Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt

An exhibition at the British Museum recounts how Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was first deciphered in the first 2 decades of the 19th century, using the Rosetta Stone and other inscriptions and texts. 

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is on until 19 February. https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/hieroglyphs-unlocking-ancient-egypt




The rest of this post covers:

    • ancient Egyptian

    • hieroglyphics and other scripts

    • Rosetta Stone

    • early knowledge of hieroglyphics

    • cracking the code

    • other sections in the exhibition

    Ancient Egyptian

    Ancient Egyptian is an extinct language in the Afro-Asiatic family of languages. The usual names for the successive stages of Egyptian are Old Egyptian (until 2100 BCE), Middle Egyptian (until 1500 BCE), Late Egyptian (until 300 CE) and Demotic (700 BCE to 500 CE).

    After Alexander the Great invaded Egypt in 332 BCE, Greek increasingly took over as the main administrative language, retaining administrative status until 706 CE.

    The last descendant of the Egyptian language is Coptic, spoken from around 100 BCE, initially co-existing with Demotic. Coptic was still widely spoken in Egypt after the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640 CE, but gradually lost ground to Arabic. A form of Coptic is still in use in the Coptic Church. The name Coptic comes from the Greek Aegyptios.

    Hieroglyphics and other scripts

    Ancient Egyptian was originally written in hieroglyphics. As writing developed and became more widespread, hieroglyphs developed into hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts. These variants were more suited than hieroglyphs for use on papyrus. But hieroglyphic writing continued in use as well, especially in monumental inscriptions and in some other formal texts.

    Demotic script was written (and read) from right to left, but hieroglyphs could be written from top to bottom, left to right, or right to left. 

    The last known hieroglyphic text was written at the Temple of Isis at Pilae in 394 CE and the last known text written in Demotic was inscribed there in 452 CE.

    Coptic is written in the Coptic alphabet, which is derived from the Greek alphabet, adding 6 demotic characters for sounds not present in Greek.

    Rosetta Stone

    In 1799, French forces demolished a fort at the port of Rosetta (modern Rashid) in the Nile delta, with the aim of replacing it with a stronger structure. Among the rubble was a block of stone—which we now call the Rosetta stone. The text on the stone contains a decree made in Memphis in 196 BCE near the start of the reign of King Ptolemy V. Presumably, the stone originally stood upright in a temple—perhaps at nearby Sais—and was then reused at some point in Rosetta as building material.

    The stone contains the same text in 3 scripts: hieroglyphic (top), demotic (middle) and Greek (bottom). For this reason, it was exceptionally important in deciphering both hieroglyphics and the demotic script. The demotic text is almost complete, but a section is missing from the lower right and corner of the Greek text. Only 14 lines of the hieroglyphic text are still present (and most of them are incomplete), but they still provided enough text to permit decoding of the hieroglyphics.

    Image 1 shows most of the top (hieroglyphic) and middle (demotic) layers of the Rosetta Stone.

    Image 1. Rosetta Stone: part of the top and middle sections

    Image 2 shows the surviving portion of the Rosetta Stone, inside a reconstruction of how the whole stone might have looked. This image is from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosetta_Stone


    Image 2. By A. Parrot – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86100346

    To see the Rosetta Stone online, follow the link to Stand in front of an enduring piece of history from the section www.britishmuseum.org/collection/egypt/explore-rosetta-stone/ That link lets you view the stone from any angle. (It shows the stone in its normal display case, not in the room that holds it during this exhibition.)

    The text on the Rosetta Stone sasy that the decree was to be placed in every temple in Egypt. Since the decoding, 3 other copies of the Memphis decree have been found. One copy contains fragments of all 3 texts, one copy contains only the Greek text and the 3rd copy contains only the hieroglyphic text.

    Remains exist of 11 other decrees of this kind, in 24 copies from between 243 BCE and 160 BCE.

    Moving the Rosetta Stone to Britain

    In 1801, British forces captured the Rosetta Stone and other Egyptian artefacts from a French expeditionary force, sending them to Britain in a warship (captured earlier that year from the French at Alexandria). The warship’s name was—appropriately—HMS Égyptienne. The stone ended up in London at the British Museum and has been there ever since.

