ALRI Ancient Egypt Course
Unit 3: Egyptian Writing -- hieroglyphic, hieratic,
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An Egyptologist peers at his latest find.
Hieroglyphs appear to have developed from pictographs, and
hieratic script uses simplified hieroglyphs. During the
New Kingdom demotic script was developed for quicker work.
Examples of hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic writing.
The Rosetta Stone, an announcement by Ptolemy V reigned 202 -
181 BC), was inscribed in three scripts: hieroglyphic,
demotic, and Greek. There was never any doubt that the
stone would be the key to translating ancient Egyptian -- it
just took longer than expected.
The RosesttsStone was in British hands and the brilliant
British scientist, Thomas
working on breaking the ancient Egyptian code using
mathematical analysis of sign groups. Meanwhile, Jean
Francis Champollion (http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/champollion.htm)
was in Paris working on lithographs made by the French before
they lost the stone with the defeat of the French forces in
Egypt in 1801. Champollion was a linguist and used
principles of comparative linguistics basing his work on the
Coptic language that was still being used in Coptic Christian
religious ceremonies. (It's still used today -- some
Coptic scholars, i.e., scholars who are Copts, say they always
knew that Coptic was ancient Egyptian, but that the Europeans
never bothered to ask.) Champollion's comparative linguistics
method was, in the end, more successful than Thomas Young's
mathematical analysis, and Champollion is credited with
translating the Egyptian scripts in 1822.
Earlier work by Arabs and by Athanasius
Kircher, a German Jesuit who worked in Rome, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasius_Kircher)
had already established the link between Ancient Egyptian and
Coptic. One of the Arabs, Ibn
had deciphered the hieroglyph alphabet more than 800 years
Ibn Wahshiyya was one of the first historians to be able to at
least partly decipher what was written in the ancient Egyptian
hieroglyphs, by relating them to the contemporary Coptic
language used by Coptic priests in his time. An Arabic
manuscript of Ibn Wahshiyya's book Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham, a work that
discusses a number of ancient alphabets, in which he
deciphered a number of Egyptian hieroglyphs, was later read by
Athanasius Kircher in the 17th century, and then translated
and published in English by Joseph Hammer in 1806 with the
very long title Ancient
Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained; with an
Account of the Egyptian Priests, their Classes, Initiation,
and Sacrifices in the Arabic Language by Ahmad Bin Abubekr
Bin Wahishih, 16 years before Jean-François
Champollion's complete decipherment of Egyptian
hieroglyphs. This book was known to Silvestre de Sacy, a
colleague/competitor of Jean-François
Champollion. Dr Okasha El Daly, at University College
London's Institute of Archaeology, claims that some
hieroglyphs had been decoded by Ibn Wahshiyya, eight centuries
earlier than Champollion deciphered the Rosetta stone.
began his career at the British Museum in 1883 and stayed
until 1924 rising to the top job in his department, the Keeper
of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, in 1894. Except
among Egyptologists, he is most remembered today for his work
in classifying and teaching hieroglyphic writing.
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The most important man in the history of hieroglyphic writing
was, of course, the scribe.
The royal cartouche
got its name because members of Napoleon's expeditionary force
though it looked like their paper-wrapped cartridge -- cartouche in French
(meaning "paper-wrapped thingy").
By the way, the name in this cartouche, which we usually render as "Tut-ankh-amun", is
actually written "A-MUN-N /
T-U-T-ANKH / HAQ-AWNW-USU". That translates out
to "Tut, protected by
or endowed with life by (ankh)
Amun, Ruler (haq) of Heliopolis (awnw) (representing Lower
Egypt) and of Upper Egypt (usu)".
part, which is an honorific title that often appears in
cartouches, is usually just translated as "Ruler of Lower and
Upper Egypt". The name Tutankhamun is a modernism.
Champollion wasn't the first to guess that a cartouche would
contain a royal name, but he was the first (Westerner) to
figure out that the hieroglyphs inside the cartouche
represented sounds (phonemes) and then to connect the phonemes
into names that were known from other languages. This
page from his notebooks shows his translation of the name of
Cleopatra. He realized however, that translating Greek
names wasn't the same as translating Egyptian words.
The first cartouche that was translated was that of
Ptolemy (Ptolomeos), the issuer of the Rosetta Stone.
Champollion later transposed the last symbol (= s) into the
name of Ramesses.
One of the details that confused potential translators was
that there was no set way to spell anything in ancient
Egyptian: it was all based on sound and all sounds were
represented by multiple symbols.
Hieroglyphs could be written in either direction or in
columns, and the columns could also be arranged in either
direction. There could even be lines within the
columns. The trick is to look at the direction that most
of the people and animals are facing. Sometimes one or
more will be facing the wrong way (they are special
cases: departing or going back), but the majority will
be looking toward the beginning of the line.
Seti's Abydos temple contains one of the most reliable
hieroglyphic list of the cartouches of the pharaohs.
Champollion's list of hieroglyphic phonemes.
Hieroglyphic symbol cut in stone are a feature of temple
walls. These at Karnak are deeply incised. They
could also be done in raised relief.
Hieroglyphs in shallow relief at the Horus temple in Edfu.
Vignettes in a bureaucrat's tomb in Giza of an afterlife
journey are accompanied by spell formulas and reminders of how
to behave when greeting the gods.
A "cursive" style of scribal hieroglyphs was sometimes used in
A more detailed style was painted on walls as are these from
the tomb of Nefertari, the wife of Ramesses II, in the Valley
of the Queens.
An intermediate style from a tomb opposite Luxor. It was
all a matter of money -- how much were you able willing to
spend on your tomb decoration. Tombs were normally built
by their occupants, before their death.
Paint highlighted sculpted hieroglyphs.
Hieroglyphs weren't the only things cut in stone. This
relief shows a collection -- almost a catalog -- of medical
tools. The relief is thought
to be the oldest illustration of such items.
By the time of the New Kingdom, spells and images that had
previously been painted on the walls of elite tombs were being
copied into mass produced scroll sections that would be
stitched together and placed into tombs of all classes --
sometimes right in the sarcophagus with the mummy. They
varied in quality. In some cases mass produced sections
would be integrated with specially produced sections, so, even
internally, there could be a good deal of variation in
quality. One of the best quality "Books of the Dead" is
that of A scribe named Ani, although even this book (scroll)
has some lower quality insertions. It is done in several
scribal hands and it is clear that some of the vignettes were
mass produced: exact vignette copies in the same hands
are available. The hieroglyphic writings also were clearly
added after the vignette images were drawn: in some
places the hieroglyphic material is cramped and compressed to
fit and even is written in the margins. The Wallis
Budge translation and commentaries on the Book of the Dead
and, more specifically, on the Ani Papyrus is on the Internet
An example of hieratic script in the Onomasticon of
Amenemepet. The Onomasticon of Amenemipet (also known as
the "Onomasticon of Amenemope") is an onomasticon of late New
The Onomasticon of Amenemipet is the sole onomastic
composition that names its compiler and is the onomasticon
known from the greatest number of sources, from the Ramesside
period through the late Third Intermediate Period. Onomasticon is the
Latinized writing of a Greek word (plural: onomastica) used by
Egyptologists for ancient Egyptian compositions comprising
lists of words by category. These are not dictionaries or
explicit encyclopedia, because they do not include
explanations for the words. However, the order and selection
of words provide an implicit guide to the categories into
which the Egyptians divided the world. More information is
available on the Internet at http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/literature/onomastica.html
and at http://www.archaeowiki.org/Onomasticon_of_Amenemope,
which are the sources for the explanation above.
Hieratic writing from the Ebers medical papyrus. The
Ebers Papyrus (named for its purchaser) is a scroll 20.23
meters in length and contains 108 columns of text. It is dated
at the reign of Amenophis I (1536 B.C.). It is among the
most important ancient Egyptian medical papyri and is one of
two of the oldest preserved medical documents anywhere, the
other being the Edwin Smith papyrus (c. 1600 BC). Another
important medical papyrus is the Brugsch papyrus (c. 1300
BC). The Ebers papyrus was purchased at Luxor (Thebes)
in the winter of 1873–74 by Georg Ebers and is now in the
library of the University of Leipzig, Germany. More
information on the Papyrus and on Egyptian medical treatments
are at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebers_papyrus
and at http://www.egyptologyonline.com/Medicine.htm.
The best known example of demotic, the third ancient Egyptian
script, is the middle section of the Roestta Stone.
Champollion first deciphered the demotic text and then moved
on to the hieroglyphic text above it.
26th Dynasty demotic script. Old, Middle, and Late
Egyptian were all written using hieroglyphs and hieratic.
Demotic was written using a script derived from hieratic; its
appearance is vaguely similar to modern Arabic script and is
also written from right to left (although the two are not
Mummy tags were hung around the necks of mummies at the
embalming shop so that Mrs. Neferjudy wouldn't collect the
wrong body. This tag, however, is actually a tax receipt
written and signed by the tax collector on whatever came to
The last script in which the ancient Egyptian language was
written was the Coptic script. In essence, it was
ancient Egyptian written in the Greek uncial script (which has
long since been abandoned by the Greek language) with six
additional letters drawn from demotic script. The whole
of the Greek alphabet was adopted, and Greek letters that did
not correspond to Egyptian sounds were used as
numbers. The final count
of letters was 32, and neatly represented the Egyptian
language at the beginning of the first millennium AD. The word Copt
was originally from the Greek word "aiguptios", meaning
'Egyptian'. It was shortened to "guptios", then transmitted
into Arabic as "qopt", and finally back into Egyptian as
"coptos". As the name implies, the Coptic script
represented the Egyptian language just as Egyptian
hieroglyphics had done for 3000 years before. More information
on Coptic is on the Internet at http://www.omniglot.com/writing/egyptian_demotic.htm.
The most important set of Coptic documents from a modern
philologic viewpoint are those found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in
Egypt: for information on them, see http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/manuscripts/nag_hammadi.htm,
and at http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/naghammadi.htm.