Hieroglyphic writing first began around 5000 years ago. Egyptians wrote in hieroglyphs up to about 400 AD, after that they wrote in a short-hand cursive style called demotic.
(in the British Museum, London)
We are able to decipher hieroglyphs thanks to a special chunk of rock and a determined Egyptologist. In 1799, a soldier digging a fort in Rosetta, Egypt found a large black stone with three different types of writing on it. The writing was a message about Ptolemy V, who was ruling Egypt at the time. Because the message was written during the time when the Greeks ruled Egypt, one of the three languages was Greek. The other two were demotic and hieroglyphic. The three languages on “The Rosetta Stone” said the same thing. And even though people could read Greek, they couldn’t figure out how to match up Greek words with hieroglyphic words. For years no one was able to understand how the hieroglyphic message corresponded to the Greek one.
neat vertical hieroglyph panels tell the story
Finally, in 1822, a French Egyptologist named Jean François Champollion figured out how to decipher hieroglyphic writing. He realized that the hieroglyphs that spelled “Ptolemy” were enclosed in a cartouche, so he was able to match it up to the Greek spelling. This discovery enabled him to equate the unfamiliar hieroglyphs with familiar Greek words and to translate the entire message.
hieroglyphs face right, therefore, start reading from the right
Like our writing, hieroglyphs could be written from left to right. But sometimes they were read right to left, or even in up and down columns. You can tell which way hieroglyphs are supposed to be read by looking at the people, plants, and animals. If they face left, start reading at the left. If they face right, start reading from the right.
When Egyptians wrote, they didn’t just write one hieroglyph after the other, like letters in a word. They arranged them neatly in rows and columns to look nice.
hieroglyphs facing left, so read from the left
colorful ceiling panel
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