Next to the pyramids, the Sphinx, and the mummies, one of the most intriguing finds in ancient Egyptian civilization is a form of writing that appears as stylized images of people, animals, and objects. Hieroglyphic writing, whose name comes from hieroglyphic, the Greek word for “sacred sculpture” was found carved into stone walls over 5,000 years ago, and was in use until the 4th century AD
The Egyptians adorned the interiors of their temples, monuments and tombs with hieroglyphic writing and wrote it on papyrus, an ancient paper made of reeds.
Below are nine key facts about hieroglyphic writing.
1. Hieroglyphics use pictures, but it is not writing pictures.
Because the symbols used in hieroglyphic writing look like small images of people, animals, and objects, it is easy to assume that hieroglyphics represent these things. Instead, some hieroglyphics mean sounds in the ancient Egyptian language, just like characters in the Roman alphabet. Others are ideographic signs, which represent concepts but have no sound attached.
2. Hieroglyphic writing is linked to elite tombs.
“The earliest hieroglyphic script is commonly found on funerary objects found in royal tombs in Abydos that predate the historical period,” says Peter F. Dorman, professor emeritus at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. “The hieroglyphics being pictorial, the link with primitive formal art is indelible, in particular the representation of the king with his royal title, which one can see on the commemorative monuments placed in the first temples.”
Although the system was eventually used for other types of writing, hieroglyphics never lost their original connection to elite contexts in memorial places like temples and tombs, Dorman explains.
People who were not members of the royal family also sometimes used hieroglyphics in their private tombs and monuments, provided they were wealthy enough to afford the services of stonecutters.
3. The ancient Egyptians used other forms of writing.
Because hieroglyphic writing was so complicated, the ancient Egyptians developed other, more practical types of writing. Hieratic script, a cursive script written on papyrus with a pen or brush, or on a piece of limestone called an ostracon was invented to be used primarily on papyrus, a more fragile material. But, says Dornan, he rarely made the jump to formal monuments. Demotic, another form of writing that developed in the 800s BC, was used for everyday documents, as well as literary works..
4. Hieroglyphic writing has some strange quirks.
Hieroglyphic writing has no space between words, and there is no punctuation. This means that readers should have a good understanding of ancient Egyptian grammar and know the context of a message so that they can distinguish individual words, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Also, unlike modern English, hieroglyphics are not necessarily read horizontally from left to right. Hieroglyphics could be written either left to right or right to left, and vertically as well as horizontally.
5. Few Egyptians could read hieroglyphic writing.
In the later stages of ancient Egyptian civilization, only priests were able to read hieroglyphic writing, according to James P. Allen in his book Egyptian Middle: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphics. “Entries that were meant to have a larger audience were etched in demotic instead,” he writes.
6. Hieroglyphic writing gradually died out.
After the Ptolemies, who were of Macedonian descent, began to rule Egypt in the 300s BC, Greek replaced Egyptian as the official court language. About 600 years later, in AD 384, the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius approved a decree banning the practice of the pagan religion in Egypt, which marked the beginning of the end of the use of hieroglyphics, according to author Stephane. Rossini.
By the time the last known hieroglyphic script was carved in the temple of Philae in 394 AD, there were probably few Egyptian sculptors left who could even understand what they were asked to carve in the walls, as Hilary Wilson writes. in Understanding Hieroglyphics: A Competitive Introductory Guide.
7. The Rosetta Stone led to a breakthrough.
In 1799, French soldiers serving under Napoleon in Egypt, who were repairing a fort in the town of Rashid (also known as Rosetta), discovered a stone slab that became known as the Rosetta Stone. It was covered with scriptures in three different scriptures: hieroglyphic, demotic, and ancient Greek. The three languages engraved on the same stone allowed researchers to decipher hieroglyphic writing.
British scientist Thomas Young, who began studying stone in 1814, first deduced that some of the symbols were phonetic spellings of royal names. Then, between 1822 and 1822, the French linguist Jean-François Champollion was able to show that hieroglyphs were a combination of phonetic and ideographic symbols. He was able to decipher the text, which was a message from Egyptian priests to Ptolemy V written in 196 BC.
“In the end, Champollion got the upper hand, thanks to his in-depth study of Coptic, which is the last phase of the Egyptian language,” says Dorman. This knowledge “enabled him to recognize grammatical features which had escaped Young’s notice.”
8. Deciphering hieroglyphic writing remains a challenge.
Understanding the meaning of texts written in hieroglyphic script remains a great challenge for researchers, and requires a certain amount of subjective interpretation. Even reading them aloud is not easy.
“It’s not so much the use of phonetic cues that makes translations difficult, but rather the fact that the full vocalization of Ancient Egyptian is not written,” says Dorman. “Thus, the pronunciation of words and especially the intricacies of the Egyptian verbal system remain subjects of conjecture.”