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Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics

The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are a fascination to many people. The term hieroglyphics refers to a system of writing using ancient Egyptian symbols. The hieroglyphics involved a series of 'picture' words. Consisting of several hundred words, this system of writing was intensely complex and very labor intensive. The first hieroglyphics were used on buildings and tombs. It is believed that the Egyptians first began developing this system of writing about 3000 BC.

Related articles:  The History of Hieroglyphics,  Cartouche Hieroglyphics, Archaeology in Egypt.

Facts about Hieroglyphics

There are some facts about hieroglyphics that are quite interesting to note:

  • This system of writing involved absolutely no vowels, consisting only of consonants.
  • The Egyptians also did not use any form of punctuation or spacing.
  • With over 700 ancient Egyptian symbols representing actual words and thousands of others used for individual sounds, some quite intricate, it took quite a long time to learn to write in hieroglyphics.
  • Egyptian hieroglyphics were written both vertically in rows and horizontally in columns.
  • The placement of the Egyptian hieroglyphics alphabet letters into an eye pleasing layout was extremely important. Empty spaces were avoided as much as possible and to that end symbols Egyptian art were usually formed into squares instead of straight lines.
  • Unlike most forms of modern language, which is typically read from right or left; ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics could be read either from right to left or from left to right . In order to know which direction to begin reading, the scribe would position the figures so that they faced in the correct direction.

Egyptian Symbols

Not all symbols represented single letters; some pictures represented words. The symbols that make up the alphabet in Egyptian hieroglyphics are sub-divided into categories including phonograms and ideograms.

Ideograms were used to write the words they represented. An example of an ideogram would be a picture of a woman that actually looked like a woman and represented the word 'woman'.

Phonograms were used to spell out the sound out the words they represented and they usually had no relation to the word they were sounding out. As a result, symbols could be both ideograms and phonograms and the reader would need to determine the context of the 'sentence' in order to find out which word was intended. To indicate whether a symbol represented a complete word or merely a sound scribes would place a straight line after the word.

A large majority of the ancient Egyptian culture were not able to read or write. Instead they depended on scribes and priests. Young boys from wealthy families usually entered schools around age six or seven, in order to learn to write in hieroglyphics. Their training normally took several years to complete.

Although the training for the position of scribe was very intense and lengthy, there were benefits that made it worthwhile. Scribes were considered to servants of the royal household and as such were exempt from taxes. They were also not required to enter the military and were often revered with portraits on the sides of buildings.

A scribe at work
A scribe at work

Over several thousand years, the system of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics developed by Egyptian civilization evolved and developed into an even more complex system consisting of varying forms of formality. Hieroglyphics were first employed on buildings and tombs, such as the Tutankhamen sarcophagus symbols. Eventually the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were used to decorate jewelry, record events on papyrus and to form a kind of signature for royalty and deities on oval stones known as cartouche.