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The History of Egyptian Hieroglyphs and the Rosetta Stone

The Egyptian hieroglyphs are among the first writing systems known to men. Used by Egyptians for over 3000 years, their understanding today wouldn’t have been possible without the Rosetta stone.

“The Words of God”, commonly known as hieroglyphs, were among the first writing systems in human history. Similar to any other ancient language and script, the exact origin of the hieroglyphs is unknown and will most likely never be revealed in its entirety.

For all we know, the oldest hieroglyphs found by archeologists that have been securely dated were from the period of Naqada II (3500 – 3200 BC) which makes this script no less than 5000 years old. As it seems, the first hieroglyphs were used mainly as decoration as the ones from Naqada II and Naqada III were found on pottery.

Despite the thousands of archeological findings, historians wouldn’t have made almost any progress in understanding the script if it was not for the Rosetta stone but we will discuss it in-depth at a later stage.

Clay pot artifact from the pre-dynastic period of Naqada II (3500 – 3200 BC)
Clay pot artifact from the pre-dynastic period of Naqada II (3500 – 3200 BC)

Egyptian Hieroglyphs in Short

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs consisted of drawings and diagrams that were placed on the walls of temples and monuments and were depicted on papyrus. They were created by artists, masters, and sculptors who formed their models and plastered them in reliefs.

The only people who were allowed to read or write were the so-called scribes who were thought to be professionals and highly-respected people. Ancient Egyptians believed that the ability of their scribes was bestowed by the god Thoth, worshiped as the god of writing hieroglyphs.

God Thoth, relief carving from Abydos Temple
God Thoth, relief carving from Abydos Temple

Although the ancient Egyptian script does looks complicated, it is actually quite clear and simple. There were three main groups of signs that include logograms, phonograms, and definitive signs. Logograms were used to depict morphemes while phonograms were used to depict sounds. Definitive signs were used to aid the two other groups and make them clearer.

A beautiful inscription of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs
A beautiful inscription of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs

The Ancient Egyptian script consisted of only consonants which is the case with all ancient scripts from the Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic periods of Egypt. Undoubtedly, they used vowels in spoken language for pronunciation. Nevertheless, they did not include any in their writing system which made it extremely difficult for archeologists and historians to pronounce the hieroglyphs. This lead to the creation of a reading protocol which was used artificially to interpret the words. This explains why most people think that Egyptians used vowels in their script.

The ancient Egyptian writing system consisted of about 700 characters. Hieroglyphics were mainly used for religious as well as solemn purposes. They continued to be used in Egypt until about 400 AD, after which they were replaced by Coptic, another form of written language.

Coptic alphabet
Coptic alphabet

At first, there were 24 letters that were borrowed from the Greek writing system. Later on, they added six more that represented specific Egyptian sounds. Today, these two scripts have long been forgotten and the official language in Egypt is Arabic.

The Rosetta stone

Scientists and archeologists had little success in the interpretation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs until the Rosetta stone was discovered in 1799 on accident by soldiers in Napoleon’s army.

The Rosetta stone is a fragment of a large black basalt stone engraving found near the city of Rosetta in the Nile Delta. The same text is engraved on the stone in two languages but in three ancient scripts ​​- Egyptian hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. This was because, at that time, these were the three scripts that Egyptians used.

Rosetta stone, full-frontal image
Rosetta stone, full-frontal image

Both the demotic script and the ancient Greek language were well known to 19th-century Egyptologists who worked on deciphering the stone. As the text in the vernacular and the Greek language coincided, the significance of the Egyptian characters became clear.

The discovery and translation of this text are very important because it helps to interpret many other early written sources of ancient Egyptian civilization.

But what does the text on the Rosetta stone actually depict? Unfortunately, the stone that we have today is only a small portion of the actual stone plate and a lot of the text is missing. Nevertheless, it gives a lot of information about one of the most important rulers of Egypt from the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

Rosetta stone reconstruction
Rosetta stone reconstruction

Rosetta Stone Text Decryption

All three texts refer to a decree adopted by the Memphis council of priests. It confirmed the royal cult of Ptolemy V of Egypt, one year after his coronation. The text on the Rosetta stone begins with a great appraisal for the achievements and dominions of Ptolemy V.

The king brought prosperity to Egypt and invested large sums in the temples – both for the construction of new ones and the restoration of old ones. Ptolemy also provided gold for the people. Taxes were reduced or completely eliminated, and many of the prisoners, who were previously considered enemies of the state, were released.

Bust of Ptolemy V
Bust of Ptolemy V

Ptolemy V had defeated Egypt’s enemies and even actions against an enemy fortress whose fall was due to the blocking of urban water supply channels are mentioned. In tribute to all these actions of the king, in all temples called “Ptolemy, Protector of Egypt” a statue of the king with 10 gold crowns was to be erected, and the temples themselves were to be visited 3 times a day by priests.

According to the decree, Ptolemy’s birthday, as well as his coronation date, were to be celebrated as national holidays during which sacrifices and feasts would be held. In addition, every last and seventeenth day of each month should be a day of celebration in honor of the great ruler and favorite of the gods.

Ptolemy V Epiphanes, 205 – 180 BC
Ptolemy V Epiphanes, 205 – 180 BC

The text concludes that these decrees must be written in three different languages, and the stone slabs on which they are inscribed must be placed in all temples – right next to the statues of that great king who would live forever.

If you have 3 minutes to spare, watch this YouTube video by Tom Scott on how the secret of hieroglyphs were deciphered.

