6 Things You Need to Know about Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Egyptian Hieroglyphs were deciphered just under 200 years ago, but they are still a mystery to many people. Here are 6 fascinating facts about this ancient writing system. 

1. Hieroglyphs may actually be the oldest writing system in the world

It's usually said that writing originated in Mesopotamia - the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - and that Egypt adopted writing practices from there.

The evidence from the site of Abydos, uncovered by Prof. Günther Dreyer and the German Archaeological Institute in 1998/9, shows that 'predynastic' hieroglyphs pre-date Sumerian writing, making them the oldest known writing system in the world.

Labels from Abydos (Umm el-Qa'ab) - Courtesy Prof. G. Dreyer.

Labels from Abydos (Umm el-Qa'ab) - Courtesy Prof. G. Dreyer.

Although these hieroglyphs are not much more than simple labels (see left), they do include the names of places and institutions. This use of names was the basis on which Sumerian had previously been counted as the oldest writing system - with examples dating back as far as 3100 BCE. The Abydos labels and seal impressions date back at least 100 years earlier, and possibly as much as 300 years earlier. This certainly shows that Egyptian did not simply borrow the writing system used in ancient Mesopotamia - and it may have been the other way around. 

2. Hieroglyphs aren't the whole story. 

Egyptian - the language that Ancient Egyptians spoke and wrote - wasn't only written down in hieroglyphs. There are many other scripts, including hieratic, demotic, and Coptic. These other scripts (the system of characters used to record the sounds of the spoken language) were used for different purposes - for example, it is much easier and fast to write in Hieratic on papyrus as it is a cursive (handwriting) style. 

3. Hieroglyphs survived nearly 4000 years.

Graffitto of Esmet-Akhom, 394 AD. Image courtesy of mkubecka: http://bit.ly/1UwMZNe

Graffitto of Esmet-Akhom, 394 AD.
Image courtesy of mkubecka: http://bit.ly/1UwMZNe

The earliest hieroglyphic writing from Egypt dates to around 3200-3400 BCE (see #1 above). The latest inscription dates to 394 AD - The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom (right). That means that hieroglyphs as a writing system endured nearly 3800 years. To put that in context, the English language has been around in some form since the Fifth Century, meaning it has lasted around 1400 years so far - just over a third as long. 

4. Hieroglyphs aren't pictograms. Or emoji.

Despite the assertions of Professor Vyv Evans, of Bangor University, the Egyptian Hieroglyphic script is not a simple pictographic script, like 'emojis'. The Guardian blog on the same subject, picking up on Prof. Evans' unlikely claims, asserts that Egyptian culture 'did not develop a more flexible, questioning literary culture'. In fact, the issue here is that the Guardian blogger in question, Jonathan Jones, needs to develop a more flexible, questioning literary eye - if he had, he'd surely have come across Egyptian literary tales such as The Doomed Prince, The Tale of the Two Brothers, or the tales of Papyrus Westcar (King Khufu and the Magicians). He's presumably unaware of the entire genre of Wisdom Literature, in which scribes would explore themes such as mortality, justice, kingship, morality and peace. He's clearly never come across the magical spells, medical prescriptions, religious hymns, love poems, lyrical songs, monumental inscriptions, personal letters, or any of the other myriad genres of Egyptian text. I could go on, but the fabulous Margaret Maitland, the Curator of Egypt and the ancient Mediterranean at the National Museums of Scotland, wrote an excellent rebuttal to this absurd idea, which expresses it beautifully.

5. Hieroglyphs can be funny. 

'Heh' the god, and hieroglyph for 'millions'

'Heh' the god, and hieroglyph for 'millions'

Ancient Egyptians use hieroglyphs (and other scripts) to write amusing or sarcastic texts (for example, in the Report of Wenamun, the foreign prince Tjekerbaal mocks Wenamun, saying 'Pharaoh sent (previously) 6 boats, loaded with the riches of Egypt. You - what did you bring me?'. There are satirical texts, such as this Twentieth Dynasty one showing animals acting as humans. There's even an Erotic Papyrus, now in Turin, which might make even the most unshockable blush a little. Ancient Egyptians obviously enjoyed a good joke as much as anyone. There's a famous graffito of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut in a rather compromising position with the court official Senenmut (first image - probably not safe for work!)

Hieroglyphs themselves can also make us chuckle - who can resist the excitable 'Heh' hieroglyph (above right), meaning 'millions/infinity' or the somewhat graphic 'woman giving birth' (below)? 

'Woman giving birth' Hieroglyph - from the Temple of Kom Ombo. Via WikiCommons.

'Woman giving birth' Hieroglyph - from the Temple of Kom Ombo. Via WikiCommons.

6. Most Egyptians couldn't read Hieroglyphs. 

Or anything else. Estimates of literacy in Ancient Egypt vary, but would certainly have been less than 4% of the population. That's 4 in every 100 Egyptians who could read. At most. The actual figure may have been as low as 1%. Which makes it all the more amazing that the hieroglyphic writing system lasted as long as it did, and was used so extensively to write on, and decorate, so many monuments and objects from ancient Egypt. 

If you'd like to learn more about Egyptian Hieroglyphs, why not join our forthcoming course Introduction to Egyptian Hieroglyphs - starting 17th September.