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Egyptian Hieroglyphics

(and Hieratic, Demotic and Coptic)

See also: Minoan Hieroglyphics: The Phaistos Disk

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The Rosetta Stone
Overview of the Hieroglyphic Language Structure
History of the Language
The role of the scribe
The Book of the Dead
Numbers and Arithmetic
Dates, time and the seasons

The ancient Egyptians believed that writing was invented by the god Thoth and called their hieroglyphic script "mdwt ntr" (god's words). This article is not a primer in reading hieroglyphics but should give sufficient background to enhance a visit to Egypt, a visit to the British Museum, view a manuscript or indeed it will give a head start to anyone learning to decipher the script.

The Rosetta Stone

Decoding hieroglyphics became possible with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, a dark blue-pinkish-grey stele from the Ptolemaic era with an inscription carved into it. The inscription consisted of fourteen lines of hieroglyphs, thirty two lines of demotic, a derivative language from the hieroglyphics, and fourteen lines of Coptic (ancient Greek which is effectively the Egyptian script written with Greek characters). The stone carries the same script in each of the three languages. The stone was originally thought to be granite or basalt but is currently described as granodiorite. It is 114.4 centimetres (45 in) high, 72.3 centimetres (28.5 in) wide, and 27.9 centimetres (11 in) thick. It weighs approximately 760 kilograms (1,676 lb).

It was discovered in Rashid in 1799 by an officer in he French expeditionary force, and copies of the inscriptions were sent to Paris. By examining the Greek inscriptions on he stone, scholars were able to determine that it commemorated the coronation of Ptolemy V and that it had been commissioned in Memphis in the year 196 BCE. The French called Rashid “Rosetta”. The stone has been on display at The British Museum since 1802.

By comparing the Greek words, which could be read, and the Egyptian hieroglyphs and also using their knowledge of Coptic, scholars were able to translate Egyptian glyphs (A glyph is an element of writing).. Demotic is the second script inscribed on the Rosetta Stone. It was deciphered before the hieroglyphic script, starting with the efforts of Silvestre de Sacy. Egyptologists, linguists and papyrologists who specialise in the study of the Demotic script are known as Demotists.

Decipherment of the Hieroglyphic system was greatly assisted by the stone. The work was carried out by the British Thomas Young and the French scholar Jean-François Champollion. However, this was after many previous attempts at deciphering the stone had failed or only partly succeeded. The French linguist Jean-Francis Champollion obtained a copy in 1808 hen he was aged only eighteen. He was fluent in ancient Greek and because the three scripts on he stone are equivalent, he was able to match the hieroglyphs in cartouches (see below) to the Greek equivalent. The cartouches contained royal names which he was able to match to the equivalent Greek script for the royal names.

He found an inscription containing the name of Cleopatra and was able to match the symbols in the cartouche to characters in other parts of the tablet. At this pint he realised that the characters represented both sounds and ideas and he made his results public in 1822.

Overview of the Hieroglyphic Language Structure

Hieroglyphics are read from left to right, from right to left or vertically downwards but never upwards. The arrangement of glyphs was based partly on artistic considerations and sometimes the same script was repeated in both directions for symmetrical effect. Rather than simply use repeated lines as we do, the scribes tended to fill available space and arrange the lines for visual effect. If the script is horizontal you can tell the direction from the direction in which the characters, animal or human, face. They face the beginning of the line; in other words, if the characters are looking leftwards, the line starts on he left and runs to the right, and vice-versa. In the later Demotic script, the script runs either vertically downwards or left to right only.

A fairly consistent core of 700 glyphs was used to write Classical or Middle Egyptian (ca. 2000-1650 BC), though during the Greco-Roman eras (332 BC - ca. 400 AD) over 5,000 glyphs were in use. These glyphs alone could be used to write Ancient Egyptian and represent the first alphabet ever devised. In reality, they were seldom used in this way.

The glyphs have both semantic and phonetic values. For example, the glyph for crocodile is a picture of a crocodile and also represents the sound "msh". When writing the word for crocodile, the Ancient Egyptians combined a picture of a crocodile with the glyphs which spell out "msh". Similarly the hieroglyphs for cat, miw, combine the glyphs for m, i and w with a picture of a cat.

One thing which made translation initially difficult is the fact that sometimes the characters are pictograms of events or objects in the real world while at other times they are phonemes, in other words they represent sounds on form groups to create words and phrases. Early attempts at translation foundered because the translators did not realise this and expected the script to consist either of pictograms exclusively or of phonemes. We make a sharp distinction between pictures and text. Although they may appear in the same document and both add to the meaning, we regard them as substantially different kinds of entities. No such sharp distinction was made at the time the hieroglyphic texts were created; often a document or carving consists of one or more large pictures or relief-type sculptures, along with smaller pictograms and also pictures representing phonemes in groups to form words. The whole document then conveys meaning in various ways.

There are, in fact three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, which include single-consonant characters that function like an alphabet; then there are logographs which represent morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest linguistic unit which can represent meaning, and a morpheme may or may not stand on its own. An example in English of a morpheme which conveys meaning but only as a prefix to another word, is un-, as in untrue, unwise etc. Finally there are determinatives, which narrowed down the meaning of a logographic or phonetic words. Vowels were often omitted from written text unless omitting them would be confusing. This is rather like speedwriting or texting on a mobile phone. Names of Pharaohs appear in a bottle-shaped Cartouche (the French word for the rolls of paper used to hold powder for muskets, which is what members of the expeditionary force thought they looked like). known in ancient Egypt as the shenu (from the Egyptian word “sheni” meaning to encircle”. It was given the name cartouche by Napoleon’s expeditionary force in Egypt. A typical cartouche is shown on the right. Later, in demotic script, the cartouche became just a pair of parentheses and a vertical line.

Cartouches of Amon-Re (left) and Cleopatra

Incidentally, The word hieroglyph, representing a single hieroglyphic “word” officially became a noun in English on 26 Dec 2008.

The hieroglyphic Alphabet

History of the Language

Historians thought until recently that the Egyptians got the idea of writing from the Sumerians of Mesopotamia who had developed a writing system using pictures (pictograms). However, recent discoveries at Abydos have shown that the Egyptian use of pictograms pre-dates the Sumerian by several hundred years. Up until 1998, he first examples of written Egyptian which had been discovered dated from c. 3250 BC and were primarily used to record royal inventories. This is known as the Narmer Palette, found during excavations at Hierakonpolis (modern Kawm al-Ahmar) in the 1890s. However, in 1998 a German archaeological led by Günter Dreyer, which was excavating at Abydos (modern Umm el-Qa'ab) uncovered the tomb of a Pre-dynastic ruler. They unearthed three hundred clay labels inscribed with the precursors to hieroglyphs, dating from the 33rd century BC. The oldest complete sentence so far discovered was found on a seal impression in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen at Umm el-Qa'ab This dates from the Second Dynasty.

Historians divide the Egyptian language of antiquity into three periods, Old, Middle and Late Egyptian. Old Egyptian dates as c. 3180 to 2240 BCE and was used in official, funereal and biographical documents. Middle Egyptian is from 2240 to 1990- BC and was developed in literary compositions. Because it is grammatically consistent it is considered the best place for students to start. Finally late Egyptian, 1573 to 15 BCE is found in letters, inscriptions and official documents.

By the old kingdom (2625-2130 BC) written script was extensively used on religious and commemorative artefacts from temples and tombs to amulets and jewellery. The Greeks who ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great called this writing Hieroglyphic from the Greek words hieros meaning “sacred” and glyphe meaning “carving”. Hieroglyphic writing was in use for more than 3000 years until it fell into obscurity in the fourth century AD under Roman rule. In the era of the Old, Middle and New kingdoms about 800 hieroglyphs existed. By the Greco-Roman period, there were more than 5,000.

Hieratic Script

Hieratic script

A simplified form of Hieroglyphics called Hieratic came into use in the old kingdom. It was a cursive writing system, first used by Saint Clement of Alexandria in the second century AD, and at that time hieratic was used only for religious texts, Cursive is any style of handwriting that is designed for writing down notes and letters quickly by hand. It is also used in the Arabic, Latin and Cyrillic languages the letters in a word are connected, making a word one single complex stroke – what we often call “joined-up writing”.. In fact, the word comes from the Latin cursivus, meaning "flowing" It developed alongside Hieroglyphics and was a kind of shorthand used for administrative purposes. The name comes from the Greek “hieratikos” meaning “priestly”. Hieratic is read in columns downwards, or in rows reading from left to right only.

Hieratic script was primarily written in ink with a reed brush on papyrus. This allowed scribes to write quickly without resorting to the time consuming hieroglyphs. as they had for the previous thousand years. Alternatively, the script was incised on the surface of pottery before or after firing. The use of a reed brush and the writing surface modified the forms of signs, so that while many remain close to hieroglyphics, many changed so much that the hieratic script is no longer recognisably the hieroglyphic script.

Demotic Script

A fragment of Demotic script

A more rapid form of writing, Demotic, from the Greek “demotikos” meaning “popular”, came into use c. 712 BCE and it was used in secular writing. The name was given to it by Herodotus and the most recent example of writing in the Demotic script dates from 11 December 452 AD, and consists of a graffito on the walls of the temple of Isis on Philae.. Demotic refers to either the ancient Egyptian script derived from northern forms of hieratic used in the Delta, or the stage of the Egyptian language following Late Egyptian and preceding Coptic. The script was used for over a thousand years, and during that time a number stages of developmental occurred.

The name “Demotic” was introduced by the Greek historian Herodotus to distinguish it from hieratic and hieroglyphic scripts. Herodotus of Halicarnassus (Greek: ???d?t?? ????a???sse?? Heródotos Halikarnasseús) was a Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC (c. 484 BC to c. 425 BC) and is regarded as the "Father of History" in Western culture. He was the first historian to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative.

Conventionally, the word "Demotic" is capitalized to distinguish it from demotic Greek. It was referred to by the Egyptians as "document writing", while the Second century scholar Clement of Alexandria called it "letter writing,". Early Western scholars referred to it as “Enchorial” Egyptian.

Demotic is a development of Late Egyptian and shares much with the later Coptic phase of the Egyptian language. In the earlier stages of Demotic, such as those texts written in the Early Demotic script, it probably represented the spoken idiom of the time. However the written language began to diverge more and more from the spoken form. Eventually iy was used only for literary and religious purposes,

Demotic alphabet – the glyphs representing single consonants

Early Demotic

Early Demotic (often referred to by the German term Frühdemotisch) developed in Lower Egypt during the later part of the 25th Dynasty, particularly on stelae (stones or wooden slabs, generally taller than they are wide, erected for funerals or commemorative purposes, most usually decorated with the names and titles of the deceased or living) from the Serapeum at Saqqara. It is generally dated between 650 and 400 BC as most texts written in Early Demotic are dated to the 26th Dynasty and the following Persian period (the 27th Dynasty). After the reunification of Egypt under Psametik I, Demotic replaced Abnormal Hieratic in Upper Egypt, particularly during the reign of Amasis when it became the official administrative and legal script. During this period, Demotic was used only for administrative, legal, and commercial texts, while hieroglyphs and hieratic were reserved for other texts.

Middle (Ptolemaic) Demotic

Shown left is an Ostracon (a fragment of pottery or stone broken off from a vase or other earthenware vessel) with Demotic inscription, probably from Thebes in the Ptolemaic dynasty, c. 305-30 BC. It is a prayer to the god Amun to heal a man's blindness.

Middle Demotic (circa 400–30 BC) is the stage of writing used during the Ptolemaic Period (305 BC to 30 BC). From the fourth century BC onwards, Demotic was increasingly used for literary and religious texts. By the end of the third century BC, Greek had become the administrative language of the country; Demotic contracts lost most of their legal force unless there was a note in Greek of being registered with the authorities.

Late (Roman) Demotic

From the beginning of Roman rule in Egypt, Demotic was used less and less in public life. However, a number of literary texts were written in Late Demotic (circa 30 BC–452 AD), especially from the first and second centuries AD, though the quantity of all Demotic texts decreased rapidly towards the end of the second century. After that, Demotic was only used for a few ostraca, subscriptions to Greek texts, mummy labels, and graffiti. The last dated example of the Demotic script, as mentioned above, is dated to 11 December 452 AD, and consists of a graffito on the walls of the temple of Isis on Philae.

Coptic Script

A fragment of Coptic

A fourth form was Coptic, this was effectively Egyptian written with the Greek alphabet but it retained seven characters from the Egyptian. This greatly facilitated the decipherment of the Rosetta stone. While earlier forms of Egyptian used consonants only, Coptic incorporated vowels which helped in understanding the pronunciation of the spoken word. The earliest Coptic text, from the first and second centuries AD, are magical texts. In 313 BC. Alexander the Great invaded Egypt. He wanted toi establish a unioversal language and this would be be the Greek or Hellenistic one.

