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Deciphering the History, Symbols and Sounds of Egyptian Hieroglyphics

Hieroglyphs
Hieroglyphic inscriptions and relief on a wall of the the Temple of Seti I at the archaeological site of Abydos near Egypt's southern city of Sohag, near Cairo. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

In 196 B.C.E., 13-year-old Ptolemy V was crowned King of Egypt. One year later, the priestly council of Memphis — an ancient Egyptian river city — commemorated the occasion (and affirmed his royal cult) by issuing a routine decree.

Their words were carved onto a granodiorite rock slab in three different scripts. Toward the bottom, the message appears in ancient Greek. Halfway up, we see it expressed in Demotic, a popular handwriting system the Egyptians had used for over a thousand years, from the seventh century B.C.E. until the fifth century C.E.

Then, up at the very top, the council's decree was written out again in an intricate, endlessly fascinating collection of symbols: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

French engineers rediscovered a large chunk of this slab in 1799 C.E. (alas, the rest has been lost to the ages). Since it turned up in Rashid, Egypt, formerly called "Rosetta," the artifact became known as the "Rosetta Stone."

hieroglyphs
Discovered by Napolean's troops in 1799, the Rosetta Stone is a rock stele (a stone or wooden slab erected in the ancient world as a monument) inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 C.E. on behalf of King Ptolemy V. The decree appears in three scripts; this is the upper section, written in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Perennially, it's the most popular exhibit at the British Museum in London, England. And for good reason: The Rosetta Stone helped scholars decipher Egypt's long-mysterious hieroglyphic system.

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Ancient Wonders

Janet Johnson is a professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago and the director of the Chicago Demotic Dictionary Project. "The hieroglyphic writing system was developed in the early dynasties of Egyptian history, before 3000 B.C.E.," she tells us in an email. It stuck around for quite a while; the last known hieroglyphic inscriptions were made at the Temple of Isis at Philae in about 394 CE.

Sometimes, the script was chiseled into rock (as in the Rosetta Stone's case). It could also be painted onto temple walls or on ancient metals and ceramics.

Any writing system that lasts for thousands of years is bound to inspire derivatives. And this one was no exception.

Hieroglyphs look terrific on monuments, but they were ill-suited for everyday use. Enter Hieratic, a simplified cursive script based on Egyptian hieroglyphics. First introduced in the Old Kingdom (which lasted from 2700 to 2200 B.C.E.), it went through a few different iterations over the millennia.

According to Johnson, Hieratic was committed to papyrus and ostraca; the latter were basically notepads made of pottery shards and limestone fragments. Hieratic wasn't the only alternative to hieroglyphics. Says Johnson, it was later "supplemented by ... [Demotic] in the middle of the first millennium, B.C.E."

Meanwhile, she notes that "hieroglyphics continued to be used for their decorative, as well as communicative value, on limestone monuments" such as temples and tombs.

hieroglyph
Hieroglyphics from the Temple of Khnum in Esna, Egypt.
DEA/C.SAPPA/De Agostini/Getty Images

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Talking It Out: Symbols and Sounds

About 25 symbols in the Egyptian hieroglyphic "alphabet" denote specific sounds. "But very few words were written purely alphabetically," cautions Johnson.

Context is king; some signs were used to express ideas rather than sounds. On one tomb that was made sometime between about 2181 and 1640 B.C.E., a jackal is pictured sitting atop a shrine — just to the right of three other symbols.

This jackal sign acted as a "determinative." Its purpose was to tell the reader that the preceding symbols collectively mean "Anubis," the name of an Egyptian god. Plus, a few of the hieroglyphic signs are "biliteral" or "triliteral." As Johnson tells us, these indicate "two or three sounds in a specific order." (E.g., "R+N" versus "N+R.")

Altogether, hundreds of Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols are known.

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The Advent of Rome

With the possible exception of King Tutankhamun, none of ancient Egypt's rulers or co-rulers are as well-known today as Cleopatra VIII. A famous alliance with Mark Anthony of Rome put her on the losing side of a Roman Civil War — and in consequence, Cleopatra took her own life in 30 B.C.E.

Once the dust settled, her homeland became a province of the Roman Empire.

"The hieroglyphic writing system and its derivatives ... were replaced by Greek as an administrative language during the Roman occupation," says Johnson.

Then, as Christianity took hold across Egypt, the hieroglyphic system fell into disuse. So did the Hieratic and Demotic scripts it inspired.

"The spoken language continued in the Egyptian Christian church (where it is called Coptic)," Johnson explains. "Coptic is still used as a liturgical language in the church, but it is written in the Greek alphabet, supplemented by some signs from Demotic for sounds in the Egyptian language which were not found in the Greek language."

But what became of the neglected hieroglyphics? Well, for centuries, their decipherment was a forgotten art.

Historians who longed to make sense of them finally caught a big break when the Rosetta Stone popped up. Decoding the 44 by 30-inch (112 by 76-centimeter) slab was an project that took scholars Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion two decades to complete. And Egyptology would never be the same.

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