How Did Scientists Discover Hieroglyphs and Find Out Their Meaning?

Hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt.
Hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt.

Discovering the hieroglyphs was not difficult at all. The ancient Egyptians covered almost everything that was made of stone and a flat surface with it. It was practically impossible to travel through Egypt without encountering countless hieroglyphs.

To find out what the hieroglyphs mean, old texts from that time helped. Texts that were written by the Greeks. But that was not enough to translate longer texts from the hieroglyphs. For this task more was needed, like the stone of Rosetta. A stone on which the same text is written in hieroglyphics, demotic and ancient Greek.

Because the Ancient Greek and the Demotic were known, the hieroglyphs could be decoded for the first time.

How Were the Hieroglyphs Deciphered?

In 1799, during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, French soldiers discovered a trilingual stone (hieroglyphics, demotic, Greek), called Stone of Rosetta. Later this stone reached Great Britain. The Frenchman Jean-François Champollion was able to obtain a copy.

Some believed that hieroglyphics was a pictographic writing. But Champollion recognized that there were 486 Greek words on the stone, but in 1419 hieroglyphics. Names of pharaohs are framed in so called cartouches and therefore easily recognizable, this was already known. He found Ptolemaios in the Greek text. Foreign names like Ptolemaios had to be spelled out and Champollion also had the idea that the vowels were not always written. So he could interpret Ptolemy. On an obelisk he interpreted Cleopatra correctly. Now he could decipher more and more.

It is difficult to understand the hieroglyphics because there are three kinds of signs. There are numerous phonograms, like those first discovered by Champollion. But these exist also for several consonants, i.e. a hieroglyph for “pr”, “nb” etc. There are determinatives, which make the meaning of a word clear, e.g. “something with water”, “something bad”, “something made of cloth” etc. And there are indeed also pure ideograms, as long suspected.

Unfortunately, many hieroglyphs can be of a different kind depending on the context. So an “eye” is either an “eye” (ideogram) or means “make” (phonogram) or “something with seeing” (determinative). You can also change the order if it looks nicer.

So the decoding was not easy – the Rosetta stone alone was not enough, but it put Champollion on the right track.

Behistun Inscription. Discovering the hieroglyphs.
Behistun Inscription, prepared on the orders of King Darius I in 521 BC.

As an Interesting Side Effect:

What the Rosetta Stone meant for the deciphering of the hieroglyphics was the inscription of Behistun.

These are images carved into the rock of Bisutun(Iran), commissioned by the Achaemenid King Darius I of ancient Persia, who legitimize his rule. The inscription is carved in Old Persian, Elamian and Babylonian. Thanks to this inscription, archaeologists were finally able to decipher the cuneiform script.

The cuneiform script was used for 3000 years by the Assyrians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Persians, Elamians, Hittites and Sumerians, and is the very first script.

Why Did Hieroglyphic Writing Come About so Early in Human History?

Simple answer: because of the advanced bureaucracy of the first centralized state in human history.

Like almost all writings of the then advanced civilizations in Mesopotamia and also in the Nile Delta, these developed due to profane necessity: the state authorities had to record and document taxes. Especially in the huge territorial area, which was ancient Egypt, the taxes quickly became confusing due to the many inhabitants. Nevertheless, the taxes on grain were essential for the empire: wages were paid in bread and beer.

For this reason alone, the taxes had to be precisely divided and above all recorded. The easiest way to do this was with a writing system. The accompanying flourishing of culture and religion through this writing system in Egypt was thus an “unintentional” accessory of the bureaucracy.

Someone else is said to claim that bureaucracy is disdainful, considering that without it such beautiful and breathtaking hieroglyphic texts would not have been created.


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