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Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics

  • Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics
  • Egyptian Hieroglyphics and the Rosetta Stone
  • Hieroglyphs - Hieratic Version
  • Use of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs in Documents and on Monuments
  • Egyptian Hieroglyphics - a Phonetic Alphabet
  • Deciphering Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics
  • Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics - Hieratic Version

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics
What are Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics? Definition of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics: Hieroglyphics a system of picture writing which used symbols (hieroglyphs) instead of letters or words. Hieroglyphics use a combination of logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic elements. The word Hieroglyphics is derived from the Greek word meaning 'sacred writings.'

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics and the Rosetta Stone
The Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics were a total mystery for many hundreds of years - people were completely unable to decipher them. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte led a military expedition in Egypt and during this period Egyptian antiquities were transferred to Paris.

In 1799 one of the French officers discovered a black stone, which dated back to 196 BC,  which was inscribed with text from three different languages:

  • Greek - Top Section
  • Hieroglyphics - Middle Section
  • Demotic script ( Ancient Egyptian language ) - Bottom section

The black stone, containing text in the Greek and Egyptian languages, was found near Rosetta in the Nile Delta and from this it was given the name of the Rosetta Stone. Scholars were able to read and understand the Greek script and the process of deciphering and translating the Demotic script and the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics began by comparing the Greek and the Egyptian words. The Demotic script was the first to be deciphered and much of this pioneering work is credited to Silvestre de Sacy, a French linguist. One of the students of Silvestre de Sacy was Jean-Francois Champollion. In 1814, the British linguist, Thomas Young finished translating the demotic text and began work on translating the hieroglyphic alphabet. Jean-Francois Champollion following in the footsteps of his tutor, Silvestre de Sacy, greatly expanded on the work of Thomas Young. Jean-Francois Champollion is known as the translator of the Rosetta Stone.

Use of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs in Documents and on Monuments
The Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs were the written language which was used by scribes on the whole range of documents used in Ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs were therefore found on many papyrus documents but are most famous for their use when hieroglyphics were carved into stone on great monuments or painted on the walls of tombs. Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics were used for making up a cartouche, or personal seal, which could be used as we would use a signature.

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics - a Phonetic Alphabet
The Ancient Egyptians initially used Hieroglyphics as opposed to a conventional alphabet. The original hieroglyphs represented sounds. There are over 700 hieroglyphs which can used in numerous combinations to give specific meanings. Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics also represented groups of 2 or 3 consonants. A person training to be a scribe would have to learn a massive phonetic alphabet of over 700 symbols.

Deciphering Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics
Deciphering Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics is at times is very simple. Hieroglyphs are written from right to left, from left to right, or occasionally from top to bottom. A simple picture was used to represent exactly what it resembled. For example a picture of a bee was perfectly recognizable. The doubling of a symbol indicates its dual and the tripling of a symbol indicates its plural. However, even the simplest hieroglyphic becomes more complicated when the way a picture faces also determines the meaning.  The complexity of hieroglyphics is predominantly due to a hieroglyph representing a single consonant which is completely unrelated to the picture that is depicted. For example

  • the picture of a horned viper could also represent the sound of an f

  • the picture of a snake could also represent the sound of dj

  • the picture of a lion could also represent the sound of an l

  • the picture of an owl could also represent the sound of an m

Occasionally one hieroglyph could stand for two or three sounds in combination. Further complexity arises as the Ancient Egyptians only used consonants in the hieroglyphics - vowels (a,e,i,o,u) were non existent. Because of the total lack of the use of vowels in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics reading a sentence in English, such as 'make the wine' would be read in hieroglyphics as 'mk th wn'. There were 24 such phonograms in the Ancient Egyptian alphabet.

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics - Hieratic Version
The use of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics made writing complex and was extremely difficult to learn as opposed to an alphabet. A simplified version of hieroglyphics was devised known as 'hieratic' which lost the pictorial aspect of hieroglyphs. The hieratic version or style of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics was used from the Old Kingdom up to the 8th century BC to speed up the process of creating documents. The hieratic version became even more stylized and speedier resulting in the demotic script.

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics
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