“The Words of God”, commonly known as hieroglyphs, were among the first writing systems in human history. Similar to any other ancient language and script, the exact origin of the hieroglyphs is unknown and will most likely never be revealed in its entirety.

For all we know, the oldest hieroglyphs found by archeologists that have been securely dated were from the period of Naqada II (3500 – 3200 BC) which makes this script no less than 5000 years old. As it seems, the first hieroglyphs were used mainly as decoration as the ones from Naqada II and Naqada III were found on pottery.

Despite the thousands of archeological findings, historians wouldn’t have made almost any progress in understanding the script if it was not for the Rosetta stone but we will discuss it in-depth at a later stage.

Clay pot artifact from the pre-dynastic period of Naqada II (3500 – 3200 BC)
Clay pot artifact from the pre-dynastic period of Naqada II (3500 – 3200 BC)

Egyptian Hieroglyphs in Short

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs consisted of drawings and diagrams that were placed on the walls of temples and monuments and were depicted on papyrus. They were created by artists, masters, and sculptors who formed their models and plastered them in reliefs.

The only people who were allowed to read or write were the so-called scribes who were thought to be professionals and highly-respected people. Ancient Egyptians believed that the ability of their scribes was bestowed by the god Thoth, worshiped as the god of writing hieroglyphs.

God Thoth, relief carving from Abydos Temple
God Thoth, relief carving from Abydos Temple

Although the ancient Egyptian script does looks complicated, it is actually quite clear and simple. There were three main groups of signs that include logograms, phonograms, and definitive signs. Logograms were used to depict morphemes while phonograms were used to depict sounds. Definitive signs were used to aid the two other groups and make them clearer.

A beautiful inscription of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs
A beautiful inscription of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs

The Ancient Egyptian script consisted of only consonants which is the case with all ancient scripts from the Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic periods of Egypt. Undoubtedly, they used vowels in spoken language for pronunciation. Nevertheless, they did not include any in their writing system which made it extremely difficult for archeologists and historians to pronounce the hieroglyphs. This lead to the creation of a reading protocol which was used artificially to interpret the words. This explains why most people think that Egyptians used vowels in their script.

The ancient Egyptian writing system consisted of about 700 characters. Hieroglyphics were mainly used for religious as well as solemn purposes. They continued to be used in Egypt until about 400 AD, after which they were replaced by Coptic, another form of written language.

Coptic alphabet
Coptic alphabet

At first, there were 24 letters that were borrowed from the Greek writing system. Later on, they added six more that represented specific Egyptian sounds. Today, these two scripts have long been forgotten and the official language in Egypt is Arabic.

The Rosetta stone

Scientists and archeologists had little success in the interpretation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs until the Rosetta stone was discovered in 1799 on accident by soldiers in Napoleon’s army.

The Rosetta stone is a fragment of a large black basalt stone engraving found near the city of Rosetta in the Nile Delta. The same text is engraved on the stone in two languages but in three ancient scripts ​​- Egyptian hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. This was because, at that time, these were the three scripts that Egyptians used.

Rosetta stone, full-frontal image
Rosetta stone, full-frontal image

Both the demotic script and the ancient Greek language were well known to 19th-century Egyptologists who worked on deciphering the stone. As the text in the vernacular and the Greek language coincided, the significance of the Egyptian characters became clear.

The discovery and translation of this text are very important because it helps to interpret many other early written sources of ancient Egyptian civilization.

But what does the text on the Rosetta stone actually depict? Unfortunately, the stone that we have today is only a small portion of the actual stone plate and a lot of the text is missing. Nevertheless, it gives a lot of information about one of the most important rulers of Egypt from the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

Rosetta stone reconstruction
Rosetta stone reconstruction

Rosetta Stone Text Decryption

All three texts refer to a decree adopted by the Memphis council of priests. It confirmed the royal cult of Ptolemy V of Egypt, one year after his coronation. The text on the Rosetta stone begins with a great appraisal for the achievements and dominions of Ptolemy V.

The king brought prosperity to Egypt and invested large sums in the temples – both for the construction of new ones and the restoration of old ones. Ptolemy also provided gold for the people. Taxes were reduced or completely eliminated, and many of the prisoners, who were previously considered enemies of the state, were released.

Bust of Ptolemy V
Bust of Ptolemy V

Ptolemy V had defeated Egypt’s enemies and even actions against an enemy fortress whose fall was due to the blocking of urban water supply channels are mentioned. In tribute to all these actions of the king, in all temples called “Ptolemy, Protector of Egypt” a statue of the king with 10 gold crowns was to be erected, and the temples themselves were to be visited 3 times a day by priests.

According to the decree, Ptolemy’s birthday, as well as his coronation date, were to be celebrated as national holidays during which sacrifices and feasts would be held. In addition, every last and seventeenth day of each month should be a day of celebration in honor of the great ruler and favorite of the gods.

Ptolemy V Epiphanes, 205 – 180 BC
Ptolemy V Epiphanes, 205 – 180 BC

The text concludes that these decrees must be written in three different languages, and the stone slabs on which they are inscribed must be placed in all temples – right next to the statues of that great king who would live forever.

If you have 3 minutes to spare, watch this YouTube video by Tom Scott on how the secret of hieroglyphs were deciphered.

Vladislav Tchakarov
Vladislav Tchakarov
Vladislav Tchakarov is a History student at Sofia University in Bulgaria and a contributing writer at TheCollector. Originally from Bulgaria, he moved to the Netherlands to work and study Business Management before realizing that his passion for history is too great which lead to his return to Bulgaria and the beginning of his History studies.

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