Your guide to Egyptian hieroglyphs
Toby Wilkinson answers key questions about hieroglyphs, the mysterious script of the ancient Egyptians
Who invented hieroglyphs?
There is no knowing who invented it, but hieroglyphic writing probably originated at one of the rival royal courts in the late-fourth millennium BC, before Egypt was unified under the first dynasty. While the idea of writing may have been borrowed from Mesopotamia (where it had been developed centuries earlier), the hieroglyphic system was distinctively Egyptian.
When was hieroglyphic writing used?
It was used continuously over a period of over 3,500 years. The earliest surviving examples are small: bone labels inscribed with symbols, which were found in a tomb at Abydos and dated to c3150 BC. The last-known inscription was carved on the temple of Philae on 24 August AD 394.
Who wrote in hieroglyphs?
A small proportion of the ancient Egyptian population – perhaps only 5 or 10 per cent – was literate. Literacy was a key to power, and training as a scribe was a passport to high office, wealth and privilege.
How many hieroglyphic signs are there?
More than 700 different signs are known from ancient Egyptian inscriptions. Many of these were invented relatively late on, during the Ptolemaic period (305–30 BC), when each major temple developed its own unique system. For most of ancient Egyptian history, a smaller number of signs, around 200, were in common use.
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How are hieroglyphs written and read?
They could be written from left to right, right to left, or top to bottom: their arrangement was dictated by the space to be filled, and aimed to achieve a balanced and harmonious composition. Hieroglyphs are read “into the faces” of the animate signs: if the birds and animals face to the right, the inscription is read from right to left, and vice-versa.
How do hieroglyphs relate to other Egyptian scripts?
The fully formed monumental hieroglyphs that are most familiar to us were only used for formal inscriptions, carved into stone. For everyday documents, written in ink on papyrus, a joined-up or cursive version was developed; this script is termed hieratic. An even more abbreviated version called demotic, almost akin to shorthand, came into use by the seventh century BC for business and literary purposes.
Did other cultures use hieroglyphic writing?
The concept of using pictures and symbols as a means of conveying words is a feature of many writing systems, such as Chinese. In the ancient world, scripts termed as “hieroglyphic” were used by peoples as diverse as the Hittites of central Anatolia and the Mayans in central America. They were independent inventions, unrelated to the Egyptian hieroglyphics.
How to read hieroglyphics
Hieroglyphics can broadly be grouped into three types: phonetic (a picture representing sounds); logograms (symbolising a word or meaning); and the determinative. The latter accompanied another sign to clarify which of its many possible meanings was being used (so a determinative of three wavy lines confirms the preceding sign means “river”).
Here, Toby Wilkinson translates a section of hieroglyphic text from the Great Hymn to the Orb, written by Akhenaten in c1350 BC. In it, the pharaoh extols the power and beauty of the creator god, the orb of the sun.
The signs are read from right to left, and from top to bottom.
1. The first three signs spell out the letters “rmw” (“fish”), which is confirmed by the determinative of a fish symbol below. The three strokes indicate a plural.
2. The face means “hr” (“in” or “upon”) and the extra stroke is there to fill the space. The next group of four signs spell out the letters for “itrw” (“river”), which is confirmed by the three wavy lines (denoting water) and the rectangle (denoting a body of water).
3. There is another “hr” (which can also mean “in the action of”) and its accompanying stroke. The next three signs spell out the letters for “tft” (“leap”) – confirmed by the pair of legs (denoting movement) and cross (movement back and forth).
4. The wavy line spells “n” (“for”). Another “hr” and its accompanying stroke have the literal meaning “face”. The basket with a handle spells “k” (“your”).
Therefore, the meaning of blocks 1 to 4 is: “Fish in the river (are) leaping for your face”; or “Fish in the river leap in your presence”.
5. The first four signs spell ”stwt“ (”rays“), which is confirmed by the sign of a sun with three rays coming down. The three strokes next to the sun indicate the plural and, again, the basket means ”k“ (”your“).
6. The top sign spells “m” (“inside”), while the headless animal and wavy line spell “hn” (“interior”). The determinative sign of a house – the box with a gap (or entrance) at the bottom – indicates a location.
7. The cobra and papyrus-reed spell “wadj” (“green”), while the remaining group of three signs at the bottom spell “wri” (“great”). “Great-green” was the ancient Egyptian word for “sea”.
Blocks 5 to 7 literally read: “Your rays inside the interior (of) the great-green”; or “Your rays are in the midst of the sea”.
Toby Wilkinson is an Egyptologist and author. His books include A World Beneath the Sands: Adventurers and Archaeologists in the Golden Age of Egyptology (Picador, 2020)
This content first appeared in the October 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
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