Would you like to travel back in time to ancient Egypt to find a mummy? That would be an incredible adventure, wouldn’t it? If you ever find a time machine and decide to make the journey, you might also want to brush up on the ancient Egyptian writing system that uses hieroglyphs.
Whether in movies or textbooks, you’ve probably seen examples of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. This system of writing, which is over 5,000 years old, used pictures instead of letters like our modern alphabet.
In ancient Egypt, the people who wrote with hieroglyphs were called scribes. Because hieroglyphs took so long to write (try writing your next homework assignment using pictures!), the scribes eventually developed an easier form of writing called Demotic script.
Over time, new scribes only used Demotic script. It was not long before no one could remember how to write or even read the old hieroglyphs!
When archeologists eventually discovered hieroglyphs on ancient Egyptian pyramids and tombs, they could not read the unique form of writing. They knew they had meaning, but no one knew how to interpret them!
This was a problem for many years. It wasn’t until just a little over 200 years ago a stone was found in Egypt that contained the key to unlocking the mystery of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The stone — called the Rosetta Stone after the name of the area in which it was found — was discovered by Napoleon’s troops in 1799 when they were invading Egypt. The stone had the same short story written on it in three types of writing: Greek, Demotic script and hieroglyphs.
Since scholars could read Greek and Demotic script, they were able to study the hieroglyphs to figure out how they worked. Jean-François Champollion was able to complete the translation by the 1820s. Today, the Rosetta Stone is displayed in the British Museum in London.
Scholars eventually learned that hieroglyphs were very complex. Although hieroglyphic writing consisted of pictures, the writing was more phonetic (based upon the sounds of a language, like our alphabet) than symbolic (pictures representing actual things or ideas).
Hieroglyphs are made up of three different kinds of glyphs (symbols). Phonetic glyphs act like alphabet letters. Logographic glyphs represent individual units of meaning, such as prefixes, suffixes or short words. Determinative glyphs help narrow down the specific meaning of phonetic and logographic glyphs.