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Egyptian Hieroglyphics

Page history last edited by Carrie Mehaffy 15 years, 4 months ago

Egyptian Hieroglyphics by Carrie Mehaffy 






 The History Behind Hieroglyphics 



     The actual word Hieroglyphic is translated to mean "holy or sacred carving."  It is a system that employs characters in the form of pictures in order to understand the meanings.  The Greek translation of the word means "the god's words."  The actual word Hieroglyphic designates only the writing on Egyptian monuments, although the word has been applied for about 100 years to the writings of other people who used character drawings [4].   The Egyptian society was the first group of people to develop a system of writing in order to communicate their thoughts and ideas.  The most ancient hieroglyphics date from the end of the 4th millennium B.C. and make up annotations to the scenes found on slabs of slate in chapels or tombs.  These ancient forms cannot yet be read today, but anthropologists think it is probable that these forms are based on the same system as the later classical hieroglyphs [4].  Hieroglyphics are actually symbols that were carved or painted on walls, displayed on the tombs of royalty or Pharohs and their families, and on pyramids that were built by the Egyptians.  Most often, Egyptian Hieroglyphics were used to tell stories of the history of the Egyptian people, and celebrate the accomplishments and feats of the various Pharohs of the times.  Hieroglyphics were also used as decoration and meaning in the jewelry and nameplates of royalty which they displayed on their bodies to show their status among the nation.


 The symbol in this picture is known as the Eye of Ra, Egypt's sun god.  This particular symbol was used as a healing and protection talisman.  The Eye of Ra was often found on elaborate jewelry worn by Pharohs and their families.




This is a painting that was commonly found on the walls of tombs found in Egypt.  It depicts a Pharoh of the period and a woman bowing to him.  Many tombs had a great number of examples of these paintings and they usually tell a story of the Egyptian history that is left to be interpreted.



  Uses of Hieroglyphic Writing     


 The use of the Hieroglyphic writing by the early Egyptians was most likely spawned by the desire to identify or represent events that were meaningful to them.  For example, a rewarding hunt, a particular battle or war, and eventually people.  This new attitude toward time and keeping history of that time was unique to the early Egyptians, and ultimately led to the languages, inventions, and technology that we see today.  Beginning in the 1st dynasty, images of persons were annotated with their names or titles, a further step toward expressing individuality and uniqueness[4].  Cylindrical seals were created to show pictoral representations of triumphs over enemies in a particular year.  The seals created on stones were rolled over moist clay for jar stoppers.  Their inscription prevented the sealed jar from being covertly opened and at the same time described it's contents and designated the official responsible for it.  From the stone inscriptions of the 1st dynasty, only individual names are known, these being mainly the names of kings.  In the 2nd dynasty, titles and names of offerings appear, and, at the end of this dynasty, sentences occur for the first time[4]. 


This is an example of a cylindrical carved stone that would be rolled onto the clay to create a seal.





The Different Characteristics of Hieroglyphics 


 Hieroglyphic writing is seen as a system, much as a language today is seen as a system of putting together letters to create words and sentences for understanding.  Hieroglyphics differs because it has two different yet basic features.  First, representable objects are portrayed as pictures or ideograms.  These pictures can stand for one idea, or can be combined to make a specific saying or idea.  For example, in a single picture of a branch, it literally means just that, a branch.  This way of using pictures to represent just one item began in the 1st millenium, and it is the most basic of hieroglyphics known.  These symbols were invented out of absolute necessity, and were not canonized. 


This symbol, called Ankh, is the symbol of eternal life.  The gods are often seen holding an ankh to someone's lips as this symbolizes the "breath of life" or the breath you will need in the afterlife.



 Second, the picture signs were given the idea of phonograms or a phonetic(sound) value of the words for represented objects.  This would consist of joining pictures together in ancient sentences to tell a story or portray an actual event.  These particular joinings were written on grave inscriptions, statues, the walls of temples and tombs, and most importantly, for secular texts such as historical inscriptions, songs, legal documents, scientific documents relating to religious matters, and myths[4].  This is the period of the 2nd dynasty where the actual idea of the Egyptian alphabet came to be invented and used.  Interestingly, at the time that these words were recorded, only a very limited circle of Egyptians understood the script.  Much like the early papyrus writing by monks in later centuries, only those who needed the knowledge in their professions acquired the arts of writing and reading.  These people were often officials of the state, doctors, and priests as well as the actual craftsmen who actually made the inscriptions[4].