    Early knowledge of hieroglyphs

    Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans tried to decipher hieroglyphics, but with no success. At that time, people assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that hieroglyphic was a solely ideographic writing system, with each hieroglyph standing only for an idea and not reflecting sounds. The same assumption also undermined all later attempts to unravel the script up until the early 19th century.

    Arab scholars of the 10th and 11 the centuries had somewhat more understanding, They realised that Coptic was a descendant of ancient Egyptian, and that the scripts might contain some phonetic components.

    European interest in hieroglyphics awoke again from the 17th century as hieroglyphic texts on, for example obelisks, and mummy bandages began to appear in Europe.

    Some early advances (though only modest) included the following:

      • In the 17th century, a German, Athanasius Kircher, identified several hieroglyphs as alphabetic equivalents of Coptic signs or word.

      • In the 18th century, Englishman William Warburton and Dane Georg Zoëga realised that the hieratic and demotic scripts derived from hieroglyphics.

      • In the early 19 century, Frenchman Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy identified some Greek names (including Ptolemy) on the Rosetta stone. The Swede Johan David Åkerblad identified a few demotic signs corresponding to Coptic letters. He also published a manuscript on Coptic place names in Egypt.
        And Englishman William John Bankes identified the names of Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra III on an obelisk from Philae. The obelisk now stands in Britain at the Bankes family home at Kingston Lacey (Dorset).

      Cracking the code

      Two men played the most significant parts in deciphering hieroglyphics and also demotic:

        • Thomas Young

        • Jean-François Champollion

        Thomas Young

        Thomas Young FRS (1773-1829), was a British polymath who made contributions to the fields of vision, light, solid mechanics, energy, physiology, musical harmony and language. He studied medicine at London, Edinburgh, Göttingen and Emmanuel College (Cambridge), becoming a fellow of the Royal Society by the age of 21. Young has been called ‘the last man who knew everything’. Apparently, Young was the first person to use the term Indo-European languages (in 1813).

        Young began studying the Rosetta Stone in 1814 as ‘an amusement of a few leisure hours’. Young soon made some important progress. By 1815, he understood that demotic script had developed from hieroglyphs and that the demotic script on the Rosette Stone contained not only ideographic (symbolic, pictorial) signs but also phonetic (sound) signs. He explained this in 1819 in an article Egypt in the Encyclopædia Britannica.

        Young made important progress in deciphering demotic script and continued to make further major progress on this until his death in 1829. He did not succeed in decoding hieroglyphics.  

        Jean-François Champollion

        Frenchman Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) started learning Latin and Greek as a child, quickly progressing to Hebrew and other Semitic languages such as Ethiopic, Arabic, Syriac and Chaldean, and then Coptic. He then moving to Paris to study oriental languages and literature. While in Paris, he took a Coptic monk as his tutor on Coptic and attended mass with members of the Coptic community in Paris. His deep knowledge of the Coptic language was to give him useful tools for his work on the Rosetta Sone: a wide Coptic vocabulary and ideas for the possible structure of Egyptian.  

        Champollion started studying the Rosetta Stone in 1807. By 1813, he had identified a few hieroglyphs as ‘alphabetical’. By 1818, he had identified hieroglyphs for definite or indefinite articles, for forming plurals and for some conjunctions. And in 1819, he had found a symbol on the Rosetta Stone for the consonant /f/.

        In 1821, Champollion noted that each hieroglyph cannot alone express an idea. There are 1,419 hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone but only 486 Greek words. And in 1822, he identified phonetic elements within cartouches enclosing the native Egyptian names Thutmose and Ramesses. (Until then, phonetic elements had been found only in Greco-Roman names, such as Ptolemy and Cleopatra.)

        By mid 1822, Champollion was sure he had cracked the code of the hieroglyphics.  He prepared a paper Lettre à M. Dacier relative à l’alphabet des hiéroglyphes phonétiques employés par les Égyptiens pour inscrire sur leurs monuments les titres, les noms et les surnoms de souverains grecs et romains
        (letter to Mr Dacier about the hieroglyphic alphabet used by the Egyptians to inscribe on their monuments the titles, names and surnames of Greek and Roman sovereigns).

