Today, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are amongst the world’s most recognizable images. Developed just before the dawn of Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 -2613 BCE), these “sacred carvings” were initially thought by some archaeolinguistics to have originated in Mesopotamia and arrived via ancient trade routes in Egypt.
However, despite the abundant flow of ideas and goods across the desert, today Egyptologists consider Egyptian hieroglyphics to have arisen in Egypt. No correlation has been shown to exist between early Egyptian pictographs and Mesopotamian signs. Similarly, no Mesopotamian words for places, objects or concepts have been found.
The word ‘hieroglyphics’ itself is Greek. The Egyptians called their written language medu-netjer, which translates as ‘the god‘s words,’ as Egyptian scribes believed writing was a gift to them by Thoth their god of wisdom and writing.
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Facts About Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs
- Hieroglyphs are believed to have developed in Egypt sometime around 3200 B.C
- Egyptian hieroglyphs combined syllabic, alphabetic and logographic elements, resulting in 1,000 distinct characters
- The Egyptians used hieroglyphs until the country was annexed as a province by Rome
- Egyptologists estimate only around three per cent of Egypt’s population were literate and could read hieroglyphs
- Hieroglyphs represent ideas and even sounds
- Determinative hieroglyphic signs indicate the classification of a word, such as male or female
- Jean-Francois Champollion a French scholar, orientalist and philologist who was the first man to decipher hieroglyphs.
- Champollion had access to the Rosetta Stone discovered by French soldiers in 1799 which had the same decree issued in Memphis inscribed in Greek, hieroglyphic script and demotic this proved to be the key to the deciphering process
Emergence Of The Hieroglyphic Script
Hieroglyphics are thought to have emerged from early pictographs. Ancient Egyptians used pictures and symbols to represent ideas such as an event, an animal, a star or a person. Pictograms present practical problems for users, however. The amount of information one pictograph can contain is severely limited. While an ancient Egyptian could draw an image of a temple, a goat or a woman there was no way of communicating their relationship with one another.
Ancient Mesopotamia’s Sumerian culture had encountered a similar problem with their written language, which prompted them to create an evolved script in Uruk c. 3200 BCE. Had the Egyptians really adopted their writing structure from the Sumerians, they would have foregone pictograms and opted for Sumerian phonograms. These are symbols, which represent a sound.
The Sumerians expanded their written language to include symbols directly representing their language to enable them to communicate specific packets of information. The ancient Egyptians developed a similar system but incorporated symbols representing words or logograms and ideograms into their script. An ideogram is a ‘sense sign’ communicating a specific message using a recognizable symbol. The best example of an ideogram is today’s minus sign.
Hieroglyphics consisted of an “alphabet” of 24 core consonants complemented by more than 800 supplementary symbols to indicate the consonants’ meaning precisely. Scribes needed to memorize this entire alphabet in order for it to be written in the correct sequence.
This elaborate approach made hieroglyphics quite labour-intensive for Egypt’s legion of scribes to employ in their daily work, so the ‘sacred writing’ or hieratic script was evolved soon afterwards in Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period. This new hieratic script employed simpler forms of their hieroglyphic cousins in its characters. This script was faster and less labour-intensive for the scribes.
Hieroglyphics continued in use across the entire span of Egyptian history. However, they were predominantly the script used for inscriptions on temples and monuments. Groups of hieroglyphics, in their neatly structured rectangles, fitted the magnificence required for their inscriptions.
Hieratic was initially primarily used in religious records and writings before spreading to other high volume areas of record keeping and communication such as commercial and private letters, legal documents, business administration and magical texts. Hieratic was usually written on ostraca or papyrus. Novice scribes used wood or stone tablets to practice their script. Sometime close to 800 BCE hieratic evolved into ‘abnormal hieratic,’ a cursive script before demotic script replaced it in turn around c. 700 BCE.
