Characters used for writing in ancient Egypt, and generally connected to writing on monuments.
The word "hieroglyph" was not used by the Egyptians themselves, but is a Greek term introduced in the 1st century BCE. "Hieroglyph" means "sacred carving," and is a term correctly designating its use on religious monuments (see Ancient Egyptian religion).
The Egyptians themselves traced the origin of hieroglyphs back to the god Thoth. At first the Egyptians called the writing system "pictures;" later it was elevated to mean, "writing of God's words."
Hieroglyphs are a mixture of picture symbols (ideograms) as well as phonetic characters (phonograms), and were used in a way different from alphabetic writing. The hieroglyphic system is best described as "rebus" writing, in which words could be made up of one single hieroglyph or a combination of several hieroglyphs.
Hieroglyphs were pictures, though some pictures are hard to understand. They were written according to the following principles:
1. A hieroglyph as a picture, f.x. in which a picture represents a "sun".
2. A hieroglyph could also represent or imply a word with a meaning close to the direct translation. The same sign for sun would be read as "day" or the sun god, Re.
3. The consonants of the direct translation of hieroglyphs as symbols could be used for another word with similar consonants. The hieroglyph for "wood" had the consonants h and t. Therefore, this hieroglyph could be used for the word hti, meaning "retreat" or "carve."
4. Hieroglyphs could be used to represent single consonants or combinations of consonants in a specific order, regardless of the original meaning.
5. In cases where there was room for misunderstandings, extra symbols were used to clarify.
6. Vowels were not written.
7. Royal names were enclosed in a ring, called a cartouche.
Hieroglypics could be written could be both vertically and horizontally, and in most cases from right to left. It was easy to see what direction had been used for writing, since the symbols turned in the same direction as the writing.
The system of hieroglyphic writing used about 700 signs, but after 500 BCE this number multiplied beacuse of the inventiveness by scholars of that period who needed to make their writing easier to read and understand.
Use and Application
Hieroglyphs were normally written on monuments, like temples and tombs. But there are examples of hieroglyphs used on gravestones, statues, coffins, vessels and implements.
Hieroglyphs could be carved in stone (either as high or bas-reliefs) or applied with paint; cast or incised in metal; or carved in or painted upon wood.
There was always a close connection between hieroglyphic writing and fine art. Hieroglyphic writing was more elaborate and required more labour than hieratic script which was used for writing on paper, and it served its purpose best when used as part of the decoration on important monuments. Hieroglyphic writing was only understood by a small group in the society: officials, doctors and priests together with the craftsmen doing the inscriptions.
A type of hieroglyphs was developed for the Anatolian languages, Hittite, Luwian and Urartian language. Its structure and appearance is quite different from Egyptian, and there is nothing that suggest that Anatolian hieroglyphs depended on Egyptian hieroglyphs.
30th century BCE: The hieroglyphic system is developed.
500 BCE: A slow revolution of hieroglyphic writing begins, as new signs are introduced. The number of available signs in the system grows over the centuries from around 700 to several thousand.
394 CE: The date of the last case of hieroglyphic writing.
Middle of 17th century: First attempt to decipher the hieroglyphic system by Athanasius Kircher.
1799: The Rosetta Stone (see illustration) is discovered, and this became crucial to understanding the system, since it contained the same text in two languages (Egyptian and Greek), and in three writing systems (hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek).
1822: The French scientist Jean-Francoise Champollion completes the decipherment of the phonetic values of the hieroglyphs. His work rested partly on earlier work performed by Swedish, Johan David Åkerblad, and British, Thomas Young, both of whom manged to decipher some of the hieroglyphs.
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