Decoding Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Exploring the world of Epigraphy

By Macquarie University

Bree Kelly, Dr Brian Ballsun-Stanton, Dr Alexandra Woods

Sihel rock inscription (2015) by Susanne BinderMacquarie University

What is Epigraphy?

The history of ancient Egypt has intrigued the world for centuries. Their monumental structures, captivating art, and rich religion are studied through their architecture, writing and reliefs. The documentation and study of ancient reliefs and writing is known as epigraphy.

Professor Boyo Ockinga with students (2015) by Susanne BinderMacquarie University

Scholarship

Scholars from many different places, cultures, and time periods have recorded and studied ancient Egyptian inscriptions, from the Greco-Roman scholars of the Classical period, to the Arab scholars of the Medieval era and the European scholars of the 19th century and beyond. 

In particular, the mysterious hieroglyphs puzzled scholars for centuries.

LIFE Photo Collection

Herodotus 2.36.4, A/Prof Evans, direction of Egyptian text
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Greco-Roman Attempts

The attempts of Greco-Roman scholars to determine the nature of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs have been well documented. These scholars, however, understood the hieroglyphic signs to represent a single concept, acting as symbols, rather than letters from an alphabet. They were not the only culture to make this mistake.

Herodotus 2.36.4, A/Prof Evans, types of Egyptian text
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Herodotus

The 5th century Greek historian Herodotus claimed that the Egyptians wrote in the opposite direction to that of the Greeks, and used two kinds of script, called 'sacred' and 'Demotic'. The Egyptians actually wrote in many different directions, and had more than just two scripts.

Sheet from the Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus D'OrbineyBritish Museum

Medieval Arab Attempts

Following in the footsteps of the Classical writers before them, Arab writers of the Medieval era were fascinated by Egyptian hieroglyphs and made admirable efforts to decipher the language.

In fact, some Arab writers were able to correctly identify several hieroglyphic signs, as well as the three variants of Egyptian script: Demotic, Hieratic, and Hieroglyphs.

Top Afri (N) Egypt Cairo Engravings Only 6LIFE Photo Collection

Medieval Egyptian Attempts

Egyptians were just as involved in the study of ancient inscriptions. For example, the 9th century Egyptian scholar Ayub Ibn Maslama is believed to have had a great knowledge of ancient Egyptian scripts and may have translated a number of texts from pyramids and other monuments.

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European Attempts

European attempts to understand the complex system of hieroglyphs were informed by the efforts of those Arab scholars who came before, although this has often been under-documented. European expeditions in Egypt were carried out by various scholars from the 18th century, yielding invaluable information on ancient Egyptian inscriptions.

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Karl Richard Lepsius

The German scholar Karl Richard Lepsius led one of the most extensive expeditions into Egypt in the early 19th century. The three-year expedition yielded one of the most comprehensive epigraphic works, revered as one of the richest and most accurate corpora to be produced even to this day.

The Rosetta Stone (-196/-196)British Museum

Jean-Franҫois Champollion

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte led a military campaign into Egypt, during which the famous Rosetta Stone was discovered.

The stone contained text written in three languages: Greek, Demotic, and Hieroglyphs. The French scholar Jean-François Champollion studied the inscriptions and using his knowledge of Demotic and Greek, deciphered the hieroglyphs in 1822.

Kristian Vertes tracing (2018) by Kristian VertesMacquarie University

Epigraphic Recording Methods

Early methods of recording inscriptions involved varying techniques, such as tracing, sketching, and making a collection of squeezes, which are made by pressing damp filter paper onto the inscription surface. The use of photography in epigraphy was not introduced until the 1890’s with the introduction of the Chicago House Method.

Illuminating and Shading Inscriptions at Abu Simbel (1906-01/1906-02) by James Henry BreastedOriental Institute Museum

The Chicago House Method

In the 1890’s James Henry Breasted developed a method of recording (the Chicago House Method) that involved using large-format photography. These photographs were produced in combination with line drawings and corrections were made to the photographs themselves onsite. This pioneering method ensured that all relevant details were captured as accurately as possible.

Kristian Vertes penciling on tablet (2018) by The Epigraphic Survery of the Oriental Institute, Univeristy of ChicagoMacquarie University

Digital Epigraphy

Epigraphy has evolved greatly over the many years it has been practiced. From tracing inscriptions on tomb walls using paper and pencil, to tracing digital images using a graphic tablet and computer program, Egyptologists seek to use the most effective tools and techniques to get the job done. Visit digitalEPIGRAPHY to see more.

Professor Ockinga within tomb of Harkhuf (2015) by Susanne BinderMacquarie University

Epigraphy Today

Epigraphy has developed rapidly since the inception of Breasted’s Chicago House Method and with the development of more and more sophisticated technological and digital tools, Egyptologists can study inscriptions and reliefs in ever more intuitive ways.

Screenshot of Fabricius Workbench (2020) by Google Arts and CultureMacquarie University

Epigraphy of the Future

With the use of a technology called photogrammetry entire wall scenes can be captured and recorded as one image, and there are even computer programs that can help translate hieroglyphs into English. Click here to explore one such program being developed by Google.

Credits: Story

Bree Kelly
Dr Brian Ballsun-Stanton

Special Thanks to:
Dr Alex Woods
Dr Trevor Evans
Dr Boyo Ockinga

References:

Abt, J. (1998), ‘Drawing over Photographs: James H. Breasted and the Scientizing of Egyptian Epigraphy, 1895–1928,’ in Visual Resources, Vol. 14, No. 1, 19–69.

Adkins, L., and Adkins, R. (2001), The Keys to Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs, HarperCollinsPublishers, London. 

Caminos, R., and Fischer, H. (1976), Ancient Egyptian Epigraphy and Palaeography: The Recording of Inscriptions and Scenes in Tombs and Temples by Ricardo Caminos and Archaeological Aspects of Epigraphy and Palaeography by Henry Fischer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

El Daly, O. (2005), Egyptology: The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writing, UCL Press, London.

Samaan, M., et. al. (2016), ‘Close-Range Photogrammetric Tools for Epigraphic Surveys,’ in ACM Journal on Computing and Cultural Heritage, Vol. 9, No. 3, Article 16, 1-18.

West, S. (1985), ‘Herodotus’ Epigraphical Interests,’ in The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2, 278-305. 

Vértes, K. (20018), ‘About Us,’ digitalEPIGRAPHY: In Association with the Epigraphic Survey, digitalEPIGRAPHY

Credits: All media
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