When we mention the word “Hieroglyphics”, our minds take us all the way to Egypt of the ancient times. Here’s everything you need to know about this incredible writing system and how it started.
Hieroglyphic writing, a system that employs characters in the form of pictures. Those individual signs, called hieroglyphs, may be read either as pictures, as symbols for pictures, or as symbols for sounds.
Egyptian hieroglyphs are among the oldest writing systems in the world, dating back to some 5,200 years. In ancient Egyptian, they are known as the “medu netjer”, “language of the gods” and said to have been created by the god of knowledge, Thoth. The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek hiero ‘holy’ and glypho ‘writing’.
Hieroglyphs were vital in the fulfillment of royal duties and were used by powerful pharaohs and their scribes to record the achievements of their reign. Today, millions of hieroglyphs in sacred texts, sarcophagi, tombs, and monuments remain as memories of a highly civilized, bygone era.
The need to identify a pictorial representation with a royal individual or a specific, unique event, such as a hunt or a particular battle, led to the application of hieroglyphic writing to a monumental context.
The script was composed of three basic types of signs: logograms, representing words; phonograms, representing sounds; and determinatives, placed at the end of the word to help clarify its meaning. As a result, the number of signs used by the Egyptians was much higher compared to alphabetical systems, with over a thousand different hieroglyphs in use initially and later reduced to about 750 during the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BCE).
The inscriptions found to display different types of information: some of them are numbers, others are believed to indicate the origin of the goods, and the most complex show administrative information related to economic activities controlled by the ruler. Other signs found on pottery and stone vessels were used to indicate ownership of their content, probably connected with taxation and other accounting data.
In addition, the signs on pottery vessels became increasingly standardized and since these pot-marks are believed to express information about the contents of the vessels (including their provenance), this tendency may reflect a growth in the complexity of record keeping and administrative control.
The most ancient hieroglyphs date from the end of the 4th-millennium BCE and comprise annotations incised onto pottery jars and ivory plaques deposited in tombs, presumably for the purpose of identification of the dead.
Feel curious about the development of this writing system? Read more about the history of this writing system here.