A couple of years ago during a quiet moment in the Egyptian exhibit at the Field Museum, I was walking around the gallery when a young kid walked up to me with a notebook in his hand. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, “would you help me to figure out what these hieroglyphs mean?” He showed me his notebook to reveal a bunch of glyphs he had seen in the exhibit, and drawn as carefully as he could.
Now this is my kind of kid, I thought. His name was Michael and he was eight years old. It’s not unusual, in my experience at the museum, to encounter a youngster with an interest in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. But Michael exhibited a deeper interest in one so young, and I was delighted to spend some time helping him to understand the inscriptions he had drawn. In fact, we ended up spending quite awhile together, his mom observing quietly from the background.
Hieroglyphic writing happens to be one of my favorite topics and one of my favorite areas of study. Over many years I’ve invested a lot of time and some measure of personal expense to be able to learn and translate the ancient script, up to including lessons under an Egyptologist. On one level it makes me a better docent, being able to explain to visitors young and old what an inscription says; this serves to enrich visitor experience. But on a personal level it opens a whole new area of understanding to me in my studies, being able to read the writing almost as though the ancient scribe were speaking to me. As one Egyptologist said, “Museums are full of ancient voices.”
I thought it might be fun to do an article on ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, to help readers to understand how they work and why they are so important to our broader understanding of ancient Egypt. After all, were it not for our ability to read the ancient writing, we would ultimately know almost nothing meaningful about pharaonic Egypt. We might even still be laboring under the fable that the pyramids of Giza were grain silos (with apologies to Dr. Carson, but really?).
My article will not teach you to translate and understand hieroglyphic inscriptions. That takes a lot of training and a significant amount of time and commitment. But hopefully I can aid you in understanding the basics of how hieroglyphs work. The next time you’re at a museum you might even be able to pass along some of this knowledge and impress your friends.
A fussy note. I often hear museum visitors say something to the effect of, “Look, Egyptian hieroglyphics.” The word “hieroglyphic” is a modifier and is more properly used in the sense of “hieroglyphic writing” or “hieroglyphic script.” When referring to the script as a noun, it’s just “hieroglyphs.” So instead, say, “Look, Egyptian hieroglyphs.”
The origin of hieroglyphs
One of the enduring mysteries of ancient Egypt is how the hieroglyphic script developed. The evidence for this has come in fits and starts and we’re forming a better picture of it today, but much remains to be learned. It used to be thought that the hieroglyphic writing system emerged around the time of the founding of the Egyptian kingdom (c. 3100 BCE), which placed it second in antiquity only to Sumerian cuneiform.
But then came Günter Dreyer and his team from the German Archaeological Institute. Dreyer had been digging since the 1970s at the sprawling site of Abydos, where Egypt’s earliest rulers had been buried. In 1988 in Cemetery U at Abydos, Dreyer and his excavators unearthed a tomb that would change our understanding of history.
Designated Tomb U-j, it’s one of the largest tombs in that area of Abydos and dates to late prehistory. Carbon dating places it at about 3320 BCE.
What set Tomb U-j apart from the rest that date to that early time were the nearly 200 ivory and bone tags excavated there. At 3320 BCE, they were inscribed with the earliest-known hieroglyphs. This bumped back the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphs to a time contemporary with the earliest Sumerian cuneiform. This now leads Assyriologists and Egyptologists to quibble over whose form of writing came first. Hopefully future archaeological evidence will clarify this for us.
There is still a lot of debate over how exactly the ivory tags should be interpreted. Günter Dreyer himself seems confident that they can largely be read phonetically, in the manner of hieroglyphic inscriptions from the pharaonic period. Not everyone agrees, but there is largely consensus that the tags represent the names of estates from which goods buried in Tomb U-j came.
Tomb U-j represents a formative stage in late prehistoric Egypt. No single ruler controlled all of the Nile Valley yet. Rather, regional rulers or “proto-pharaohs” controlled their regions of Egypt. This was especially true in Upper (southern) Egypt, where successions of rulers in the prehistoric cities of Hierakonpolis, Naqqada, and Thinis (Abydos) were vying for greater control over the southern reaches of the Nile Valley. This is where the kingdom of Egypt would be born (c. 3100 BCE), eventually to absorb the regions of Lower (northern) Egypt.
It’s believed that the hieroglyphs first appearing in Abydos were a regional or local convention, and that this form of writing was absorbed as an ideological tradition by the earliest kings once the kingdom was founded. The writing system was already well established by Dynasty 1 (Early Dynastic Period), and was well regulated and formulated by the onset of the Old Kingdom (2663-2195 BCE).