Tthe Greeks learned their writing system from the Egyptians through the Phoenicians, traders and frequent travelers in the ancient world. The Phoenicians imported the Egyptian script and worked it into an alphabet with a much smaller number of characters, all of which were pronounceable and they were all consonants. Through trading with the Greeks the Phoenecians passed their version of the Egyptian writing system on to the Greeks. They in turn revised its orthography and added a number of written vowels. This system eventually became the basis for the new Egyptian script, Coptic. In script, Greek was far superior to Demotic . It had 24 pronounceable characters rather than over 400 symbols in Demotic, only a few of which represented sounds while the others were ideograms.

An interesting effect of the arrival of the Greek language was that the priests lost much of their power and influence. Because the Greek characters were pronounceable, there was no need for people to pay priests to interpret, for instance, the inscriptions on amulets.

Christianity was formally introduced to Egypt by St. Mark the Evangelist, who came to Alexandria in the middle of the first century AD. with his uncle St. Barnabas. The language problem faced by the early missionaries was the uniformity of the message to be given to the Egyptians.

The missionaries could read Greek but not Demotic. The Egyptian peasants couldn’t read either but they understood the sounds of the written Demotic script. To ensure that the Word of God, written in the Scriptures, was the same way by the different missionaries, it had to be written in a way that the missionaries could read and the Egyptians could understand when it was read to them. So the missionaries translated the Scriptures into the Egyptian tongue but written with Greek characters. Initially they did not use any Demotic characters at all but eventually. the shortcomings of that system were realized and they added six or seven Demotic characters which have survived in the Sahidic and Bohairic dialects.

After the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 640 to 642, Arabic largely replaced Coptic in Egypt.


To make papyrus, the outer rind is stripped off the stem of the plant, and the inner pith which is sticky and fibrous is cut lengthwise into thin strips about two feet long. These are placed side by side with their edges slightly overlapping, and then another layer of strips is laid across them.

The strips were soaked in water to make them pliable. While still moist, the two layers were hammered together, squeezing the layers into a single sheet. After this the sheets were dried under pressure and polished with a smooth stone. To form a long scroll, several sheets were joined.

Texts were first written on the recto, the lines following the fibres, parallel to the long edges of the scroll. However, papyrus was often reused, writing across the fibres on the verso.

In Egypt’s dry climate papyrus lasted a long time but in more humid conditions such as exist in Europe, it is rapidly attacked by mould and it decays, seldom lasting more than 200 years.

Papyrus Growing in
Kew Gardens

The Role of the Scribe

From the age of seven, boys from the upper echelons of Egypt’s society attended school in the temple where they were taught to write, either on gypsum coated wooden writing boards or on shards of pottery. Further education in the form of an apprenticeship was, it is believed, embarked on from the age of thirteen to fifteen. The most prestigious positions went to those who embarked on apprenticeships for the military or for administrative positions as scribes. Scribes could aspire to high positions and some were even worshipped as gods, such as Imhotep, architect of the Saqquara pyramid and Amenhotep who supervised the most extensive building program ever undertaken in Egypt.

Thoth was the god of writing nd knowledge and was believed by the Egyptians to have revealed to man the divine secrets of hieroglyphic writing. Scribes wrote on many materials – bone, ivory, linen, clay, etc. But most commonly on papyrus. Either they used small fragments of papyrus or long rolls often several metres in length. Papyrus was usually stored in jars or boxes. The black pigments were carbon based; the red based on iron oxide and ochre. Pens and brushes were made from reeds or slivers of wood.

The Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead was a guide-book for negotiating the route through the underworld after death, and dealing with the various traps, demons and obstacles encountered on the route to becoming one with Osiris.

The often-heard cliché that the Egyptians were preoccupied with death is an over-simplification. While they regarded death and the afterlife as having great significance, they regarded images of death as having negative connotations and generally avoided such symbolism, although references to burial and bereavement ae occasionally made. However, amulets containing extracts from the Book of the Dead were often made to protect the living from the dead. Also, it was believed that a happy afterlife was reserved mostly for royalty and that for most people, there was little to look forward to beyond a shadowy existence in the grave. Mummification reached the peak of its sophistication in the new kingdom and the embalming process took seventy days. Later, the practice declined.

