Ancient History of the Hieroglyphics

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Ancient History of the Hieroglyphics

Have you every wondered where all writing began ? Have you often thought of the secrets about life that ancient civilizations took to their graves with them ? If so, you should be very interested in learning about an ancient writing technique called hieroglyphics, which many scientists believe is the origin of all writing (Bolia 2).

Hieroglyphics are not only one of the oldest recorded languages, but it also has a documented history longer by far than that of any other. Hieroglyphics were first written down towards the end of the fourth millennium BC, and thereafter remained in continuous recorded use down to about the eleventh century AD, a period of over 4,000 years (Reagal 6).

There are many misconceptions about where that hieroglyphics were first invented. Many people feel that because of the name, Egyptian hieroglyphics, that the system of writing was invented in Egypt (“Hieroglyphics” 237). However, it is hardly probable that the hieroglyphic system of writing was invented in Egypt (Bolia 1). Most evidence supports the theory that certain invaders who came from northeast or central Asia brought the system of writing into Egypt.

Hieroglyphics were written by cutting pictures and symbols, which stood for words into stone, wood, and other materials. They were carved with marvelous accuracy, and they varied at depths of anywhere from one to three inches deep. Sometimes hieroglyphics were written on a special kind of paper called papyrus, which was formed from reed stems which had to be flattened, dried, and stuck together to make pages. After the pictures and symbols were carved they were usually colored. Generally, celestial objects were colored blue, along with metal vessels and instruments. As for the carvings of animals, birds, and reptiles, they were painted as far as possible to represent their natural colors. The hieroglyphics of ancient men were generally painted red, and the women were painted yellow ( Katan 42). The system consists of several hundred picture signs which can be divided into two classes, phonograms and ideograms (Katan 12).

Phonograms are signs used to write the sounds of the Egyptian language. The particular sound value of a sign was usually obtained from the Egyptian name for the object represented. Since the Egyptians did not normally write the vowels, only the consonantal “skeleton” of a word is given (Katan 47). Although each consonant can be written with a single sign, most sound signs express a series of two or more consonants. Some of the Egyptian consonants have no equivalents in most modern scripts, and Egyptologists use conventionalized signs to represent these when transcribing Egyptian (Bolia 4).

Ideograms are idea-signs, in which each picture stands for the object represented, or for some idea closely connected with the object.

A particular word could be written with only phonograms, or only ideograms, but most words were written using a combination of both. It was a particularly common practice to use one or more idea-signs at the end of a word to give the general meaning of the word. A sign used in this way is called a determinative. Egyptians were very aware of the decorative value of hieroglyphic writing and so hieroglyphics were often an important part of the decorative scheme of an Egyptian temple or tomb (Reagal 5).

After 400 A.D., the Egyptian language was written in the Greek alphabet, with the addition of several extra letters to represent Egyptian sounds that didn’t exist in Greek. This form of Egyptian is called Coptic, and was in turn eventually replaced by Arabic, the language spoken in Egypt today. The ancient Egyptian tongue died out. Only the hieroglyphics remain to remind us that it ever existed.

Scribes were the few Egyptians who knew how to read and write. There was a wide range of employment opportunities for them. Scribes kept the government going by recording the harvest, collecting the state’s share of its taxes, and many other tasks. Scribes could hold a wide variety of positions ( Bolia 6).

A scribe’s profession was highly regarded in Ancient Egypt, however, it took as long as twelve years to be able to learn hieroglyphics (Bolia 6).

Scribes were often entrusted with the job of enscribing many things such as a pharoh’s family and achievements on their tombs. This was very important to the ancient Egyptians and since the scribes were the only ones who knew how to do this , they were very powerful men (Bolia 7). Scribes have also left records behind of the events of their times on papyrus, cave walls, and other things. These records have been very important in piecing together the history of many ancient civilizations.

