The word hieroglyphics refers to a method of writing used by ancient Egyptian. Hieroglyphics involved a series symbols, or hieroglyphs, which are ‘pictures’ of the words or sounds. With over 700 ancient Egyptian symbols in the hieroglyphic alphabet representing actual words and thousands of other used for individual sounds, it was a very complicated and labour intensive system to use.
The first hieroglyphics were used mainly by the priests to record important events like wars or stories about their many gods and Pharaohs, and were usually used to decorate temples and tombs. It is believed that the ancient Egyptians first began developing the hieroglyphic system of writing about 3000 BC. It eventually fell into disuse in around 391AD as a result of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I closing the ‘pagan’ temples. The skill necessary to translate hieroglyphs was then lost until some 1,500 years later when Jean-Francois Champollion discovered the Rosetta stone, a stone tablet on which the same text was inscribed in three languages. This trilingual inscription made it possible to decipher hieroglyphics because it contained a parallel text in a known language, Greek.
Hieroglyphs were written in rows or columns, which could be read in either direction. The direction in which the text should be read can be distinguished as the human or animal figures always face towards the beginning of the line. Hieroglyphics uses no vowels, consisting only of consonants, nor was any form of punctuation or spacing used.
Not all hieroglyphs represented single letters or sounds; some represented entire words. Egyptian hieroglyphics were sub-divided into categories including phonograms and ideograms.
Ideograms were used to write the words they represented. For example an ideogram could be a hieroglyph of a basket that looked like a basket and represented the word ‘basket’.
Phonograms were used to spell out the sound of the word they represented and they usually had no relation to the word they were describing.
To indicate whether a hieroglyph represented a complete word or just a sound ancient Egyptian scribes would insert a straight line after the word.
The vast majority of the ancient Egyptians were unable to read or write and depended on scribes and priests to render words into hieroglyphics. Young boys from wealthy families were taught to read and write from a very early age and, due to the complexity of the system, it took many years training to become a scribe. Once fully trained however, the position of a scribe was highly regarded and brought with it many benefits, including exemption from taxes and military service.