Hunefer's heart being weighed against the feather of truth, from the Papyrus of Hunefer
If his heart is lighter than the feather, he is allowed to pass into the afterlife.

A typical chapter from the book of the dead:

Making The Transformation Into The Crocodile-God

The Osiris Ani, whose word is truth, saith:- I am the Crocodile-god, Sebak who dwelleth amid his terrors. I am the Crocodile-god and I seize [my prey] like a ravening beast. I am the great Fish which is in Kamui. I am the Lord to whom bowings and prostrations are made in Sekhem. And the Osiris Ani is the lord to whom bowings and prostrations are made in Sekhem.

(From the Papyrus of Nebseni)

Behold, I am the dweller in his terrors, I am the crocodile, his firstborn. I bring (prey) from a distance. I am the Fish of Horus, the Great One in Kamui. I am the lord of bowings in Sekhem.

Numbers and Arithmetic

The Egyptian counting system was on base 10 as is our own. There were symbols for 1, 10, 100, 1000 and so on (see below). Intermediate numbers did not have symbols but were shown by repetition, e.g., the number 6 was 111111. Alternatively, a series of strike marks could be placed after the sign.

Arithmetic was principally a process of addition and subtraction. Multiplication, for example was carried out by repeat addition, for instance, 6 x 3 = 6 + 6 + 6.

The number symbols were as shown on the left.


The unit of measurement was the cubit, the distance between elbow and fingertips, a distance of about twenty inches. This was subdivided into seven palms, each being about three inches. A palm was broken down into four finger widths.

Liquids were measured by the hin, about a pint, while grain measurements were based on a unit called the hekat, ten hin or ten pints. The unit of weight was the deben, just over two pounds or just under one kilogram. This was divided into ten qites.

The seasons, dates and time measurement

The Nile Delta

Many ancient cultures were skilful at naked-eye astronomy. They needed this skill for navigation not only at sea but also on land. Many artefacts, including the pyramids, appear to have a function as astronomical clocks or observatories.

However, to the Egyptians, the yearly cycle was seen much more in terms of the seasonal agricultural cycle. The flooding of the Nile was critical for agriculture and if it failed, widespread famine resulted. The ancient Egyptians did not realise that the flood resulted from the heavy summer rains in the Ethiopian highlands. Instead it was seen by the Egyptians as a yearly coming of the god Hapi, bringing fertility to the land These rains swelled the different tributaries and other rivers flowing into the Nile. This happened yearly, between June and September, in a season the Egyptians called akhet - the inundation.. The year began with the first day of Akhet, when Sirius first appears in the morning sky around the 19th of July.

The first signs of the inundation were seen at Aswan by the end of June, reaching its swelling to its fullest at Cairo by September. The flood would begin to ebb about two weeks later, leaving behind a deposit of rich, black silt. The height of the Nile inundation determined the amount of silt left behind, and this in turn determined the amount of crops that the Egyptians could grow - if the inundation was too low, it would be a year of famine.

The Egyptians divided the year into three seasons. Inundation (flooding) which lasted from mid July to mid November was known to the Egyptians as the season called akhet. Winter followed and lasted to mid March. This was followed by summer, the time of gathering the harvest. Nileometers measured the level of the flood and the size of the harvest could be inferred from the readings.

The year was also divided into twelve months, each consisting of three ten-day weeks (decans), giving a total of 360 days. The remaining five days of the year were assigned to the birthdays of the gods Osiris, Set, Isis, Nephthys and Horus, and were considered to be the days they spent on earth. The remaining quarter of a days was accommodated by a leap-year system similar to the system we have today, a day being added to the year once every four years. The idea of he “leap year” was introduced in the Ptolemaic period (305BCE to CE30) and was copied from Babylonia.

Another system of reckoning was based on the feast days, 54 during the reign of Tuthmosis III and 60 during the reign of Rameses III.

Time was calculated very accurately, with each day divided into 12 hours of light and dark, each with its own name. The sun symbol is the determinative for “day” while a star or moon symbol represents phases of the night. Water clocks were in common use, the clock consisting of a jar with a small hole allowing the water to trickle out in exactly twelve hours.

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© Ken James 2008