Understanding the Hieroglyphs By Fatima Imran

Understanding the Hieroglyphs


“Egyptian hieroglyphic  was formal writing system used by the ancient Egyptians that combined logographic and alphabetic elements. Egyptians used cursive hieroglyphs for religious literature on papyrus and wood. Less formal variations of the script called hieratic and demotic, are technically not hieroglyphs” (“Egyptians hieroglyphs”)


Hieroglyphic writing was first started around 5000 years ago.In 400 A.D, Egyptian wrote in hieroglyphs, hieroglyphs are words pictures, and there are more than 2000 hieroglyphic characters.(“Hieroglyphic”). According to an ancient Egyptian belief, the god Thoth had given them knowledge of hieroglyphs so they named it “divine intelligence.”  The Greek visitors on seeing these word pictures on the tomb and temple walls called it as a hieroglyph that means “sacred carving.”  There were more than 700 hieroglyphic signs that were taken by observing images e.g. building, birds, people, flowers, and animals. According to Brunner the prehistoric Hittites, Mayans, and Cretans used   very different hieroglyphs than that of Egypt.Later it was felt that there is a need to convey messages in written form then pictographs came into being.  The Egyptians thus used a system that combined phonograms, that is, sound-signs that spelt out the word in an alphabetic system, and ideograms, sense-signs that were added to the spelled-out word to depict its meaning, and this language had its own syntax, grammar, and vocabulary.

Figure 1 Hieroglyphic Script

 After Diodorous Siculus visited Egypt, it became common belief that the hieroglyphs were installed with hidden meaning.  The influential philosopher Plotinus said that the hieroglyphs were nothing less than Platonic ideas in visual form, “each picture a kind of understanding and wisdom” revealing to the initiated true knowledge as to the essence and substance of things.  Some signs represent sound and indicate consonants.  There was no alphabetic system sometimes one sign could represent a combination of more than two words and there were no vowels in it.  Some signs were not pronounced instead they were used an indicators.  Between 3400, 3200 BCE, Abydos discovered many inscribed stones which is the oldest Egyptian writing.  The last Egyptian written inscription was set up approximately in 5 century.  A Greek based alphabet system Coptic with some demotic signs became the main writing system used in Egypt.  Egyptians also used hieroglyphs for math. (5-22) This language is not understood now because when Arab invaded Egypt they introduced Arabic that is still practiced today.  Saints used Hieroglyphs and they were written in pictorial writing on ancient monuments in order to preserve the nation’s history and religious texts. ( Street 3)

Development of Hieroglyphic

According to Brunner hieroglyphic are the phonetic symbols that were initially carved on the ceramic jars or on ivory tablets that were placed in gravestones for the identification of the dead.  The need to classify pictorial representation of unique event or royal individual led to the emergence of hieroglyphic writing in a monumental setting.  This writing was used to demonstrate the particular event and reflects the history of the nation.  In the begging of  dynasty, Images of non-royal individual were annotated with their name or titles, these were additional steps toward expressing the individuality and exclusiveness.  The first two ivory tablets of two dynasties were the pictorial demonstration of the events, incidents, the places .For example, accompanying a scene of the Pharaohs’ triumph over his opponent is the annotation “the first occasion of the defeat of the Libyans.”  During the first dynasty, only the names of kings were carved on stones.  In the second dynasty, designations and the names of the offspring were appeared and at the end of this dynasty, proper sentences came about for the first time.  The discovery of a black papyrus scroll showed that the longer sentences might have been written in the early part of the first dynasty.(40-59)

Impact Of fine art on writing

According to Brunner the diversity of these hieroglyphs reflected the fine art style of ancient time.  The standard rule of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was set in the three dynasties.  The hieroglyphic signs are closely related to the fine arts and this is because same artisans painted or carved both the pictograms and the scripts.  The variations occurred in the writing style when the hieroglyph contained those patterns that fine arts had eliminated.  In ancient times, Hieroglyphic signs were carved on stone monuments, metals, woods.  Moreover, these signs were appeared in the varied types of metal and wood inlay work.  All the techniques match exactly with fine arts techniques. .(60-86)

Medium for hieroglyphic writing

Hieroglyphic texts appeared mainly on tombs, temples and walls, but they were also found on tombstone, sculpture, coffins and on all types of vessels and tools.  Brunner described  that this writing was mainly used for preserving secular content like historic description, legal manuscript, and scientific documents and myths, legends, faction sacrament, grave inscription of all kinds, and prayers.  These were attractive monumental scripts.  The hieratic script gained popularity and shorten form of pictograms were written with ink and brush on the smooth surface of wood, limestone and papyrus.( 87-99)

Religious impact

Brunner has discussed that the hieroglyphic signs were influenced by the religion that was established by two common usages.  Firstly, certain distorted symbols were carved or avoided on the gravestone; these symbols were human figures and perilous animals such as scorpions and snakes.  Secondly some signs that have religious importance were placed before   other signs even if they were to be read after them, these were hieroglyphs for King , God, or the  palace, For example the two signs  , stands for “servant of God’ in this the symbol of God  is in front of the servant  although the God is to be read last.( 88-90)

Characteristics of hieroglyphic writing

The hieroglyphic writing system consists of signals that represent real objects and these can grouped into three classes. Brunner has described following characteristic of hieroglyphic .

