By Emily Johnston
Hieroglyphics were a form writing for the ancient Egyptians. You can think of each hieroglyph as a like a symbol - with its own meaning and sound attached. Many people think of hieroglyphics as the first alphabet!
Hieroglyphics were drawn on walls and on stones, within temples and tombs, and used for decoration. Pharaohs had their names written in hieroglyphs on their tombs in a ‘cartouche’ - an oval around the name - to keep the name safe. Ancient Egyptians believed that the hieroglyphics were from the gods.
Reading Egyptian hieroglyphics is called transliteration. However, by the 4th Century AD, even most Egyptians had stopped using hieroglyphics, and by the medieval period, people did not know how to read hieroglyphics - this knowledge had been forgotten and lost.
It is now known that there are many different ways to read hieroglyphics. They can be read in rows or columns - and by looking at the direction the symbols point, you can understand what direction to read the text! You can have a go yourself here - https://discoveringegypt.com/egyptian-hieroglyphic-writing/egyptian-hieroglyphic-alphabet/
The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum © The British Museum
The Rosetta Stone was found in 1799 in Egypt, by Napoleon’s troops. It is thought that the stone would have stood in a temple, before it was used as a building stone for a fort. It was made during the Hellenistic period (196BC). The stone is only a fragment of what it would have originally looked like - it would have stood taller. A large amount of the hieroglyphic text, which is at the top of the stone has been lost.
The stone is inscribed with three versions of the same text - a hieroglyphic version, Demotic script (a simplified, everyday version of Hieroglyphics) and Ancient Greek. The text was written to honour the new king Ptolemy V.
The Rosetta stone is a very important artefact because it helped scholars to decipher the hieroglyphs. Scholars were able to use the Ancient Greek text to help understand the meaning of the hieroglyphics - although they did not understand the political and religious words so there were some mistakes.
The stone is now in the British Museum, where you can visit it yourself, although - it is important to know - that there have been requests from Egypt for the stone to be returned to them. This is called ‘repatriation’.
Valley of the Kings
Egyptian Kings were mummified and placed in tombs, according to Ancient Egyptian religion. The Valley of the Kings, in Thebes, was the site where almost all of the Pharaohs of the 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties were buried.
Most of the tombs were looted in antiquity, and pillaged of artefacts. Only King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, and was still filled with treasures.
As well as being filled with wealthy artefacts, the tombs’ walls were covered in paintings and hieroglyphics. Many of the hieroglyphics told the story of the King travelling to the afterlife, in the presence of gods. Earlier tombs were decorated with scenes from ‘That Which is in the Underworld’, whilst later tombs had decoration from the ‘Book of Gates’. King Ramesses III contained the ‘Book of the Earth’.
These hieroglyphics help archaeologists to understand the Ancient Egyptian’s beliefs about the afterlife.
Valley of the Kings. Image © Jakub Kyncl / Shutterstock
Inside King Tutankahmun's tomb. Image © Paul Getty Trust
A scribe at work. Image © The British Museum
Not all Egyptians were able to read and write well, those that could were called scribes. These scribes were mostly men, and were trained from a young age. Often, this job was passed down in families, but it was very expensive to send a child to scribe school. Firstly, they would attend a school where they learnt how to read hieroglyphics, and copying the symbols for practice, which could take up to five years. Scribes were thought of as very important people - they wouldn’t have to pay taxes, and they didn’t have to do any manual labour!
Scribes wrote down the history of Egypt, and wrote copies of important royal and government texts. As well as these important roles, scribes would also work in other everyday roles such as a teacher! Scribes would write on papyrus and uses reeds dipped in ink as brushes.
The Egyptian word for scribe is ‘sesh’, which means ‘to draw’.
Emily Johnston is a PhD candidate in Archaeology - and founder of this website! She has studied a course on Hieroglyphics from Dr Penny Wilson at Durham University.
She can be found on her personal twitter at @emilyrjohnston and instagram @emilyrebeccajohnston or on any of the archaeo-logic social medias & email!