 This is a picture of the Egyptian alphabet that was used to create script for the purpose of recalling larger amounts of information.




The Alphabetic Stages of Hieroglyphics 


 After the development of the Egyptian alphabet, writing experienced new developments and a revival of interest to the religious community. Since the new signs and sign groups unknown in the classical period greatly expanded the way information could be recorded, the Hieroglyphic gained easier readability and the number of symbols increased to several thousand by 500B.C[4].  The Egyptian religion in the 1st and 2nd millenium was considered very sacred and holy.  The Egyptians believed very strongly in gods and the afterlife, and thus that is why so many of the tombs that have been discovered in modern times by archaeologists have included artifacts within the tombs to aid the deceased in his or her period of afterlife including money, weapons, and certain staples that they may have felt necessary to carry beyond.  The tombs were then sealed so that they were considered protected forever.  This serious belief and adherence to the religion in relation to the use of hieroglyphics was confined to two cases.  In the 3rd millennium, certain signs were avoided or used in garbled form in grave inscriptions for fear that the living beings represented by these signs could harm the deceased who lay helpless in the grave[4].  There were symbols that were considered taboo that included human figures and dangerous animals such as snakes and scorpions.  Secondly, in all the periods of ancient Egyptian times, a positive religious significance was regularly placed in front of other signs, even if they were to be read after them.  For example, the hieroglyphs for God or individual gods, as well as those for the king or the palace.  These two symbols put together would signify "servant of god" or priest.  Interestingly, theology which has been very interested in hieroglyphics, has claimed to trace the writing back to the god Thoth, although this myth of its divine origin did not have an effect on the development of the script[4].  Sadly, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. the entire idea of hieroglyphics was altered due to the conversion of the country to Christianity.  The new religion fought against the Egyptian polytheism and traditions, and with it's victory, the Greek script and language triumphed[4].


Below is a picture of the burial chamber of "King Tut" considered one of the very important archaeological finds because it not only contained the mummified remains of the King, but also a very well preserved account of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the treasures that were so often buried with the Kings.



Translating Hieroglyphics into Modern Day Times: The Rosetta Stone 




Hieroglyphics mystified many people throughout time with their strange symbols and pictures.  Scientists were fascinated by the writing left behind by the people of Egyptian culture, but were baffled at how to decipher the meanings that were encoded.  The most amazing and transforming artifact that unlocked the key to learning hieroglyphic meaning was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.  The Stone was accidentally found by soldiers in Napoleon Bonaparte's invading army[3].  In 1799, at Fort Julian in the town of Rosetta in the Nile Delta, a troop of Bonaparte's soldiers were tearing down ancient walls.  The Rosetta Stone was discovered in the middle of this wall and immediately Bonaparte sent his top historians and scientists to the site to retrieve this unusual find.  What made the Stone extraordinary, was the fact that it was actually separated into three different parts from top to bottom of three different types of writing.  The top was Egyptian hieroglyphic, the middle was Demotic writing, and the bottom portion was Greek.  This made the idea of being able to translate hieroglyphics possible because the writing seemed to be the same message.  The Greek, which was a language that historians were familiar with could be used to decipher the hieroglyphics.  Unfortunately for Napoleon Bonaparte, his find did not stay with him very long.  The French Government signed The Treaty of Capitulation, and the British immediately came and took the Stone away, knowing it's value.  In 1802, the Rosetta Stone was deposited for display in the British Museum and it rests there still today[3].



Jean-Francois Champollion 





 The British Government in 1802 now had in their possession a prized possession, The Rosetta Stone.  The problem now was how to use the Greek writing at the bottom to help make sense of the hieroglyphics at the top and in the middle.  Using various scholars, the Greek translation of the Stone was a decree from the general council of Egyptian priests issued in 196 B.C[2].  Assuming that the other two scripts contained identical text, then it might appear that the Stone could be used to essentially "crack" hieroglyphics[3]. The scholars with the knowledge in Greek quickly realized that they essentially understood what the hieroglyphic meant, but none of them could sound out the Egyptian words because there was no one left in the world who could speak that language.  They came to the sad conclusion that they may never know what it said because they could not deduce the phonetics.

     In 1814, a man named Thomas Young attempted to figure out the phonetics, or sounds, by using a cartouche.  A cartouche was an oblong object or figure that held the name of a Pharoh.  Young had one of these in his possession to study.  He tried to recognize the name of the Pharoh on the cartouche, but he failed and gave up.