        Bon-Joseph Dacier was the permanent secretary of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-letters in Paris. Champollion presented an abbreviated (8 page) copy of this letter at a meeting of the Academy in September 1822 and published the full text (44 pages) the next month.  Conventionally, this ‘letter’ marks the point at which the hieroglyphic code was cracked. (Image 3)


        Image 3. Champollion’s Letter to Mr Dacier

        Champollion published in 1824 a more complete monograph Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens. He became curator of the Egyptian collections of the Musée du Louvre in 1826 and took part in a Franco-Tuscan expedition to Egypt in 1828-9. He held the first chair of Egyptian history and archaeology at the Collège de France from 1831, but died the next year.

        Both before and after 1822, although Champollion and Young sometimes cooperated cordially, at other times their relations were strained. Young felt that Champollion did not give Young enough credit for the part he had played.  

        Champollion’s work went well beyond Young’s in several respects. For example, he realised that phonetic components were widespread in hieroglyphics, and not only in foreign names. Also his deep knowledge of Coptic helped him gain some understanding of Egyptian grammar, and not just of individual words.  

        Personal names

        An early clue important in the deciphering came from work on names of Egyptian rulers. By comparing a Greek text with the hieroglyphs, de Sacy identified which hieroglyphs in the name of Ptolemy corresponded to the Greek letters in his name. Champollion then found that 4 of the hieroglyphs in the name of Ptolemy also appeared in the name of Cleopatra (image 5). This process:

          • confirmed the matches for those 4 letters in Ptolemy’s name; and

          • hinted at the hieroglyphs spelling the remaining letters in Cleopatra’s name.


          Image 4. Hieroglyphs for P, T, O and L in the names of Ptolemy and Cleopatra
          Note: the ovals around each name are cartouches.

          Ptolemy and Cleopatra were Greco-Roman names. Champollion went on to perform the same analysis with native Egyptian names, such as Rameses.

          Some key insights in deciphering hieroglyphics:

            • the 3rd language of the Rosetta Stone was Demotic Egyptian, not Coptic.

            • nevertheless, because the Coptic language descended from Egyptian, Coptic words, names and structures could give clues to the meaning and sounds of Egyptian words and names.

            • sequences of hieroglyphics surrounded by a cartouche (an oval surround, as shown in image 4) were names of pharaohs or of deities.
              (the word cartouche comes from French cartouche, meaning ‘cartridge’)

            • the Greek spelling of names of known individuals on multi-lingual texts (such as the Rosetta Stone) could help identify the spelling of those names in the hieroglyphic and Demotic versions of the same texts.

            • a single hieroglyph by itself is often not enough to express an idea. There are 1,419 hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone but only 486 Greek words.

            • hieroglyphs were not just ideographs (depicting ideas). Some hieroglyphs were phonetic (representing sounds). Moreover, phonetic hieroglyphs were not just used in writing Greco-Roman names (such as Ptolemy and Cleopatra); they were also used in native Egyptian names and many other Egyptian words.

            • both hieroglyphs and Demotic recorded language, not just isolated concepts. In other words, they expressed grammatical structure and were not just sequences of icons.

            • hieroglyphs representing sounds were alphabetic, not syllabic.
              (Later researchers realised that hieroglyphs mainly represent consonants. Just like in Arabic today, they do not represent normally represent vowels—except in foreign names. Later researchers also discovered that some hieroglyphs stand for a root consisting of 2, or 3 consonants, not just for a single consonant).

            • the demotic writing system was descended from hieroglyphics and contained not just alphabetic letters but also ideographs.

            • unlike hieroglyphs, demotic was always written in the same direction: from right to left.

            Other sections in the exhibition

            Although the exhibition focuses on the deciphering of hieroglyphics, it also covers:

              • ancient Egyptian poetry

              • pharaohs and empire

              • foreign voices and foreign languages in Egypt

              • the concept of time

              • the afterlife

              • accounting, mathematics and construction

              • crime; family, marriage and divorce

              • social satire, sexual subversion and love songs

              • medicine and magic

              • creating and preserving writing

              • the digital Rosetta stone

              • decipherment and the revelation of Egyptian identity

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