The decipherment of hieroglyphs
As was the fate of most human languages down through time, ancient Egyptian eventually died out. It thrived for thousands of years, and even though it’s gone, the fact that it was written has frozen it for us like a time capsule. We can see its cognates and relations to other Semitic languages and how it changed as a spoken tongue down thought time.
Ancient Egyptian belonged to the Afro-Asiatic family and was related to languages that still exist such as Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Berber, and Chadic.
Hieroglyphs weren’t the only form of writing in pharaonic Egypt. In fact, hieroglyphs probably stopped representing the every-day spoken tongue by the end of the Old Kingdom. It was maintained (with periodic changes and updates) as a “ceremonial” form of writing and was used mostly for religious and ideological purposes. Hieroglyphs were reserved largely for monumental texts such as funerary inscriptions and royal public decrees. A linear or cursive form of hieroglyphs was often used for religious texts like Books of the Dead, although one sees this form also used in ancient graffiti.
A form of writing called hieratic started to appear around the same time as hieroglyphs. Hieratic is based on hieroglyphs but is much more cursive and rich with ligatures. One can often see the shapes of hieroglyphs in hieratic, although the two aren’t the same. Nor do they quite read the same. As mentioned, hieroglyphs fairly soon ceased to represent the daily spoken tongue. This means that as the living language changed, the language of the hieroglyphs did not and represented an archaic form of the tongue. For a long time hieratic was used to write the daily spoken language.
An example I often use with museum visitors is Old English to modern English. By the time of King Tutankhamun (1343-1333 BCE), the language of hieroglyphs preserved a form of the tongue about as outdated to them as Old English would be to us.
Hieratic continued to be used for administration, legalities, journals, stories, and other daily-life purposes until the seventh century BCE. A new script that rose in the north, demotic, was by then a better representative of the daily spoken language, and soon replaced hieratic for that purpose. Demotic appeared on the scene around 650 BCE.
Hieroglyphs were still used for religious and monumental texts, and once demotic arose, hieratic was also put to religious use. Many Books of the Dead and other funerary texts from the later periods, for instance, are written in hieratic.
Christianity made early inroads in Egypt. This naturally had profound effects on the culture of Egypt. As Christianity supplanted the ancient traditional religious traditions, closely related practices like writing were affected. Hieroglyphs and hieratic died out by the early centuries CE, and demotic would follow the same fate. The early Christians of Egypt adapted the Greek alphabet and included some demotic characters to represent sounds in the Egyptian language that Greek lacked. This Christian form of Egyptian writing is called Coptic. It was in use for centuries but exists today only as a liturgical language in Coptic Christian masses. Still, Coptic represents the last vestige of the ancient Egyptian language.
Islam arrived in Egypt in the seventh century BCE, and this too promised profound changes. Arabic supplanted Coptic as the spoken and written language of Egypt.
This is a long way to go but I hope paints a clear enough picture. The ancient writing went extinct, and with it the ancient language. Coptic went some way to preserve the language, but the Egyptians themselves forgot how to read the ancient hieroglyphs. And once the Egyptians forgot, so did the world.
Down through time the occasional educated person attempted to make sense of Egyptian hieroglyphs, but none succeeded. Others seem to have made it up as they went along, a good example of which was Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). As with many others, Kircher was convinced the hieroglyphs represented a strictly ideogrammatic language of esoteric wisdom. On an obelisk in Rome he encountered an inscription originally commissioned by Ramesses II in the thirteenth century BCE (most of Egypt’s obelisks had ended up in Rome thanks to the avid collecting habits of great Roman emperors).
We know today that the inscription reads: “Horus, strong bull, beloved of Maat, Usermaatre setepen-Re, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, son of the Sun, Ramesses.” Kircher, on the other hand, went at it more creatively. I record here only a portion of his “translation:”
“Supramundane Osiris, concealed in the center of eternity, flows down into the world of the Genies, which is the most near, similar, and immediately subject to him. He flows down into the divinity Osiris of the sensible World, and its soul, which is the Sun. He flows down into the Osiris of the elemental World, Apis, beneficent Agathodemon, who distributes the power imparted by Osiris to all the members of the lower world.”
It goes on and on, painfully.
Modern folks bent on alternative or fringe histories have their own bizarre ideas. I remember coming across a web page where an Egyptian fellow argued that ancient Egyptian wasn’t really a dead language but was actually an early version of Arabic and spoke of Allah.
But down through time people did not even have any idea of how to approach the ancient script. There were those like Kircher who believed it revealed esoteric knowledge, and there were many who believed the little pictures in the script had to be taken literally. That is, a depiction of a hand must mean hand, one of an owl must mean owl, et cetera. As long as folks had these ideas in mind, there was certain to be no progress.