“Popular writing” known as demotic script was adopted for every situation requiring a comparatively speedy written record while hieroglyphics remained largely confined to carved monumental inscriptions. The Egyptians referred to their demotic script as sekh-shat, which translates as “writing for documents.” Demotic script dominated all forms of Egyptian writing over the following 1,000 years for all forms of written work. The origins of demotic script appear to lie in the Lower Egypt’s vast Delta before spreading south during the Third Intermediate Period’s (c. 1069-525 BCE) 6th Dynasty continuing through ancient Egypt’s Late Period (525-332 BCE) and on into the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332-30 BCE). Following Egypt’s annexation by Rome, Coptic script replaced demotic script.
Rediscovering The Meaning Of Hieroglyphics
Some Egyptologists have contended that Egyptian hieroglyphics’ true meaning was forgotten during the later stages of Egyptian history as the memory reading and writing its myriad symbols faded away with disuse. However, hieroglyphics remained in use up to the Ptolemaic Dynasty and declined in use only with the emergence of Christianity in the early Roman Period. The art of the hieroglyphics was only lost when the culture and belief system the script evolved to represent was shattered.
As Coptic script replaced hieroglyphics in Egyptian society, the rich meaning of hieroglyphic writing passed into distant memory. During the 7th-century when the Arabs invaded Egypt, no one still alive understood the meaning of the vast accumulation of hieroglyphic texts and inscriptions.
As European explorers made their way into the country during the 17th-century, many failed to recognise the hieroglyphics as a written form of language. At this time, hieroglyphics were thought to be ritual symbols of magic. This theory was advanced in the writings of Athanasius Kircher (1620-1680), a German scholar and polymath. Kircher adopted the assertion made by Greek writers in antiquity that hieroglyphics represented symbols. Assuming their position was fact rather than an ill-informed assertion, Kircher promoted an interpretation of hieroglyphics where individual symbols equalled a single concept. Kircher’s laborious attempts to translate Egypt’s hieroglyphics failed, as he was working from a flawed assumption.
Numerous scholars launched their own doomed attempts to understand the hidden meaning of ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphics without success. Some scholars believed they had discovered a pattern amongst the symbols. However, those researchers could not find a way to translate them into anything meaningful.
Following Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, an officer discovered the remarkable Rosetta Stone. He immediately understood its potential momentousness and dispatched it to Napoleon’s fledgling Institut d’Égypte in Cairo for further study.
The Rosetta Stone carved from granodiorite was found to contain a proclamation from Ptolemy V (204-181 BCE) reign in three languages, Greek, hieroglyphics, and demotic. The use of three texts reflects the Ptolemaic multi-cultural society philosophy, one in which regardless of whether Greek, hieroglyphics, or demotic, was one’s native language, a citizen could read the stone’s message.
Turmoil during the war between England and France in Egypt and subsequent Napoleonic Wars delayed the deciphering of the hieroglyphics and demotic section on the stone. Finally, the stone was shipped from Egypt to England.
Scholars immediately began attempting to decipher this lost system of writing. They were hampered following Kircher’s earlier theories. Thomas Young (1773-1829) an English scholar and polymath believed the symbols indicated words and the hieroglyphics must be closely related to demotic and Coptic script. His theory formed the basis for another approach by his erstwhile colleague and rival, Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) a scholar and philologist.
In 1824 Champollion published the results of his studies. It demonstrated conclusively that Egyptian hieroglyphics comprised a sophisticated writing system composed of ideograms, logograms and phonograms. Thus Champollion’s name became indelibly associated with the Rosetta Stone and his deciphering of its hieroglyphics.
Even in the present day, researchers debate whether Young or Champollion’s rival contributions were of greater significance and who deserved the lion’s share of the credit. While Young’s work lay the platform for Champollion’s later work, it seems quite clear, Champollion’s decisive breakthrough ultimately allowed the ancient Egyptian writing system to be deciphered, opening up a hitherto closed window on the remarkable accomplishments of Egyptian culture and its historical journey for the world at large to enjoy.
Reflecting On The Past
Egypt’s system of hieroglyphics represents a unique accomplishment in their culture’s ability to communicate and record for eternity concepts, events and even the individual names of their rulers and ordinary Egyptians.
Header image courtesy: PHGCOM [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons