Created | Updated Oct 4, 2019
Hieroglyphs were a system of writing using small pictures, devised in Egypt in about 3100 BC and used continuously up to about 500 AD. Hieroglyphs were usually carved into stone, although sometimes they were painted onto plastered walls. The word 'hieroglyph' is Greek and means literally 'sacred carving' because they were used in tombs and temples, but in fact the hieroglyphs were used on any sort of monument, including ones proclaiming the greatness of the pharaohs, the rulers of Egypt.
This Entry gives some of the background to hieroglyphs, but obviously there's much more necessary to actually read hieroglyphic inscriptions, like being able to speak Ancient Egyptian.
Summary of the Hieroglyphic System
The Egyptian language, like every other language, changed over time, going through a number of distinct phases. First came Archaic Egyptian - this was spoken from before records began. In about 2650 BC, this changed into Old Egyptian, and in about 2100 BC into Middle Egyptian. Hieroglyphs were used for recording all these languages. After 1550BC, the spoken language changed again, but hieroglyphic inscriptions continued to be written using Middle Egyptian, so the language of the monuments was different from the language spoken by the people. This is something similar to the way Latin was used for monumental inscriptions in Europe right up to the early 20th Century.
Hieroglyphs are pictures of objects; they were carved in stone in great detail, and the pictures were painted in realistic colours, although the paint has not survived in most of the inscriptions. But the symbol did not normally represent the object that it was a picture of. Instead, it represented a sound or a series of sounds. In this manner, a scribe could write down the Egyptian language using only about 500 basic symbols, rather than the thousands that would be needed if each symbol corresponded to a particular word.
The Egyptian language had 24 consonantal sounds, and there was a hieroglyphic symbol for each of these. Many had two symbols, either of which could be used, making about 30 symbols representing single consonants. For example the N sound could be shown as a wavy line depicting water, or as a fancy crown headdress with a curly feather. These symbols are often called the 'hieroglyphic alphabet' and in theory anything could be written using only these symbols, but the Egyptians didn't do this.
Note that there were no symbols for vowel sounds.
There were about 80 commonly used signs which each represented two consonants. For example, a picture of a black ibis (a type of bird) represented the sound G-M.
There were about ten symbols in regular use which represented three consonants. For example, a symbol which looks like a heart with a tall cross on top depicts the human heart and windpipe and represented the consonants N-F-R. Another example is the scarab beetle symbol which represented the three-consonant series KH-P-R. The KH is a single consonant, similar to the ch sound in the German word Achtung, although we write it as two letters.
Because of the lack of vowels and word spaces, it would very difficult to read hieroglyphs that were just composed of the three types of consonant symbols described above. For example, imagine how hard it would be to read an English sentence with all the vowels and spaces left out.
The Egyptians used hundreds of different symbols called 'determinatives' which provided context for the string of consonants. For example, one determinative meant man, another meant 'verb relating to the mouth', another was 'canals and pools of water'. Each word was normally written as a string of consonants followed by a determinative indicating what sort of thing the word was. For example, the Egyptian word for 'to eat' was 'wenem'. To write this, you would put the symbols for 'w', 'n', and 'm', followed by a picture of a man pointing at his mouth. But this does not mean that every word had a picture of itself at the end. There were only a few hundred determinatives, so a little bit of imagination, or practice, was needed to read the writing.
Of course, you had to be able to speak the Egyptian language to be able to read the writing, because you had to be able to identify the correct word. Modern Egyptologists have managed to reconstruct the language by studying Coptic, the version of Egyptian which survived long enough to be written down in Greek letters. It is now possible to do a course in Ancient Egyptian in university, and this will not only teach you the language but also how to read the hieroglyphic script.
Direction of Writing
Hieroglyphs were usually written from right to left, but could be written from left to right or from top to bottom. You could tell whether it was right-to-left or left-to-right, because any people and animals in the text were always turned to face the start of the sentence.
Within this general direction, the symbols were often stacked to fit better, or even swapped in order, so a little bit of imagination has to be used in reading. In addition, personal names often ended in the names of gods, but out of respect for the gods, their symbols came first in the hieroglyphic version. Thus Tutankhamun's name is written Amon-t-w-t-ankh out of respect for the god Amon.
The 'Hieroglyphic Alphabet'
Egyptian was a very guttural language with many sounds which do not occur in modern English. For example, the glottal stop is a sound which is used in the middle of words by some English speakers - it is the sound in the middle of the word 'bottle' as spoken by a Cockney - the two t's are omitted and replaced by a sort of clicking sound in the throat. Egyptian used this sound, but could have it at the start or the end of a word, as well as in the middle. Since there is no way of writing this sound in English, it is often just written as the letter 'a', but it was not a vowel and you should not think that the Egyptians wrote down the sound 'a' in their words.
Tables are often printed and can be found all over the web with attempts to get the 24 symbols to match up with the 26 letters of our alphabet. All such tables should be taken with a grain of salt. There were no symbols in the hieroglyphs for our vowels, nor was there a symbol for the letter 'l', although in later years the Egyptians used the symbol for 'rw' to represent the 'l' in the names of their Greek rulers, the Ptolemys and Cleopatras.
The following are the hieroglyphs used for the 24 consonants. These signs made up about 60% of all inscriptions.
|Vulture||backward c over another||'||glottal stop|
|Reed||backward c over i||y||y as in yellow|
|Double Reed||y||y||ee - this was possibly the only vowel written in Egyptian|
|Forearm||Raised letter c||a||'Ayn sound2|
|Horned Viper (snake with horns)||f||f||f|
|Open Mouth||r||r||r - this may have been trilled like a Spanish r, we don't know|
|Square spiral (house)||h||h||h|
|Wick of twisted flax||h over dot||hh||strong h|
|Lined disc||h over cup||kh||ch in German ach|
|Animal's belly with teats||underlined h||ch||as ch in German ich|
|Folded cloth||s with acute accent||s||s|
|Hill||k over dot||q||click made with back of tongue against soft palate, as q in Iraq.|
|Basket with handle||k||k||k|
|Jar stand||g||g||hard g as in garden|
|Tethering rope||underlined t||tsh||ch as in church|
|Snake||underlined d||j||j as in june|
The standard transcription is a way students of ancient Egyptian can write the sounds without having to actually draw the pictures. Unfortunately, the transcription symbols they use are not easy to display on this website. The alternative transcription column is probably more useful to the casual reader as all these symbols can easily be typed.
There is a convention that the letter 'e' is put in between the consonants to make them easier for us to say: N-F-R, for example, is usually written as 'nefer' and is the first element of the name of Queen Nefertiti. But this is purely a modern convention. We have no way of knowing what the vowels in Nefertiti's name were.
The origin of the hieroglyphic writing system is a mystery. It started to be used suddenly in 3100BC. Before this, the individual signs were occasionally carved on items, but there was no attempt to make sentences. Then suddenly the full system was in use. It is not known whether it was invented by one person or was developed from a simpler system. It may have been influenced by writing systems in nearby Mesopotamia, although it is quite different from the writing of that region.
The Egyptians used hieroglyphs for inscriptions in stone and on hard objects for more than 3,000 years. They also developed a simplification of the hieroglyphs which was used for writing on papyrus (a paper-like medium). This is known to us as 'hieratic' (priestly writing) although it was used by all literate Egyptians. In later years (around 600 BC), this hieratic evolved into another script suitable for use on papyrus, 'demotic' (literally, the common system).
Egypt was invaded by Greek-speaking Macedonians in the 4th Century BC, so the official language became Greek. The priests continued to write hieroglyphic inscriptions, but details of what they meant were never explained to the Greeks, and gradually the number of people who could read them decreased. By 500 AD, there was nobody left who could understand the script and so it was no longer used. It was forgotten for a thousand years.
Around the time that the hieroglyphic script was dying out, the Greek-speaking Egyptians started to take an interest in it, and wrote many books about it. A man called Horapollo interviewed one of the last people to understand the hieroglyphs, and he wrote down everything in a book which was widely read. While the translations Horapollo gives in his book do seem to be based on the actual meanings of the inscriptions, unfortunately Horapollo got completely the wrong impression of how the system worked. He stated that each symbol represented an abstract concept, and that the hieroglyphs were a system which transcended language itself and recorded thoughts directly. This was completely untrue, and it confounded all attempts to decipher the system for a thousand years.
In about 1600 AD, people started getting interested again in the ancient world and attempts were made to decipher the hieroglyphs, but they were seriously impeded in their attempts by Horapollo's assertion that each of the symbols represented a complete word or idea. Because nobody could understand the system, they started to think that the Egyptians must have been party to arcane knowledge and that there was secret and immense wisdom hidden in the symbols. Works attempting to explain this wisdom, such as Caussin's De symbolica AEGYPTIORUM Sapientia (The Symbolic Wisdom of Egypt), published in 1631, rely more on imagination than on scholarly research.
First Attempts At Scientific Decipherment
In the 18th Century, many new examples of hieroglyphic inscriptions became available to the scholars of Europe, and systematic study started to reveal some of the features of the language. The Abbé Barthélemy, in 1762, first (correctly) suggested that the groups of symbols surrounded by a loop of rope, later known as 'cartouches', might contain the names of gods and kings.
The Danish scholar, Georg Zoëga, studied the hieroglyphs extensively and his results were published in 1797. Zoëga was probably the first person to examine the symbols completely objectively, with no preconceptions. He examined each of the Renaissance theories and disproved it, providing hard evidence that it did not fit with the facts of the inscriptions. He solved the problem of which direction the script was written in. He counted the symbols and showed that there were a maximum of 1,000 known in all the inscriptions available in Europe at the time, and that this was not anything like enough for the script to be ideographic, that is, each symbol representing a word or idea. Zoëga was also, most importantly, the first person to suggest that some of the symbols might represent the sounds of the language. In fact, he invented a new word for this: phonetic. For this, he deserves some credit for the decipherment of the hieroglyphs.
The Rosetta Stone
The next step in figuring out the hieroglyphic writing system was the discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta Stone. This slab had the same text written three times: in the Egyptian language in hieroglyphs, again in the Egyptian language but this time in demotic, and finally in Greek, which the European scholars all understood. The Greek text even mentioned that the three inscriptions were the same text! Various scholars attempted to tackle the demotic, because they thought that it might be some sort of alphabet, while they still (despite Zoëga) thought that the hieroglyphs represented words. These attempts had only limited success.
Jean-François Champollion was born in Figeac, France in 1790. As this was soon after the Revolution, the country was in turmoil, so he didn't go to school. Instead, he was privately tutored in Latin and Greek, and was said to be able to read Virgil and Homer by the time he was nine. At this tender age, he started to attend the Lycée in Grenoble, where he met the mathematician, Joseph Fourier3. Fourier had been an important official in Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, and he passed on his enthusiasm for Egyptology to the young student. Champollion went on to study Persian and Arabic in Paris, and taught himself all that was known of Coptic, the language of the early Christian church in Egypt.
The Key to the Decipherment
Although most books and websites give the Rosetta Stone as the key to the decipherment of the hieroglyphs, Champollion himself stated that there wasn't enough in it to solve the puzzle. The stone contained the name of only one pharaoh, Ptolemy. This was clearly indicated in the hieroglyphic text by a cartouche (the loop of rope around the symbols), so it was known which symbols represented Ptolemy, but this offered no indication as to which symbol represented which sound.
The real breakthrough came when Champollion came across the inscription from an obelisk in Kingston Lacy, Dorset, England, which was originally from the Temple of Philae in Aswan. This had inscriptions in both hieroglyphs and Greek, and gave the names of both Ptolemy and Cleopatra. Champollion knew which was which because he already had the version of Ptolemy from the Rosetta Stone.
The names Cleopatra and Ptolemy seem Egyptian to us, but were in fact Greek names used by the Greek rulers of Egypt in the period 330 - 30 BC. All male rulers were called Ptolemy and all female rulers were called Cleopatra. These names were foreign to the Egyptians, so they spelled out every sound in the names, including the vowels - this was an unusual practice, but it gave the needed clue which allowed Champollion to crack the code.
The name Ptolemy was represented by:
Square Semicircle Snare Lion Hairpin Reed Reed Hook
The name Cleopatra was represented by:
Hill Lion Reed Snare Square Vulture Hand Mouth Vulture
The symbols for Cleopatra are particularly interesting because there are nine of them and the sixth and ninth are the same, just as in the name in Roman or Greek letters. This suggests the following:
- Hill = C
- Lion = L
- Reed = E
- Snare = O
- Square = P
- Vulture = A
- Hand = T
- Mouth = R
- Vulture = A
Applying these symbols to the name of Ptolemy, we get: P ? O L ? E E ? where the question marks show symbols for which we don't yet have a value. Champollion's solution was to assume that Semicircle meant T, Hairpin meant M and Hook meant S. The name was written PTOLMEES, a valid way of writing such a name in Egyptian.
One problem with this was that he now had two different symbols for T, a hand and a semicircle. Champollion put that problem to one side and analysed cartouches from other inscriptions. One from Karnak (Luxor, Egypt) had a name which he quickly deciphered as ALKSENTRS. This was obviously Alexander the Great, the first Greek to conquer Egypt. The inscription showed the Egyptian practice of leaving out the vowels. He went on to do a complete study of every known name and translated many of them into the names of known rulers of Egypt from Greek and Roman times.
A vase with an inscription in both hieroglyphs and cuneiform (the writing system of ancient Persia) gave him the name of the Persian emperor Xerxes and further verified that his system of translation worked for Persian names as well as for Greek and Roman ones.
Extending the Solution
One fear Champollion had was that the system of symbols for writing the sounds might only apply to foreign names. The names of pharaohs in Egyptian might use some other system, and the Egyptian language itself in the inscriptions might not use the phonetic signs. Since nobody knew the names of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, any attempts to translate cartouches into the names of pharaohs would just produce strings of meaningless sounds. Nobody would know whether they were correct or not.
Analysis of texts showed that many words ended with the semicircle symbol which represented the sound 't' and was now recognised as a picture of a loaf of bread. Champollion knew from his knowledge of Coptic that 't' was a standard ending for female nouns. If Coptic was in fact ancient Egyptian, as began to seem likely, then this would mean that the loaf symbol was being used phonetically in the texts. Champollion applied the grammar of Coptic to the inscriptions and found a perfect match. He was even able to translate some of the words, because they were the same as in Coptic.
His final step was to show that the alternative symbols could be used completely interchangeably. Just as in English the word 'organise' can also be written 'organize', with the same pronunciation, Champollion found many pairs of words where the only difference between them was the symbol used for the 't' sound. He found the same effect with other alternative symbols, such as the two symbols for the letter 'n'. This could only be explained if the symbols were being used phonetically, and not representing words. This was the final proof that most of the symbols in the texts were phonetic. Champollion now felt justified in reading the names of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. The names of Mentuhotep, Akhenaten and Sekhemkhet were heard in Europe for the first time.
Champollion never figured out the purpose of the two-consonant symbols or of the determinatives. He died young, at the age of 41. After his death, Egyptologists continued his work and today the hieroglyphic system is fully deciphered.
The Pronunciation of Egyptian
As mentioned before, the Egyptians didn't write down the vowels of their words. Modern Egyptologists insert the 'e' sound to make some names more pronounceable, but we really have no idea how the Egyptians pronounced them.
For a few words, we can actually make an educated guess, because the names were written down in other languages such as Akkadian, the language of a nearby Mesopotamian empire. Two examples will illustrate this.
The Egyptian goddess of truth had a name which is normally written Maat. The two a's are not actually the vowel a, though, they are an 'Ayn followed by a glottal stop. There were vowels in the name but the Egyptians didn't write them down. The Akkadian version of the same name is 'Mua'. It's likely that the 'Ayn sound was mistaken for an 'a', but the 'u' is something new, and the t appears to have disappeared. The most likely interpretation is that the name was actually pronounced Mua' with a glottal stop at the end and a rough 'Ayn instead of the a. The t was a grammatical left-over from earlier versions of the language and was no longer pronounced.
Finally, we have the name of the supreme sun god, normally written either Re or Ra. His name was written in Akkadian as Ria, and in Egyptian as R-'Ayn-Glottal stop. The most likely pronunciation was Ria' where the a is a throaty 'ayn and the apostrophe is a glottal stop. Not an easy name for most Europeans to say!