For more than 1000 years, hieroglyphics were little more than a bunch of mysterious symbols carved in ancient monuments. People began coming up with all kinds of theories about what the mysterious signs and symbols really stood for. Some thought that they were records of magic spells, others believed they were secret religous ceremonies. As a result of all this confusion, many attempts were made in order to try and translate hieroglyphics. In 1633, a Jesuit priest named Anthanasius Kercher, whose specialities were the humanities, science, language and religion, translated the word ‘autocrat’ into German and did so by substituting the ideas for the images. His translation read “ the originator of all moisture and all vegetation whose creative forces is brought into this kingdom by the holy mukta” (Reagal 8).

The history of the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphics during the 16th and 17th centuries took small steps toward final interpretation. Some scholars thought that the hieroglyphics were the origin of other languages. Some believed that hieroglyphics spelled nothing at all. Yet others believed that the hieroglyphics were an indication of social stratification or social significance.

This uncertainty would most likely have continued if a political event not interceded. The almost constant warfare between Britain and France resulted in a major change in the understanding of hieroglyphics. The French, under Napolean Bonaparte , decided that they could defeat the British by attacking Egypt and subsequently controlling the rich food supply from along the Nile.

The French won this battle but the British eventually defeated the French navy. Napolean and his men were stranded in Egypt. They began to remodel the Fortress at Rosetta. Then, in 1799, Lieutenant Bouchard discovered a slab of basalt stone while remodeling the Fortress at Rosetta. The stone measured three feet nine inches long, two feet four and a half inches wide, and eleven inches thick and it contained three distinct bands of writing. The most incomplete was the top band containing hieroglyphics, the middle band was an Egyptian script called Demontic script, and the bottom was ancient Greek. This stone was called the Rosetta Stone. The Lieutenant took the stone to the scholars and they soon found out that the stone was a royal decree that basically stated that it was to be written in the languages used in Egypt at the time. Scholars began to focus on the Demontic script, the middle band, because it was more complete and it looked more like letters than the pictures in the upper band that were hieroglyphics. It was essentially a shorthand hieroglyphics that had evolved from an earlier shorthand version of Egyptian called Heiratic script (Hieroglyphics 237).

The first to make any sense of the Demontic script on the Rosetta Stone was a French scholar named Silvestre DeSacy. DeSacy was an important and skilled French linguist. He identified the symbols which comprised the word “Ptolemy” and “Alexander” thus, establishing a relationship between the symbols and sounds.

Many more people attempted to translate the stone with minimal success. The next major success in deciphering the stone came in 1802 when Reverend Stephen Weston determined that foreign names could not be represented by symbols because symbols are based upon the words used in a given language (Bolia 7). Thus, foreign names had to be spelled phonetically. In hieroglyphics there are groups of symbols that are separated from other symbols. These encircled inscriptions are called cartouches. Thomas Young determined that the cartouches were proper names of people who were not Egyptian like the names of Ptolemy and Alexander which in Greek were Ptolemaios and Alezandrus. He successfully deciphered 5 cartouches.

At this point, a young French historian and linguist named Champollion stepped in and made a discovery that proved all of hieroglyphics were phonetic, not just those hieroglyphics that were contained within cartouches. This means that hieroglyphics were not only symbolic, but that they also served as a “spoken language” ( Bolia 4). Utilizing hieroglyphics, Champollion identified the names of Cleopatra and Alexandrus. Champollion became the first person to successfully read hieroglyphics in thousands of years.

Whether you are interested in ancient Egyptian life or not, you can agree that the ability to decipher hieroglyphics and understand them has been very important in understanding ancient life. We have learned a great deal about the ancient Egyptians through the study of hieroglyphics and consequently we have learned a lot about ourselves .


Bolia, Terry. “Frequently Asked Questions About Hieroglyphics”. All About Hieroglyphics. Available: http:// .htm

“Hieroglyphics”. World Book . Volume 9. World Book, Inc. Chicago London Sydney Toronto 1999.

Katan, Norma. Hieroglyphics, The Writing of Ancient Egypt. New York, Atheneum, 1981.

Reagal, Steven. “Hieroglyphics” Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Hieroglyphics. Available:

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