In this third article on hieroglyphic signs in Egyptian writing and art, we will look at a number of signs representing objects. Egyptians would have encountered many of these objects depicted in their day-to-day lives.
Others were of a more ritual nature but appear over and over on important artifacts and monuments. In learning about these signs, you will discover some interesting tidbits about daily life and religion in ancient Egypt.
This sign represents a hoe. In a society that was dependent on agriculture, this tool would have been ubiquitous. Farmers had to break up the soil before planting seeds. Builders constructing buildings in mudbrick would have used it to break up dirt clods as well. The sign was used to write words like “to till” and in words with the sound “mer.”
2. Bread loaves
Bread was the staple of the Egyptian diet. Every tomb owner’s first wish from those still alive passing by the tomb was 1000 loaves of bread and 1000 jugs of beer. The basic sign for bread shows a round loaf. The word “bread” is written with this sign as well as the letter “t.” Housewives in Upper Egypt still bake similar loaves of bread today that are left to rise in the sun before baking.
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3. Pot baked bread
During the Old Kingdom period, a special bread baked in conical pots was popular among the builders of the pyramids. This hieroglyph represents a stylized version of this bread. Archaeologists have experimentally recreated this bread, which probably was a sourdough. This sign was used along with the previous to refer to bread, and even food in general.
4. Offering Mat
Sometimes the scribes combined basic hieroglyphic signs with other signs to make an entirely different sign. When the pot baked bread sign appeared on top of a sign depicting a reed mat, it represented an offering. It appeared in the most common offering formula that Egyptians inscribed in their tombs. Because it was a homonym, it also appeared in the words for “rest” and “peace.”
Only priests and royalty could gain access to Egyptian temples. The common man and woman would have only been allowed to enter the exterior precincts of temples.
Flagpoles were set up in front of major temples like Karnak, Luxor or Medinet Habu. While none of these flagpoles remain, there are niches in the walls of the temples where they would have stood. As such a distinctive aspect of temples, it is no wonder that these flagpoles were also the hieroglyph meaning “god.”
6. Pottery kiln
Ceramic pottery was the ancient Egyptian equivalent of modern plastic: ubiquitous and disposable. It was fired at high temperatures in kilns such as the one depicted in this hieroglyph. The hieroglyphic sign served as a word meaning “kiln,” and because this word was pronounced ta, it also appeared with this phonetic value in other words.
Their basic structure, with a fire room below and the room for the pottery above, seems to have been the same as that of modern Egyptian kilns like the one pictured in the photograph.
Boats served as the main form of long distance transportation in ancient Egypt, the Nile River serving as a natural highway. The world’s longest river flows from the central African highlands to the Mediterranean Sea.
This means that boats traveling downstream (northward) would float with the current. Because there is an almost constant breeze from the north in Egypt, sailors unfurl their sails for upstream (southward) travel. The interrelatedness between the wind, the north and sailing was so close that the Egyptians used the sail sign in the word for “wind”, and the word for “north”.
8. Butcher block
The material culture of ancient Egypt has many echoes in modern Egypt. One is represented by this glyph, which shows a wooden butcher block. These three-legged blocks are still manufactured by hand in Cairo and used in butcher shops around the country. The sign itself appears in the word for “under” and also words that contain the same sound as that word, such as “storehouse” and “portion.”
9. Nu jar
This hieroglyph shows a water jar. It is used to write the sound “nu” and in later times means “of” when used with plural words. In statuary from temples, the king often holds two of these pots while kneeling as an offering to the gods.
10. Scribal tools
Many young boys in ancient Egypt dreamed of a career as a scribe. It provided a good income and a life free of hard physical labor. In fact, having a pot belly was considered one of the perks of the job. Literacy was probably only 5%, so scribes played an important role in society.
These functionaries composed papyrus documents for those who could not write. Each scribe kept a kit that consisted of three parts: 1-A wood palette with black and red ink, 2-a tube for carrying reed pens, and 3-a leather sack for carrying extra ink and other supplies.
Egyptologists long suspected this sign represented a human placenta. It is primarily used to write the sound “kh.” It was also used in a word that meant “one who belongs to the kh,” namely an infant. That would make sense if the object were a placenta, but more likely the object is a sieve. Egyptians of today have a ritual they perform on the seventh day after a baby is born. This ritual involves shaking the baby in a sieve and it probably has its origins in ancient times.
The cartouche is different from every other glyph in that it must always enclose other glyphs. It represents a rope and encloses two of the five names of royalty: the birth name and the throne name. A cartouche can be oriented horizontally or vertically, depending on the direction of the other text around it.