Logogram: In this class, a single word represents its meaning and sound.  Ideogram can be read as the object they symbolize such as /, “wood, stick,” or can have extended meanings, such as the sun disk, ☉, which can be interpreted as “sun’.(116-121)

Phonogram: This class signifies a sound or series of sound in the language.  This group includes simple phonemes that are derived from logograms of the objects they portray and it includes biliterals and trilliteral signs (signs that represent two or three sounds.(121-125)

Determinative: This class contains determinatives that are not phonetic signs instead; they are used to state meaning and help in word distribution.  For example, the phonetic writing p + r + t can signify the infinitive of the verb “to go,” the name of the winter season, or the word for “fruit, seed.”  The meaning of the word is signaled by a terminal determinative that also acts as a word marker: the walking legs ( ), the sun disk (☉), or the pellet sign (°), respectively Generic Determinatives are those that denotes action and movement  like walking,  running, eating.  Egyptians scripts are a combination of all these signs and it can be modified.  Egyptian writing is deprived of vowels thus its pronunciation is poorly reflected in the hieroglyphic writing system.(126-138)

Number of symbols: In the Egyptian writing total number of hieroglyphs are approximately 700, their number increased with the invention of new signs and forms.  This shows that the Egyptian writing system was flexible.(139-143)

Direction of writing: Hieroglyphic inscriptions were written from right to left and this was indicated by the orientation of the signs.  The right to left orientation was followed in writing the hieratic script and the reverse of this orientation was used for a decorative or religious purpose.  However, Egyptian monuments were adorned according to the strict rule of symmetry, tombs and temples are usually decorated with scripts that face in the both ways, to give an illustration of axial balance.  Inscriptions were written either in a vertical column or in horizontal rows considered as an ideal way of decorating the doorways, walls, and lintels.  In two-dimensional scenes containing human or divine figures, the hieroglyphic scripts were written with the images to which they pertained, so images and texts were orientated in the same direction.(145-160)

Tools: The tools used for writing hieroglyphics were chisels, hammers for stone carving and brushes for colouring and painting, leather and papyrus were the writing surfaces .

Figure 2 Carving tools

Brushes were made by cutting the stems diagonally then it was chewed to shape the fibres into a brush like tip after that it was used for writing.  In 3 century, BCE Greek introduced the technique of using a spilt Calamus reed for writing implements. (121-129)

Hieratic Script : Hieratic is cursive (joint writing) script writing system that was used in the origin of the Pharaohs in Egypt and Nubia.  This script writing was closely associated with the hieroglyphic writing because it was developed with the hieroglyphic system and it’s written from  right to left orientation .Hieratic script was easy to write about because it was mainly written in ink with a reed brush on papyrus, wood, stone or potter .  In the 2nd century, Saint Clement of Alexandria first time used the term derived from Greek phrase γράμματα ἱερατικά (grammata hieratika; literally “priestly writing) because it was used for writing religious scripts (“Hieratic”), .The Edwin Smith papyrus is the world’s oldest surgical document that is written in hieratic script and it describes the explanation, examination, treatment and prognosis of  forty-eight types of medical problems in fine detail.

Figure 3 Hieratic Script

This script contained methods and techniques for healing wounds with sutures, curing infection with bread mold and honey, stop bleeding with raw material and immobilization of head and spinal cord injuries.  This document revealed that ancient Egyptian were expert in medicine and surgery.  The hieratic was used for writing legal documents, governmental documents, legal texts and letter, mathematical, surgery, literary and texts.  Moreover, hieratic script was written on stone, papyrus, ceramic debris and woods, leather rolls, linen.(Hieratic, 16-31)

Demotic script: Demotic is derived from the Greek work means “popular”, Egyptian called it Demotic script but Clement of Alexandria called it  (epistolographikē) “letter writing” and western scholars Thomas Young called it  ‘Enchorial Egyptian’.

Figure 4 Demotic Script

  During the reign of Amasis, 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.( Demotic, 1-8)


The Rosetta stone (EA 24)

Date: Ptolemaic Periods -196 BC

The Rosetta stone is named after the city where it was found .It is a granite slab of 1114.4 centimeters high, 72.3 centimeters wide, and 27.9 centimeters thick.  It weighs estimate 1676 pounds.  In 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte was leading his French republican army into Egypt to capture it, accidentally a lieutenant Bouchard discovered a black slab of stone that had been built into the wall.  He informed the archaeologists and it became one of the greatest discoveries of 18 century.  The Rosetta stone had three horizontal lines with the inscriptions carved in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, with three diverse scripts on each band they were hieroglyphics, demotic script, and koine Greek.  The Greek part was already known so it indicated that rest of three inscriptions contained the same message.

Figure 5 Rosetta Stone

The inscriptions on the stones were written by saint Memphis summarizing the benefactions given to Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205-180 BC) and were written in the ninth year of his reign in commemoration of his accession to the throne.  In 1822 Thomas Young was the first person to explain that hieroglyphs written on the Rosetta stone were the sounds of royal name Ptolemy.  In 1822 at 16 years old, Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered all the hieroglyphs.  He became expert in six oriental languages as well as in Greek, Coptic, and Latin.  He explained that the hieroglyphs on the stone were phonetic and had a sound that represents spoken alphabetic signs and syllables; he compared the 1,419 hieroglyphics with Greek text that was less than in 500 words.

He also demonstrated that 66 words out of 1419 hieroglyphs were original while the rest were repeated.  He assembled an Egyptian Grammar and dictionary for ancient prehistoric middle kingdom Egyptian hieroglyphics.  In 1801 British troops defeated the French in Egypt and the original stone became British property under the Alexandria.  The stone then transferred to the British Museum and it has been on public display since 1802. (Deciphering Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt)

Egyptian hieroglyphic Tables



1. Brunner, et al “hieroglyphic writing”, (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc , 2013,). (Web)

2. “Deciphering Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt” http://www.bible-history.com/resource/ff_hiero.htm”.(Web)

3.” Demotic” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demotic_(Egyptian) (Web)

4,. Hieratic”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hieratic .(Web)

5. Goldwasser Oldy , “How the alphabet was born from hieroglyphs”,( Biblical Archaeology Review ,2010).