Limestone Owl (Late Period, 664-150 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum


The ancient Egyptian writing system is famous for its use of hieroglyphs depicting animals, plants, humans, and objects from the real world. Like the Roman alphabet used to write English, hieroglyphs largely stood for sounds in the Egyptian language, supplemented with signs to indicate meaning. As printing would not become widespread until after ca. AD 1450, all hieroglyphs in ancient Egypt were produced by hand, such as this carved limestone owl, which in the hieroglyphic script was used for the letter "m." This online exhibit highlights the technologies behind the representation of hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt to the twenty-first century.

Inlaid Relief from Medinet Habu (New Kingdom, Dynasty 20, 1184-1153 BC) by Ramesses III, Photographer: Anna R. RessmanOriental Institute Museum


Since Egyptian hieroglyphs consisted of images to communicate sound, the Egyptians developed sophisticated and entertaining ways to combine imagery with written language. They often created elaborate visual puns and rebus writings that could be appreciated both for their artistic and aesthetic qualities, in addition to being read as texts.

The images and hieroglyphs on this inlaid tile form a visual pun—a playful combination of images and letters—that can be read "May all the people adore the lord of the two lands, Usermaatre, beloved of Amun (Ramesses III)." The lapwing bird on the right side is a hieroglyph used to write the word rekhit "people," shown here adoring the cartouche of Ramesses III. Thus, the visual image of the hieroglyph itself "adoring" the cartouche of Ramesses III puns on its textual reading.

Amulet of Thoth and Maat, Unknown, New Kingdom, 1200 BC - 400 AD, From the collection of: Oriental Institute Museum
Show lessRead more

Amulets could represent intriguing three dimensional rebus writings, playing on the visual nature of the hieroglyphic signs. The ibis here represents the god Thoth and the seated figure the goddess Maat, the personification of truth and righteousness. Together the amulet can be read as "Thoth, who lives on truth," a common epithet for the god of wisdom and writing.

Albrecht Dürer, The Sun, the Moon and a Basilisk, a drawing (1507/1519)British Museum


Knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs was lost between the third and fifth centuries AD. However, Egyptian hieroglyphs continued to fascinate scholars of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment. Their understanding was largely shaped by interpreting the hieroglyphs as elaborate allegories—a method heavily influenced by the Hieroglyphica, a treatise written by an Egyptian priest named Horapollo probably sometime in the fifth century AD. When a Greek copy of this text was discovered in the early fifteenth century AD and brought to Italy, it created quite the stir among humanists of the period. At the time, printing with movable type was in its infancy and representations of hieroglyphs were drawn by hand or printed through wood cuts and engravings. An early Latin translation of the Hieroglyphica was illustrated by the renowned German artist Albrecht Dürer, providing a visual accompaniment for the hieroglyphic symbols described in the text and their allegorical interpretations.

The Labyrinth from Kircher's Turris Babel (1679) by Athanasius KircherOriental Institute Museum

One of the most famous humanist scholars to become obsessed with Egyptian hieroglyphs was Athanasius Kircher. This is the Egyptian labyrinth produced for his 1679 publication called Turris Babel—or Tower of Babel. Kircher pulled liberally from an account of Herodotus, but made the design his own, incorporating Egyptian symbolism, hieroglyphs, and inscriptions.

Hieroglyphic Alphabet from Kircher's Turris Babel (1679) by Athanasius KircherOriental Institute Museum

In Tower of Babel, Kircher was mostly concerned with the history of human language. He believed that ancient wisdom from before the biblical flood had been preserved in various languages and scripts, including Hebrew and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Here is his account of some alphabetic characters, and their supposed origins in hieroglyphic symbols, often drawing directly on the illustrations of Dürer and the explanations of the Hieroglyphica. Although Kircher was an extremely learned scholar, we now know that his understanding of the hieroglyphs was almost entirely mistaken.

Title Page from Excerpta Hieroglyphica IV (1825–1828) by James BurtonOriental Institute Museum


Even though printing with movable type had been popularized in Europe following the work of Johannes Gutenberg, hieroglyphic letterpress fonts were not developed until the middle of the nineteenth century. Even at the dawn of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion in 1822, hieroglyphs were being reproduced by hand. The invention of lithography—a method of printing using an image drawn or etched into a limestone plate—at the end of the eighteenth century allowed for the relatively rapid reproduction of hieroglyphic texts and images printed from such limestone plates. Lithography was used by James Burton in a rare set of valuable pamphlets with excerpts of hieroglyphic texts in 1825, and it was the same method employed by Champollion in the printing of his Egyptian grammar and dictionary.