That changed in 1798 when an ambitious general named Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in an effort to control shipping and trade routes through the Mediterranean (and hence get the better of their British rivals). With his expedition Napoleon brought a large number of historians, engineers, artists, and other specialists to study the ancient land of Egypt.
In 1799 soldiers working on a fort near the Delta town of Rosetta were disassembling an old wall when they discovered a large stone slab covered in writing. The top two-thirds were covered in hieroglyphs and another strange script, while the bottom third contained ancient Greek. This would go on to be known as the Rosetta Stone.
Napoleon had no problem conquering Egypt from the Mamluks who had been controlling it, but they did not do so well against the British. Admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed the French fleet fleet in the Battle of the Nile, and Napoleon fled Egypt. To the victor go the spoils, as it were, the the British confiscated the Rosetta Stone. It’s been in the British Museum ever since.
It wasn’t the end of Napoleon, of course. He would rise to rule France and conquer most of Europe. Meanwhile, a young Frenchman of humble birth, Jean-Francois Champollion, was making strides in his efforts to learn languages. The fellow was a natural linguist. Early on Champollion developed a keen interest in Egyptian hieroglyphs, and wanted nothing more than to decipher that script.
Most of Champollion’s instructors were highly skeptical of his goals, which left the young man largely to strive on his own to decipher hieroglyphs. He managed to get an inked copy of the Rosetta Stone but worked even more so from the epigraphic drawings people had made during their trips to Egypt.
Meanwhile, in Britain, there were those bent on figuring out the mysteries of the Rosetta Stone. They were led by the polymath Thomas Young. Any scholar worth his salt could read ancient Greek in those days, so they figured it would be a relatively simple matter to compare the ancient Greek at the bottom of the stone with the hieroglyphs at the top, and affect a translation.
It wasn’t quite that easy, of course. They were able to determine that the odd script in the center of the stone was another version of ancient Egyptian (what we now call demotic), but they could not translate it. Young was able to prove that the glyphs inside the cartouches at the top of the stone were used to spell the name Ptolemy (from the line of Ptolemies who had ruled Egypt in the Greek period), so that established that hieroglyphs could be used to write foreign names. Therefore, hieroglyphs had phonetic properties. But Young and his team made no progress on the rest of the stone, and many argued that in native Egyptian it didn’t represent a form of writing so much as a conveyor of ideas.
Back in France, young Champollion believed differently. He was one of the few who intuitively understood that the Coptic language of Christian Egypt was the last vestige of the pharaonic tongue, so he turned to a local Coptic priest, attended Coptic masses, and learned the liturgical Coptic language. This proved critical.
Champollion was working on some drawings a friend had made in Egypt and turned his attention to a cartouche in the transcriptions. The inscription had been copied at Abu Simbel, a site on the very southern fringes of Egypt. Champollion knew the Coptic word for “sun” was “re,” and this cartouche had a sun disk in it. The rest is history.
As the story goes, Champollion read the name in the cartouche and ran excitedly to his brother’s house to give him the news. And before he could deliver it, Champollion fainted dead away. His brother put him to bed. Champollion had a penchant for over-taxing himself, and his tireless efforts had caught up with him.
But upon waking Champollion could demonstrate that he could, in fact, read the name in the cartouche. I’ve outlined it in red here:
Champollion did not yet have a mastery of all the glyphs, of course, but he knew enough to understand what was written there: Ramesses. This was the cartouche of Ramesses II, one of the greatest pharaohs ever to sit on the throne of Egypt.
Eventually Champollion was able to go to Egypt himself. The story of his life is actually quite fascinating, between his involvement with the fortunes and fall of Napoleon and his efforts to stay out of the crosshairs of the Catholic Church, which was terrified that he would find proof the world was older than Christianity preached. But true to form, Champollion over-taxed himself and suffered a stroke while in Egypt. He died shrotly after returning home.
Champollion proved hieroglyphs could be read as a mix of phonetic and logogrammatic writing. He achieved a great deal in his short time, and one wonders how much farther we might have come had he lived to a ripe old age and taught us even more.
In the next installment we’ll take a look at how hieroglyphs work and the different kinds the Egyptians used. Thanks much for reading.
And Happy Holidays to the WordPress community.
Adkins, Leslie & Roy. The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs.2000
MacArthur, Elise V. “The Conception and Development of the Egyptian Writing System.” Visible Language, Christopher Woods, ed. 2010
Stauder, Andréas. “The Earliest Egyptian Writing.” Visible Language, Christopher Woods, ed. 2010