This is a picture of one of many cartouches found in the tombs of Pharohs of Egypt[1].


In 1822 a man named Jean-Francois Champollion, who was a linguist and scholar decided to pick up where Young left off.  Champollion had been obsessed with the cryptic writing of hieroglyphics ever since he was a ten year old boy, and he was determined to decipher the meanings.  At first, Champollion tried to decipher the script using the phonetic ideas of the Egyptians from the cartouches.  He felt he was baffled just like Young and would never figure out the ancient texts, but after taking another look, he came to use his background in linguistics, or the study of languages, and decided to try using Coptic, which is a descendant language of ancient Egypt.  He wondered if the first hieroglyph in the cartouche, the disc, might represent the sun, and then he assumed it's sound value to be that of the Coptic word for sun, "ra".  This gave him the sequence ("ra"-?-s-s').  Only one Pharoh name seemed to fit.  Allowing for the omission of vowels, which was common for Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the unknown letter in the sequence, he deduced that the name in the cartouche must be Rameses.  He realized that he had succeeded.  After realizing his achievement, Champollion translated the entire Rosetta Stone, and finished in July, 1828.  Champollion died in 1832 at the age of 41, knowing that he had finally achieved his lifelong dream[2,3].


Implications of Hieroglyphics on Media Ecology Today 


 Media ecology, or the interdisciplinary study of the effects of media forms on culture, might recognize that the use of the Egyptian hieroglyphic and the translation of it is one of the most important discoveries that led to the development of language.  Before the Egyptians used the signs and symbols for words or meanings, simple objects such as talismans and tokens were the only forms of communication that have been discovered.  These were just items, and their meanings are very vaguely known.  One cannot tell from a small cone made out of stone what it symbolizes without some sort of orality given to it to decipher the idea.  The translation of hieroglyphics on the other hand shows a very intelligent and important way of communication that was highly organized.  It recorded history and ideas in a way that had never been done before.  After the Egyptians began this "language", the idea of an only spoken society changed.  There was now a way of remembering information and stories for eternity versus passed on through various people as in a society that only relied on oral traditions.  The implications of this are monumental because with the drawing and carving into stone and on walls by the Egyptians, the idea of freezing time was achieved much like the photograph now.  Memories of Kings, Pharohs, and the lifestyles of the Egyptian people can be studied, analyzed, and abstractly discussed by archaeologists, theologists, sociologists, and others thus giving science a way of understanding and drawing conclusions and parallels to our society today.  It all started with hieroglyphs, created by a society of people that were very intelligent beyond our comprehension.






 [1]  www.ancient-egypt-online.com


 [2]  www.bible-history.com


 [3]  www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptian


 [4]  www.crystalinks.com/hieroglyphicwriting.html


 [5] www.nationalgeographic.com







Comments (4)

Kate M. Fisher said

at 8:06 am on Nov 12, 2008

No problem girl. I'm always happy to help out when I can. I know the library here on campus has a couple of books on egyptain hieroglyphics that i found when I was cleaning. If you feel like you want to add more to it, then I would be glad to check them out for you. I have some of my own pictures of egyptian hieroglyphics from the Louvre and Hamburg-Bahnof, Berlin, but probably your photos you have up will look better. If you want them you can have them, but I think your pictures are probably better. Let me know about the books.

Kate M. Fisher said

at 8:16 am on Nov 12, 2008

I fixed the font in the section titled, "Hieroglyphics mystified....." What I did was click on a section that was in the right font to see what style of print it was. It appeared as Georgia. Then I went back and highlighted the section that wasn't in the correct font, went up to format and chose the Georgia font and it changed it. It's okay if it does mess up, because as Dr. Martinek said it has a "stored memory," where you can always go back to a previous edition. If the writing does ever end up disappearing, just exit out of it but don't click "save" at the end.

Kate M. Fisher said

at 5:28 pm on Nov 12, 2008

No problem Carrie,
I will check the books out from the library for you tonight as you DO have to have an id card to do that. I'll just bring them to class for you on friday. If you need any other materials just let me know, cause I am more than willing to search them out for you. And yes, I'm alright. Thanks for being a good "mom" and checking on me though!

Kate M. Fisher said

at 4:29 pm on Nov 13, 2008

I took my rolling suitcase to the library last night and loaded it up with books for you. I think I checked out around 10 books, as I wasn't sure what all you were looking for. I found a children's book that teaches how to write in egyptian hieroglyphics. I checked it out for you, as I thought your children might enjoy it.

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