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How Did We Learn to Read Egyptian Writing?

Ever wonder how modern humans learned to read and write?

It all started with ancient Egypt and the hieroglyphic writing system.

Hieroglyphics is an ancient Semitic script that was used in Ancient Egypt and became the foundation of the modern alphabet. (You can see examples of both hieroglyphics and the modern alphabet in this amazing collection of Egyptian writing.)

Hieroglyphics is made up of simplified pictures called ‘glyphs’ that were used to represent ideas and words. In the beginning, the only form of writing available was in the form of papyri (scrolls). In most cases, the content was purely educational – these scrolls could not be read by anyone other than the educated priesthood. However, as society became more literate, the need for simplified letter forms emerged. This is how we get the modern alphabet.

The Rosetta Stone

The most famous example of simplified glyphs is the Rosetta Stone, which helped to unlock the secrets of hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone is actually a slab of pink stone with three languages – Hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Greek – carved on it. Thanks to this incredible piece of work, the Egyptians’ use of hieroglyphics became widely known.

Carved in the middle stone is a falcon, a symbol of Phoenician commerce. The top left stone shows a bird rising out of a snake, and the bottom right shows a cobra – the Egyptian representation of the Phoenician god, Mercury. The stone was originally found in Italy and was later purchased by the British Museum in London where it now resides.

How Did They Decode It?

Once the meaning of hieroglyphics became known, it was just a matter of time before the world fully adopted it as a means of communication. Of course, this took some time, and a lot of learning. But it didn’t take long for people to realize the benefits of this new form of writing.

For those who had studied the subject, reading and understanding hieroglyphics was a breeze. However, for those who were not familiar with this form of writing, it wasn’t so easy.

The key to understanding hieroglyphics is context. If you know what a particular image or symbol means in relation to the whole text, you will have a much better chance of understanding it. To give you an idea of how powerful this can be, here are some examples of hieroglyphics that have been decoded:

  • A man with an axe hitting a tree trunk – this is the glyph for ‘log’
  • A man with an axe hitting another tree trunk – this is the glyph for ‘field’
  • A man with a snake biting a man’s thigh – this is the glyph for ‘serpent’
  • A man with an earring holding a flint – this is the glyph for ‘hat’
  • A falcon grabbing a snake in the Egyptian flag – this is the glyph for ‘Phoenician commerce’
  • Two men standing over a prone figure – this is the glyph for ‘triumvirate’ (three men ruling together)
  • A dog seated next to a goose – this is the glyph for ‘friendship’
  • An eagle with open wings standing over a snake in a coil – this is the glyph for ‘king’
  • A goose with an egg in its mouth – this is the glyph for ‘hatching’
  • A man wearing an elegant cape – this is the glyph for ‘astronaut’
  • A she-elephant carrying a human child on its back – this is the glyph for ‘maternal affection’
  • A man standing in front of an animal triad (lion, baboon, and leopard) – this is the glyph for ‘power’
  • An elaborate chair with three reclining figures – this is the glyph for ‘wisdom’
  • A scorpion with a frog in its mouth – this is the glyph for ‘agreement’
  • A ram with a snake in its jaw – this is the glyph for ‘challenge’
  • A man holding a scepter and wearing a crown – this is the glyph for ‘ruler’
  • A dog with a snake in its mouth – this is the glyph for ‘faithfulness’
  • An elaborate throne with the Egyptian flag and the ankh (cruxifixion symbol) – this is the glyph for ‘royal power’

Why Are Some Hieroglyphics More Difficult To Understand Than Others?

There are a number of reasons why some hieroglyphics are more difficult to understand than others. For example, the above examples show some common pitfalls that you should avoid if you want to fully comprehend the meaning of a particular glyph. One of the most important things you need to keep in mind is that not all simplified glyphs mean the same thing. This makes decoding a real challenge, especially if you are not familiar with the subject.

To give you an idea of what I am talking about, let us take a look at the bird glyphs from the top example. In that case, you would read the top two stones as “the Phoenician god, Mercury, seated on a car with an axe hitting a tree trunk.” If this is the first time you have ever seen a bird represented in writing, then it might be a bit difficult to understand what that particular symbol means. There are, however, several different interpretations for that particular bird image.

As you can see, it is quite a tricky business decoding hieroglyphics, and with good reason – if you want to truly understand the meaning of that particular piece of writing, then it must be decoded and interpreted correctly. Fortunately, the more you learn about this fascinating history, the more it will make sense. As with any new knowledge, sooner or later, it will all make sense.