Facts about Hieroglyphics
What is Hieroglyphics?
Hieroglyphics, in Greek literally means 'sacred carvings,' was originally used in the ancient Egyptian times. Instead of using letters and words, as we do today, they used pictures of common objects that would portray what they wanted to say. In some cases the drawings would stand for a phonetic sound just like our letters are used today. In other cases hieroglyphics would be a very literal and sometimes symbolic interpretation. They were used to tell their stories, beliefs, and even gossip. The more hieroglyphics we find, the more we can understand about Ancient Egypt.
A History of the Egyptian Writing
Hieroglyphics are the oldest form of written language. The earliest use of hieroglyphics is dated back to 3100 BC; therefore, that is the best guess as to when written language began being used.
The earliest form of hieroglyphics looks much like what we are most familiar with, when we think of Egyptian writing, although there are other forms. Heriatic is one such form. It was used much like today's cursive is used with less lines and pictures joining in the next. This was most often the form used by scribes or others that wrote a lot, since it was much quicker to write using this form.
In 600, hieroglyphics began being phased out and was being replaced by demotic. Demotic is much more similar as to how we write today.
The final form of hieroglyphics the Egyptians used was Coptic. Coptic was a combination of demotic symbols and the Greek alphabet. By the third century A.D., when the Egyptians were writing Coptic, hieroglyphs were no longer used. Coptic was replaced by Arabic in the 13th Century A.D.
Translations: What Does It Mean?
For many years, no one had any way of deciphering anything that was written in hieroglyphics. In 1799 that changed, when a Frenchman found a stone that had three different kinds of writings. This stone was found near Rosetta; therefore, was referred to as the Rosetta Stone. It contained Egyptian hieroglyphics, Greek, and demotic. Since they were able translate Greek, they used the Greek writing as a guide to better understand hieroglyphs.
Although for centuries prior, many had seen hieroglyphs, but did not know what they meant. The difficulty in interpreting hieroglyphs occurred because they use three different ways to write within the same text. Egyptian scribes may use the drawings literally, figuratively, or even phonetically. Literally would be a drawing of an eye meaning an 'eye.' Figuratively, they may draw an eye to mean 'to see.' If they spoke the English language, the same drawing may be used phonetically to use the phonetic sound of 'i.' Despite this example, they do not use vowel sounds in their writing, nor do they use spaces, or punctuation. Fortunately, they often used the same words at the end of sentences, which were referred to as determinatives. Determinatives make interpreting hieroglyphs a tad easier.
Another complication in translating ancient hieroglyphics is because they did not always write in the same fashion. Sometimes they would write from left to right, much like we do, and even top to bottom. Then other times they would write right to left, which could be confusing when interpreting hieroglyphics.
Types of Hieroglyphics
We use 26 letters in our written language, whereas Egyptians had more than 700 hieroglyphs that they regularly used in their everyday writing. Within these 700 hieroglyphs, there were three types of characters; picto-ideograms, phonograms, and directives.
Picto-ideograms: Picto-ideograms may be more commonly known as word signs, which were the earliest type of hieroglyphs. Each hieroglyph in this type is referred to as a pictograph or an ideogram. Pictographs were a literal translation of the object depicted and was most common in the earliest writings. Ideograms were used later to represent the qualities an object symbolized. For example, a drawing of a lion can mean either a lion if used as a pictogram, or courage if used as an ideogram.
Phonograms: Phonograms are sound symbols much like our letters. These were developed after the picto-ideograms. They represent around 100 of the hieroglyphs known, although there are 24 that are mainly used. These 24 are referred to as the hieroglyphic alphabet. Despite having a hieroglyphic alphabet, they still used picto-ideograms, combining the two; intermingling them within the same sentence. Therefore, it is not realistic to only learn these 24 figures, since they would only let you read a portion of any hieroglyphic writings.
Determinatives: Determinatives were the third type of hieroglyphics used in ancient Egypt and could be thought of as a guide to meaning. They are key when translating hieroglyphics, since every thought ended in a determinative. This would often explain what the previous writings were discussing, for instance a "sentence" may end in a picture of a person, which allows the reader to know that the writing was discussing the person it depicted in the determinative. This also allowed the reader, and the translator to know that the thought ended.
Most Famous Examples
Hieroglyphics were written wherever a scribe or Egyptian layperson could find to write. Scientists have found hieroglyphs on papayra (much like paper), tomb walls, stone of great monuments, as well as little slabs of rock that had gossip and rumors written on them. Here are some of the most important hieroglyphics that scientists have found, which have helped greatly in learning the history of ancient Egypt.
Rosetta Stone: One of the most famous hieroglyphs was found near Rosetta, near the Nile Delta; they named it the Rosetta Stone as a result. It is dated back to 196 BC. As stated earlier, it helped in learning how to translate hieroglyphics. The stone was found by a French officer in 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte went on an expedition through Egypt. It was not until 1814, when Thomas Young, a British Linguist, used the stone and the three languages written on it to begin the translation of hieroglyphics.
King Tut's Tomb: King Tut's Tomb with over 3500 artifacts was a place rich with history. On many of the walls, the tomb, the artifacts, hieroglyphs were written. Each wall of the tomb itself held a different theme. A funeral procession was depicted on the east wall. The south wall showed King Tut's arrival in the Underworld. Then the north wall depicted King Tutankhamen's entrance into the afterlife. This representation shows a lot about how they felt about the afterlife, which gives us great insight into the beliefs of ancient Egypt.
Cleopatra's Needle: Cleopatra's Needle is a misnomer, since for one there are three obelisks not one as the name implies, and none of them were constructed during Cleopatra's reign. Yet, they are filled with hieroglyphs and give us a lot of insight into ancient Egypt. One of the needles was actually constructed in the Pharaoh Tuthmose III reign. This one now resides in London, where it can be viewed. The others are in New York and Paris. These tombs have writings that tell about the Egyptian gods.
Through hieroglyphics, we are able to understand a great deal about ancient Egypt, from how rulers ruled, what workers did, and which gods were the most prized. They started over five thousand years ago, yet we still have evidence of this writing today. We also can view many of these interesting drawings in museums throughout the world.
- Ancient Scripts: Egyptian. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://www.ancientscripts.com/egyptian.html.
- Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://www.king-tut.org.uk/ancient-egypt/ancient-egyptian-hieroglyphics.htm.
- The Tomb. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://www.king-tut.org.uk/king-tut-treasures-exhibits/the-tomb.htm.
© 2012 Angela Michelle Schultz