Plate LIII from Excerpta Hieroglyphica (1828–1828) by James BurtonOriental Institute Museum

James Burton, the son of a British property developer, lived and traveled widely in Egypt in the early nineteenth century. Like many of his contemporaries, Burton took advantage of Khedivate Egypt established under British patronage. In the aftermath of the battle of Alexandria, the French army surrendered to the British in 1801, setting up favorable conditions for British travelers. Burton is often credited with many so-called "discoveries" and apocryphal stories relate his hedonistic exploits during his Egyptian sojourn, but one of his lasting legacies is his publication of copies of Egyptian relief scenes and texts in a series of small pamphlets called Excerpta Hieroglyphica published in ca. 1825. Considering that the hieroglyphic script had only been deciphered in 1822, the copies are remarkable for their time and often preserve elements that have since deteriorated. These pamphlets were not printed with a letterpress, but with lithographic methods. Copies are exceedingly rare as they were privately printed for Burton to offer directly to colleagues and institutions.

Title Page from Champollion's Egyptian Grammar (1836) by Jean-François ChampollionOriental Institute Museum


Jean-François Champollion deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphic script in 1822, thereby largely setting the foundation of modern Egyptology. He published several works during his lifetime, but his premature death left much of his work on the language in manuscript form. These manuscripts were gathered and published by his brother posthumously. In Champollion's work, lithography remained the most expedient way to reproduce the scripts of ancient Egypt, including hieroglyphs, hieratic, and demotic. The lithographic process required drawing the hieroglyphs by hand and transferring the images to a limestone plate for printing.

Royal Names from Champollion's Egyptian Grammar (1835) by Jean-François ChampollionOriental Institute Museum

Looking closely at Champollion's Egyptian Grammar published in 1836 shows the individual character of each hand-drawn hieroglyph and its idiosyncrasies. On these pages, Champollion discusses the readings of the royal names inside cartouches.

Page from Champollion's Egyptian Grammar with Ptolemaic Cartouche (1836) by Jean-François ChampollionOriental Institute Museum

Deciphering Egyptian required Champollion to carefully examine all the Egyptian scripts—the hieroglyphic and demotic found on the Rosetta Stone, but also the cursive hieratic found on other documents. The key to decipherment was the Ptolemaic royal names found in both Greek and Egyptian on the Rosetta Stone. The cartouche of Ptolemy V, cited from the Rosetta stone, can be seen on the right side of this page from Champollion's grammar, where this section of the king's titulary reads: "King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ptolemy, ever living, beloved of Ptah."

Photo by Francis Frith of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak (1857–1859) by Francis FrithOriental Institute Museum


The adoption of photographic technology in the middle of the nineteenth century was a major advancement for reproducing and preserving images of antiquities and monuments. Francis Frith was a British photographer who made a career as an entrepreneur selling his photography and the prints from his travels in the Middle East remain an important resource for researchers today. This photo by Frith from a very rare set of prints shows a group of Egyptian men, boys, and two donkeys in front of the temple of Khonsu at Karnak. The monumental gateway in the center of the photograph is covered with scenes and inscriptions from the Ptolemaic Period (305–30 BC). Using photography to reproduce hieroglyphic inscriptions was rapidly adopted by archaeologists and epigraphers studying ancient monuments. James Henry Breasted in particular used large format photography as part of the Oriental Institute Epigraphic Survey project, which has been recording monuments in Egypt for nearly one hundred years.

Notes on the Blessing of Ptah by James Henry Breasted (1906) by James Henry BreastedOriental Institute Museum

James Henry Breasted (1865–1935), founder of the Oriental Institute and Epigraphic Survey, traveled throughout Egypt photographing, recording, and studying its monuments. He was an ardent adopter of photography to reproduce the inscriptions and scenes found on walls of tombs and temples. Breasted pioneered a methodology using photography combined with epigraphic drawings to help preserve a record that was as accurate as humanly possible. The photographs would show what was visible under particular light conditions, while the drawings would help clarify uncertain or invisible aspects of the photos. In this notebook, Breasted used an annotated photograph and notes to study an inscription from the temple of Abu Simbel known as the "Blessing of Ptah."

