Artemission Studies Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Hieroglyphs – the picture writing of ancient Egypt, is the oldest writing system in the world. It predates the wedge-shaped cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia (Iraq) by about 50 to 100 years. Recently examples have been found that appear to date back to the middle of the fifth millennium BC. The earliest hieroglyphs are a series of rather schematic signs, known mainly from small ivory or wooden tags that had been attached to goods.

Hieroglyphs and the Modern Alphabet

The system evolved quite rapidly. It has no proper A-Z alphabet, although some of the signs are incorrectly referred to as an alphabet. There are signs for letters that correspond to modern letters, and many that are combinations of letters. In hieroglyphs there are no vowels, the signs are all consonants, and there is no punctuation. By tradition, Egyptologist insert a long ‘e’ in words between the consonants to make them easier to understand, e.g. the word for a god is ntr (and the hieroglyph for it is a flag on a pole), but it is usually written neter for ease.

The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek, meaning ‘sacred writing’. Hieroglyphs were used for all major inscriptions on temples, statues, wall paintings, etc, for over 3000 years. The latest known dated text in hieroglyphs is inscribed on the Gateway of Augusts in the temple of Isis on the island of Philae, and was cut in AD 394 during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305). After the fourth century AD the knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs, and their use, was lost. During the Middle Ages many people made attempts at translating them with no success. Some, such as the Italian scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), made quite outlandish and nonsensical attempts at translations.

The Rosetta Stone

It was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by an Egyptian artillery officer, P.F.X. Bouchard, at Rosette in 1798 during the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt, that led eventually to the ‘cracking of the code’. Bouchard realised that the Stone was of importance since it had three scripts cut on its odd-shaped surface. The first, uppermost one, of these was in hieroglyphs, the middle band was in demotic (a late cursive form of hieroglyphs that is extremely difficult to read), and the lower band was in Greek. This was immediately and easily read, identifying the Stone as being a decree of Ptolemy V put out in 196 BC.

Ink impressions taken from the Stone were sent to scholars around Europe, despite the raging Napoleonic wars. In England, Thomas Young, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a physicist, was intrigued by it, and it was he who carried out the basic research and interpretations that put the Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion on the right track. Champollion published his epoch-making findings and translations in 1822. Once this was done the floodgates of Egyptian temple inscriptions and papyri were opened. Between hieroglyphs proper and the later demotic, there is another script called hieratic – it is virtually a linear short-hand version of hieroglyphs written in ink from right to left and thus easier and quicker to use.


Hieroglyphs can be written (and read) from right to left or left to right, and also in columns. The translator reads into the way the humans and animals are facing – if they all face right, then the text reads from the right to left., and vice versa with columns, the same applies, but then the text is read downwards.

The finest hieroglyphic inscriptions are from the Middle Kingdom, c. 2000-1900 BC (the 11th and 12th Dynasties), and it is this period of the language and script that is usual taught.

You can find many authentic Egyptian items with hieroglyphs in the Egypt, Shabties and Scarabs categories at (Atticart Ltd.) is the leading antiquities gallery online. Starting the very first internet site dealing with authentic antiquities, Artemission specialise in ancient art from Egypt, the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, as well as Islamic Art and Ancient Coins.

Spread the love