now you can probably see the numerous different ways the water ripple might be used in hieroglyphs.
  7. Now we come to the third register and its bisection. Go right to the center (what I’ve numbered 7a), in the dotted blue box. These three glyphs are shared by both sets of inscriptions branching off left and right. The mouth glyph, square, and extended arm represent the three phonograms r, p, and a, respectively. They actually accompany the first set of glyphs immediately to both left and right (7b and 7c), so let’s look at those. They both say the same thing: the forepart of a lion (HAty) and extended arm (a). Altogether rpa HAty-a tell us “hereditary prince and count.” This is how it’s conventionally translated. The epithet doesn’t necessarily mean a literal prince and count but is more of an honorific. Someone with this title was high up in the court or in the regional government, akin to a powerful aristocrat. Both of the men depicted share this title.
  8.  I’m continuing right to left here, reading into the figure standing at the left. This red box contains an oxe tongue, a banner, a club, and three little vertical slashes. The oxe tongue (which looks kind of like a crooked stick here) stands for imy-r, which means “overseer.” You might recognize the banner and club from the example of honorific transposition in the second article. It literally says “servant of the god” (Hm-nTr), which we typically translate as “priest.” The three vertical slashes at the end are a common method by which plurality was indicated. So altogether we have imy-r Hm-nTrw, “overseer of priests.” That w behind nTr is how the Egyptians voiced the plural, just like our “S” in English.
  9. Then, at the left end of the third register, we have the name of the man who stands right below. There is honorific transposition here because the name of the god Sobek (the great crocodile god) is part of the name. This is the first three glyphs: the folded cloth (s), leg with foot (b), and basket with a handle (k, even though the handle here seems to be absent). As explained in the second article, we actually don’t know many of the vowel sounds, so our introduction of the “O” and “E” in the god’s name is a modern literally convention (you will sometimes see it spelled as Sebek). Then behind the god’s name is a door bolt (s or z) and a water ripple (n). The word sn means “brother,” so the name Sensobek means “Brother of Sobek.”
  10. Now going to the right of center, into the face of the man to the right, we again have the title imy-r Hm-nTrw, “overseer of priests.” So the two men were both “hereditary prince and count” and “overseer of priests.”
  11. Then, at the right end of the third register, we have the name of that man. There is a personified (“walking”) water pot (ini), a water ripple (n), a bread loaf (t), and a horned viper (f). The water ripple serves as a marker for past tense. The bread loaf is an abbreviation for the word “father” (it). The horned viper serves here as a suffix pronoun and means “his.” This is the name Intef, which means “His father brought him” (ini-it.f). You might also see it spelled as Antef and Inyotef. This was a common name in the Middle Kingdom. Intef is the father of Sensobek, to the left. The last two glyphs are the familiar mAa-xrw, “true of voice” (or “the justified”) and indicate Intef is probably dead.
  12. Now we start on the vertical inscription. It all reads right to left, top to bottom. It all faces Sensobek and is a clue that Sensobek is the primary person for whom this stela was made. There is a duck, a hoe, and a horned viper. The duck is the sound value sA, meaning “son.” The hoe is mry, meaning “beloved.” And the horned viper is, like above, the suffix pronoun .f. These glyphs say sA mry.f (“his beloved son”).
  13. In the blue box below we first have a water ripple (n), which in this case is the preposition “of.” Then there is a throne in front of a heart. The throne (st) is not related to Osiris here. It belongs with the heart (ib) to spell “affection” (st-ib, literally, “place of the heart”). The horned viper is yet again a pronoun, so we have n st-ib.f (“of his affection”). It goes with the grouping above: “his beloved son, of his affection.”
  14. Next we have a folded cloth in front of the ankh. The folded cloth here (s) serves as a causative, which means it’s causing some action to occur based on the glyph it accompanies. The ankh (anx) means “life,” so together this says s-anx,“to cause to live.” We might parse this as the phrase “who brings to life.”
  15. Then we have a mouth (r) and water ripple (n), which form the word rn, “name.” Below that is another water ripple, which here stands as the preposition “of.” Next is a bread loaf (t), which, as seen in the name Intef, is here an abbreviation for “father” (it). Then we have the horned viper again, the pronoun “his.” This gives us rn n (i)t.f, “the name of his father.”
  16. In the following, red box is a prepositional phrase. The sideways head is the pronoun Hr, often translated as “on” or “upon.” The glyphs below spell out the word tA,” earth.” Numbers 14, 15, and 16 work together to spell the phrase s-anx rn n (i)t.f Hr tA, “who brings to life the name of his father on earth.” In other words, Sensobek is keeping the name of his father, Intef, alive.
  17. Here we have a repetition of the earlier titles  HAty-a imy-r Hm-nTrw,  “Hereditary prince and count, overseer of priests.” The rpa from the earlier instance is absent here.
  18. Finally in this register we again have Sensobek’s name, although it’s spelled a bit differently. Rather than spelling out the name of the god Sobek phonetically, the artist used a logogram that depicts an abstract lurking crocodile (the first glyph in this box). This one glyph denotes the divine name sbk, “Sobek.” Below that the next two glyphs appear to be reversed but spell sn, for the name Sensobek. The final horizontal slash is probably an abbreviation for mAa-xrw, “true of voice” (or “the justified”), and might indicate that Sensobek himself was dead when this stela was carved.
  19. Now we’re in the final register, which appears in front of the face of Intef but because of orientation still refers to Sensobek. The tied fox pelts (ms) and water ripple (n) are a handy clue that the following glyphs will refer to one’s mother. The phrase ms-n means “born of.”
  20. We then have the name of the mother. There are two legs with feet (each carrying the sound value b), a reed leaf (i), and a squatting female figure (a determinative). We would render her name as Bebi. Below her name is again the phrase mAat-xrw, “true of voice” (or “the justified”). Note the t in my transliteration after mAa as well as the bread loaf (t) between the two vertically arranged glyphs on the stela. The terminal t was a feminine gender marker.

