Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was composed entirely of pictures, though the object depicted cannot be identified in every instance. The earliest examples that can be read show the hieroglyphs used as actual writing, that is, with phonetic values, and not as picture writing such as that of the Eskimos or American Indians. The origins of the script are not known. It apparently arose in the late predynastic period (just before 2925 BC).
There were contacts between Egypt and Mesopotamia at this time, and it has been thought that the concept of writing was borrowed from the Sumerians. This is certainly possible, but, even if this was the case, the two systems were so different in their use of signs that it is clear that they developed independently.
Except for names and a few titles, the oldest inscriptions cannot be read. In many cases individual hieroglyphs were used that are familiar from later periods, but the meaning of the inscription as a whole is obscure. It is apparent that this writing did not represent the sounds as completely as was the case later.
In the period of the 3rd dynasty (c. 2650-c. 2575 BC), many of the principles of hieroglyphic writing were regularized. From that time on, until the script was supplanted by an early version of Coptic (about the 3rd and 4th centuries AD), the system remained virtually unchanged. Even the number of signs used remained constant at about 700 for more than 2,000 years.
With the rise of Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD came the decline and ultimate demise not only of the ancient Egyptian religion but of its hieroglyphics as well. The use, by the Egyptian Christians, of an adapted form of the Greek alphabet, caused a correspondingly widespread disuse of the native Egyptian script. The last known use of hieroglyphics is on an inscription dated AD 394.
It is arguable whether the ancient Greeks or Romans understood hieroglyphics. The Greeks almost certainly did not, since, from their viewpoint, hieroglyphics were not phonetic signs but symbols of a more abstruse and allegorical nature. The humanist revival of the European Middle Ages, although it produced a set of Italian-designed hieroglyphics, gave no further insight into the original Egyptian ones.
Rosetta Stone: The Important Discovery
It is an ancient Egyptian stone bearing inscriptions the decipherment of which led to the understanding of hieroglyphic writing. An irregularly shaped stone of black basalt 3 ft 9 in. (114 cm) long and 2 ft 4 1/2 in. (72 cm) wide, and broken in antiquity, it was found near the town of Rosetta (Rashid), about 35 mi (56 km) northeast of Alexandria. It was discovered by a Frenchman named Bouchard or Boussard in August 1799.
After the French surrender of Egypt in 1801, it passed into British hands and is now in the British Museum. cm) wide, and broken in antiquity, it was found near the town of Rosetta (Rashid), about 35 mi (56 km) northeast of Alexandria. It was discovered by a Frenchman named Bouchard or Boussard in August 1799. After the French surrender of Egypt in 1801, it passed into British hands and is now in the British Museum.
The inscriptions, apparently written by the priests of Memphis, summarize benefactions conferred by Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205-180 BC) and were written in the ninth year of his reign in commemoration of his accession to the throne. Inscribed in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, and three writing systems, hieroglyphics, demotic script (a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphics), and the Greek alphabet, it provided a key to the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.
The decipherment was largely the work of Thomas Young of England and Jean-François Champollion (qq.v.) of France. The hieroglyphic text on the Rosetta Stone contains six identical cartouches (oval figures enclosing hieroglyphs). Young deciphered the cartouche as the name of Ptolemy and proved a long-held assumption that the cartouches found in other inscriptions were the names of royalty.
By examining the direction in which the bird and animal characters faced, Young also discovered the way in which hieroglyphic signs were to be read.
In 1821-22 Champollion, starting where Young left off, began to publish papers on the decipherment of hieratic and hieroglyphic writing based on study of the Rosetta Stone and eventually established an entire list of signs with their Greek equivalents. He was the first Egyptologist to realize that some of the signs were alphabetic, some syllabic,
and some determinative, standing for the whole idea or object previously expressed. He also established that the hieroglyphic text of the Rosetta Stone was a translation from the Greek, not, as had been thought, the reverse. The work of these two men established the basis for the translation of all future Egyptian hieroglyphic texts.
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