Next to the pyramids, the Sphinx and mummies, one of the most intriguing discoveries from ancient Egyptian civilization is a form of writing that appears like stylized pictures of people, animals and objects. Hieroglyphic writing, whose name comes from hieroglyphikos, the Greek word for “sacred carving,” has been found carved into stone walls more than 5,000 years ago, and was used up until the 4th century A.D.
The Egyptians adorned the insides of their temples, monuments and tombs with hieroglyphic writing and wrote it on papyrus, an ancient paper made from reeds.
Below are nine key facts about hieroglyphic writing.
1. Hieroglyphics uses pictures, but it isn’t picture writing.
Because the symbols used in hieroglyphic writing look like little pictures of people, animals and objects, it’s easy to assume that the hieroglyphs represent those things. Instead, some hieroglyphs signify sounds in the ancient Egyptian language, just as the characters in the Roman alphabet do. Others are ideographic signs, which represent concepts but don’t have a sound attached.
2. Hieroglyphic writing is linked to elite tombs.
“The earliest hieroglyphic writing is commonly found on grave goods found in royal tombs at Abydos that precede the historical period,” explains Peter F. Dorman, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. “Since hieroglyphs are pictorial, the link with early formal art is indelible, especially the representation of the king with his royal titulary, which can be seen on commemorative monuments placed in the earliest temples.”
Though the system was eventually used for other types of writing, hieroglyphs never lost their initial connection with elite contexts in commemorative settings like temples and tombs, Dorman explains.
People who weren’t royals also sometimes used hieroglyphics in their private tombs and monuments, provided they were wealthy enough to afford the services of stone carvers.
3. Ancient Egyptians used other forms of writing.
Because hieroglyphic writing was so complicated, the ancient Egyptians developed other types of writing that were more convenient. Hieratic writing, a cursive script that was written on papyrus with a pen or brush, or upon a piece of limestone called an ostracon was invented for use primarily on papyrus, a more fragile material. But, Dornan says, it rarely made the jump to formal monuments. Demotic, another form of writing that was developed in the 800s B.C., was used for everyday documents, as well as for literary works.
4. Hieroglyphic writing has odd quirks.
Hieroglyphic writing doesn’t have any spaces between the words, and there’s no punctuation. That means that readers have to have a good grasp of ancient Egyptian grammar and know something about the context of a message in order to be able to tell individual words, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and chapters apart. Additionally, unlike modern English, hieroglyphics aren’t necessarily read horizontally from left to right. Hieroglyphics could be written either from 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 Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. “Inscriptions that were meant to have a larger audience were carved 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 B.C., Greek replaced Egyptian as the official court language. About 600 years later, in 384 A.D., the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius approved a decree that banned pagan religion from being practiced in Egypt, which was the beginning of the end for the use of hieroglyphics, according to author Stephane Rossini.
By the time that the last known hieroglyphic writing was carved into the Philae Temple in 394 A.D. there probably were few Egyptian sculptors left who even could understand what they were being asked to carve into the walls, as Hilary Wilson writes in Understanding Hieroglyphs: A Compete 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 writing in three different scripts—hieroglyphic writing, demotic and ancient Greek. The three languages engraved upon a single stone enabled researchers to decipher the hieroglyphic writing.
British scientist Thomas Young, who began studying the stone in 1814, first deduced that some of the symbols were phonetic spellings of royal names. Then, between 1822 and 1824, French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion was able to show that hieroglyphics 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 B.C.
“Ultimately Champollion had the upper hand, thanks to his deep study of Coptic, which is the latest phase of the Egyptian language,” Dorman explains. That knowledge “allowed him to recognize grammatical features that had escaped Young.”
8. Deciphering hieroglyphic writing remains a challenge.
Figuring out the meaning of texts written in hieroglyphic writing remains a big challenge for scholars, and requires a certain amount of subjective interpretation. Even reading them aloud isn’t easy.
“It’s not so much the usage of phonetic signs that makes translations challenging, but rather the fact that the full vocalization of ancient Egyptian is not written out,” Dorman says. “So the pronunciation of words and especially the intricacies of the Egyptian verbal system remain topics of conjecture.”