So there you have a complete monument carved almost 4,000 years ago. It’s a beautiful stela that tells us of a man named Sensobek, his father, Intef, and Sensobek’s mother, Bebi (presumably Intef’s wife but we can’t guarantee that, because she isn’t referred to as such here). Were it not for our ability to read and translate hieroglyphs, we wouldn’t know any of this and all of those little pictures would be meaningless. The ability to translate hieroglyphs opens a whole new world of understanding about a great ancient civilization long extinct.

Some recommendations to learn hieroglyphs

I’ve stressed numerous times now that my three articles will not truly teach you hieroglyphs but can only give you a basic understanding of how they work and how we translate them. But if you’re truly interested in knowing the ancient language, you should let nothing stop you. There are all sorts of useful books out there that can get you started and bring you far. I’d like to end by listing some of them, and I’ll present them in something of a logical order for studying ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

  1. Manley, Bill. Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners. 2012
  2. Zauzich, Karl-Theodor. Hieroglyphs without Myster: An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Writing. 1992
  3. Collier, Mark and Bill Manley. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs.1998
  4. Kamrin, Janice. Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A step-by-step approach to learnig ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. 2004
  5. Allen, James P. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 2001
  6. Hoch, James E. Middle Egyptian Grammar. 1997

The first four in my list are fairly simple basic beginner guides. Of them I’d have to say Collier and Manley’s jointly authored book is my favorite (#3 above), although all four are worthwhile and contain fun and useful exercises. The last two are more formal grammars, meaning they will teach you the actual nuts and bolts of the ancient language. They are more advanced. You could make do with one or the other but I found both to be very useful and instructive.

Some reads who have a working background in the ancient script might wonder why Alan Gardiner’s venerable Egyptian grammar: Being an introduction to the study of hieroglyphs isn’t on my list. It is indeed a fine book and was the scholarly standard for a long time. I keep a copy for reference in my library. But it’s now almost 50 years old and is somewhat outdated. In those modern colleges with a department of Egyptology that teach hieroglyphs to their students, the standards today are Allen and Hoch (#5 and #6 in my above list).

A strong note of caution. Remember book stores? Some still exist. When you visit the ancient history section and find the books on ancient Egypt, you will often find books by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge. He was an early curator of Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum and wrote prolifically. The copyrights on his books are long expired and you can usually buy them dirt cheap, so people tend to snatch them up at places like Barnes & Noble. His books include a grammar on ancient Egyptian as well as a two-volume hieroglyphic dictionary. The problem is, Budge died  in 1934 and was writing well before a lot of modern linguistic conventions were established. His books are outdated and contain a lot of mistakes. Don’t buy them if you’re serious about learning the ancient language. As the character Daniel Jackson says in the feature film Stargate: “I don’t know why they keep reprinting his books.”

There are any number of other books to aid you. I strongly recommend a good dictionary of hieroglyphs, and one of the best still in print is Raymond Faulkner’s A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (I have the 2002 edition). The entries are hand-written in hieroglyphs, followed by translations. Very useful in conjunction with this book is David Shennum’s English-Egyptian Index of Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (1977). It reverses the order so that you can look up an English word and see its transliteration, and it includes the page number relevant to Faulkner’s dictionary for each entry.

I also highly recommend a good sign list. In most cases (not necessarily all) modern sign lists still follow Gardiner’s original codification system for the glyphs (here’s the link again). I recommend sticking with this system for the sake of consistency in your lessons. Most of the books in my list above contain some version of sign lists, but Allen’s and Hoch’s are particularly good. Just the same, I get a lot of use out of James Hoch’s separately published Middle Egyptian Grammar Sign List (1998).

I sincerely hope some of you readers will look into this. Studying the ancient language is challenging and fun, and good for the mind (it exercises the same part of the brain that math does, which is nice if you’re a dullard in math like I am). If you have a nearby museum with an Egyptian exhibit, you can study and work on translations there. That’s actually how I myself got started with my studies. It’s also useful to work on inscriptions you might see in books and magazines. There’s a lot of material out there at your disposal.

Thanks much for reading, and please do let me know if you have questions or suggestions. And to all WordPress readers: Happy New Year!

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 1

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 2


Quibell, J. E. Excavations at Saqqara: 1906-1907. 1908

Excavations at Saqqara: 1908-9, 1909-10. 1912.

Ranke, Hermann. Die Ägyptischen Personennamen. 1935

Russian, Edna R. Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum. 2001

Yurko, Frank J. Egypt: A Companion Guide to the Exhibit Inside Ancient Egypt. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1992.