Selection of Hieroglyphic Letterpress Type (1928) by Alan H. Gardiner, Oxford University Press, Nina de Garis Davies, Norman de Garis Davies, W. J. Bilton, and R. P. Bannerman and Sons, Ltd.Oriental Institute Museum


Hieroglyphic letterpress fonts cast from lead were first used in 1829, but it was not until the 1860s that printing hieroglyphs became widespread with a font designed by typographer Ferdinand Theinhardt. Several hieroglyphic fonts were designed over the subsequent fifty years, but the most influential hieroglyphic printing font, particularly in the English speaking world, was that produced by Oxford University Press and commissioned by Alan H. Gardiner for use in his Egyptian Grammar published in 1927. Copies of this font were purchased by several publishers around the world, including the University of Chicago Press in 1928. When the Press no longer used letterpress printing, the font was turned over to the Oriental Institute where it is currently on display in the Research Archives library.

Hieroglyphic Letterpress Font in Hamilton Cabinet (1928/1929) by Oxford University Press, Alan H. Gardiner, and J. Edward HamiltonOriental Institute Museum

The hieroglyphic letterpress font in the Research Archives of the Oriental Institute is housed in a 1929 Hamilton cabinet. Hieroglyphs are arranged together in small compartments within the cabinet's forty-eight drawers.

Hamilton Cabinet with Hieroglyphic Letterpress (1929) by J. Edward Hamilton, Alan H. Gardiner, Oxford University Press, and R. P. BannermanOriental Institute Museum

Each lead type piece is arranged upside down inside the drawer as compositors putting together the text would set the type upside down and backward in preparation for printing (the correct orientation of the hieroglyph is shown in the inset image and in the compartment label at the top next to the compartment number "12"). Arranging the glyphs upside down in the cabinet therefore saved the compositors time and effort when putting together a printing frame.

Selection of Hieroglyphic Letterpress Type (1928) by Alan H. Gardiner, Oxford University Press, Nina de Garis Davies, Norman de Garis Davies, W. J. Bilton, and R. P. Bannerman and Sons, Ltd.Oriental Institute Museum

The hieroglyphs of what's often called the "Gardiner" or "Oxford" font were designed by the artists Nina and Norman de Garis Davies. They had extensive experience painting scenes from Theban tombs. The resulting font was based on Eighteenth Dynasty texts and had an attractive aesthetic quality that pleased Gardiner's eye.

Bird Hieroglyphs from the Catalog of Gardiner's Font (1928) by Alan H. GardinerOriental Institute Museum

This page from Gardiner's Catalog of Egyptian Hieroglyphic Printing Type shows the bird hieroglyphs used in this hieroglyphic font at their various sizes.

Pages from Breasted's Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus (1930) by James Henry BreastedOriental Institute Museum

The Oriental Institute and University of Chicago Press used the "Gardiner" letterpress font from 1931 until 1975 for publications requiring hieroglyphs to be typeset. Gardiner's font was not received in time to print Breasted's magisterial edition of the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, which had to be printed in London using Oxford's copy of the font. Hieroglyphic letterpress fonts are no longer in widespread use; most hieroglyphic transcriptions are now made using computer software and everything is born digital. However, all the Oriental Institute publications—even those originally printed on a printing press like Breasted's edition here—have been digitized and made available for free download from the OI's website (http://oi.uchicago.edu). Likewise, older publications from the Research Archives library have been digitized for online access. In this way, the representation of Egyptian hieroglyphs continues to be transformed as new technological horizons come into view.

Credits: Story

Hieroglyphic: From Ancient Egypt to the Modern World, an online exhibit produced for Google Arts & Culture, was curated, designed, and arranged by Foy Scalf with photographs by Foy Scalf, Gregory Marouard, Anna Ressman, and Bryce Lowry; materials maintained in the collection of the Research Archives; and objects from the collection of the Oriental Institute Museum. We would also like to thank George Thomson and Betty Bush for their help and suggestions.

© Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps