The ABCs of Hieroglyphs

What're these ancient symbols all about?

By Google Arts & Culture

Cartonnage of Nespanetjerenpere (ca. 945-718 B.C.E.) by UnknownBrooklyn Museum

The world and the culture of Ancient Egypt still has the power to enthral and fascinate people of all ages today.

Mystery and intrigue are everywhere to be found in the rituals and customs of this advanced ancient society, but perhaps the most gripping mystery is their written language of pictures and symbols known as hieroglyphs. 

What are they all about? It's as easy as ABC! Well, not quite, but scroll on to make a start in understanding the significance of this strange language...

Decorated Ware Jar Depicting Ungulates and Boats with Human Figures Decorated Ware Jar Depicting Ungulates and Boats with Human Figures (ca. 3500–3300 B.C.)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"A" is for "Ancient"

Hieroglyphic script is among the oldest known formal languages. It owes a lot to Sumerian writing in ancient Mesopotamia, and some argue that it developed from Egyptian artistic traditions which predate literacy in the area.

The figures painted and carved into Gerzean or Naqada II pottery, which originates on the banks of the Nile around 4000BC, are decorative. But they also communicate narrative and meaning like language. This is why some scholars link them to the development of hieroglyphs.

The "Original Alphabet" was then derived from hieroglyphic script, and this becomes the basis for nearly all surviving formal systems of letters, including the Latin Alphabet. 

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of NedjmetBritish Museum

"B" is for "Belief"

Hieroglyphs, like much early written language, were used primarily in religious contexts, recording the rituals and belief systems that were so important to Egyptian society. In fact, the word 'hieroglyph' itself is Greek for "sacred carvings".

One of the best surviving examples of ancient Egyptian text is the Book of the Dead or, to use its less morbid title, the Book of Emerging Into the Light. Illuminated hieroglyphic text is used in the book to help priests ease the passage of the dead into the afterlife. 

"That Which Is In the Afterworld" (Amduat) of the priest Hor-em-chemmis (21st Dynasty) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

"C" is for "Cursive"

It's easy to imagine that hieroglyphs were simply 'pictures' communicating stories, but the images were in fact assigned to syllables of speech or individual letters. This meant that it could be written in cursive, just like modern day writing at school!

The Book of the Dead is a particularly rich resource for joined-up Egyptian writing. This technique is important for the development of written languages as it allows for quicker, flowing writing rather than painstaking, time-consuming drawing.

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

"D" is for "Decoding"

After the decline of Ancient Egypt, many societies adopted Latin scripts thanks to the expansive Roman Empire. Hieroglyphs fell out of use, and, when they were later discovered by archaeologists and Egyptologists, remained indecipherable for many years. 

Until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, that is!  

Found in 1799, the block of granodiorite rock is carved with the text of a decree marking a gift from Ptolemy V to the temples, and records of Nile floods during the King's reign. The text is repeated three times, in hieroglyphic Ancient Egyptian...

...Demotic Ancient Egyptian...

...and finally in Ancient Greek. Modern knowledge of the Greek language meant that the hieroglyphs could be decoded for the first time. The work was done by French scholar, Jean-François Champollion, in the 1820s. 

"E" is for "Egyptian Civilization"

The emergence of hieroglyphs around 3000 BCE is often heralded as the beginning of complex and civilized society in Egypt, a very early civilization which produced some of history's most incredible feats of art, architecture, and development. Here you can wander around the Great Pyramids at Giza and marvel at the achievements of the Egyptians.

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

"F" is for "Fabricius"

Bringing the ancient into the contemporary, Fabricius is a brand new machine learning tool which allows you to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs!

Using machine learning and auto-classifying technology, Fabricius can unlock the ancient texts for the modern reader. Learn more.

Sphinx (1947) by Eliot ElisofonLIFE Photo Collection

Now you've grasped the ABC of the history of hieroglyphs, it's time to explore the stories of ancient Egypt and discover the Mummies and Mysteries which await.

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