Category: Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics

Hieratic and Demotic script

Hieroglyphics were the earliest from of Egyptian writing, however other forms did emerge throughout the period. There are two noteworthy to consider:


An example of Egyptian Hieratic script

An example of Egyptian Hieratic script

Was a script used primarily by the priests, and was, in essence a simplified more cursive version of the original hieroglyphics. Originally hieratic was quite literally a version of the hieroglyphics script which was more rounded in form, thus allowing for quick writing.

During the Old kingdom, hieratic was hardly any different to hieroglyphic writing, except it was (As far as we can tell) always written from left to right.

During the Middle kingdom hieratic became invariably associated with writing on papyrus (Since writing on papyrus was done with a simple reed pen, which allowed the writer to benefit from its cursive nature). During the middle period hieratic evolved into a script in its own right and became easy to distinguish from traditional hieroglyphs. Religious texts, however were usually written in ‘full’ hieroglyphs, even when produced on papyrus. This began to change after Dynasty xxI, when even religious texts began to use hieratic.




Demotic (from the Greek Demos, popular, the people) was a further evolution of hieratic writing, adopted during the late period. Demotic, a very rapid form of

An example of Egyptian Demotic script

An example of Egyptian Demotic script

writing was used for virtually all writing during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods and has even been found used for stone inscriptions. The widespread introduction of demotic script is generally dated to 700 bce, and was favoured particularly for legal, business, and literary texts.

Demotic was developed in the north of Egypt and was used throughout the country after the conquest of Upper Egypt under Psamtek I. The oldest known example of a demotic papyrus dates to the 21st year of Psamtek I and is from el-Hiba – Like hieratic it was always written from right to left.

Since Demotic writing was a later development, the language used to write demotic is closer to what we could loosely call ‘Late Egyptian’ rather than the Middle Egyptian we work with on this site.

Demotic script is noticeably more cursive than even hieratic, having little or no resemblance to the original hieroglyphic symbols, although the underlying principles of the writing system are the same. In fact, Demotic does not look too dissimilar from contemporary forms of arabic script.

Currently, we believe that between the seventh and fifth centuries demotic was used only for administration and officialdom. The first literary demotic texts are from the fourth century BC, though most literary texts in the script date to the early Roman Period (a time when Greek was the main administrative language).

Why did Ancient Egypt need writing?

There were many ancient civilizations who did not develop a system of writing – indeed, there were many civilizations who existed much later then the Egyptians who did not develop writing, so why did Egypt?


The Nile

Central to the history of ancient Egypt is the river Nile. There is no question that the Nile was one of the most important, if not the most important factor in allowing Egyptian civilization to develop. The annual flooding of its banks with rich silts (inundation) which provided the ancient Egyptians with such bountiful harvests made farming relatively simple, and allowed the ancient Egyptians to concentrate their energies in other areas, such as technology, art and culture.

A farm on the river Nile

A farm on the river Nile

Egyptologists today are also convinced that Nile was one of the main reasons that Egypt had to develop a system of writing.

Each year, monsoons in Ethiopia bring torrential rains that wash rich topsoil into the Nile. In July, the Nile overflows its banks and deposits this soil on both sides of the river. Crops were then plated and, given almost ideal growing conditions they produced considerable surpluses. It was the surplus grains which led to the system of writing.  The Egyptians used grain itself as a form of money, the amounts produced therefore needed to be tracked in order to facilitate the collection of taxes – That’s where writing came in. The Egyptians needed writing to keep track of the taxes that were due and the taxes that were collected.


The Pharaoh

Egypt was the world first nation state led by a powerful king (the Pharaoh) – this brought many benefits and ensured that the civilization would last for thousands of years. In Egypt, the pharaoh was viewed as a god. He had absolute power and owned all the land. With such centralized power, the pharaoh was capable of

Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh

Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh

marshaling all the manpower of Egypt for his purposes.

For example, just before the inundation of the Nile, the pharaoh could organize farmers to begin digging irrigation canals so that more crops could be grown. Then, the pharaoh could collect even more taxes, which required writing.

Pharaoh also needed to publicise his victories and communicate key messages to the people – both in order to maintain control and to help to foster a sense of national pride. Happy citizens who felt protected by the state were more productive!  A system of writing meant that messages could be communicated without the need for storytellers or “town crier” type individuals.



A carving of Maya, thought to be king Tutankhamens treasurer.

A carving of Maya, thought to be king Tutankhamens treasurer.

While Egypt certainly benefited from being a homogeneous nation, running a state (just like today) required a small army of bureaucrats to organise, manage and oversee projects and activities. In order to do this effectively, ancient Egypt needed writing.

Since the Egyptians were able to produce much more food than they needed, they were able to support a large number of people who did not directly contribute to the economy. You no longer need to call out the farmers when invaders are coming because you have a trained and equipped army that can easily defeat them, nor do you need to rely on people to organise themselves since you can appoint overseers to coordinate action.

The bureaucracy had surpluses that had to be recorded, taxes to be collected, and armies to keep track of, and all this required writing.




The Army

Having a large standing army was one of the privileges of having a fully formed nation state – soldiers did not directly contribute to the economy, but could be

Model of soldiers from the tomb of  Mesehti,  the provincial governor in the 11th Dynasty Asyut

Model of soldiers from the tomb of Mesehti, the provincial governor in the 11th Dynasty Asyut

supported by the surpluses produced by the Nile flood.

Instead, the army was needed to fend off invasion and coerce neighboring tribes into paying a tribute (tax) to the pharaoh. Organising such a force was complicated however –  because scribes had to keep track of thousands of soldiers in different divisions, ensure the availability of supplies needed for campaigns and record individuals service, once again, they needed writing.

Hieroglyphs or Hieroglyphics?

There is a great deal of misconception about the correct term for the ancient Egyptian symbols often referred to as hieroglyphics. In fact, the correct term is really ‘Hieroglyphs’. The birds, hands, feet and feathers which make up the carvings and paintings are ‘Hieroglyphs’ – Hieroglyphics is simply the adjectival form of the word.

On this site, we do tend to use the word ‘hieroglyphics’ – because that’s what most people tend to call the writing, and what they tend to search for on the internet. In practice, exactly what you say isn’t that important – but remember to say Hieroglyphs if you ever speak with an Egyptologist!

The word hieroglyph itself comes from Greek. When the Greeks entered Egypt around the late 4th century B.C., they saw the carvings on temple walls and called them, ‘sacred carvings’ – which makes sense. In Greek, ‘hiero’ means sacred and glyph means carvings.

Many terms in ancient Egyptian history were first named by the Greeks – a good number of the ancient Egyptian gods, for example, are known today by their Greek name.

Decoding the Hieroglyphs


As knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs gradually disappeared, and the usage of the related scripts disappeared, numerous attempts were made to decipher the

A copy of Hieroglyphica, by Horapollo

A copy of Hieroglyphica, by Horapollo

hidden meaning of inscriptions. It was not long after the disappearance of hieroglyphs from active use that attempts to decipher them began – The best known example from Antiquity are the Hieroglyphica (dating to about the 5th century) by Horapollo, which offers an explanation of almost 200 glyphs.

Horapollo, being relatively close in time to the production of the inscriptions, may have had access to some local knowledge, as he did correctly identify some of the symbols.  For example, the goose character used to write the word for ‘son’, zꜣ, is identified correctly, but Horapollo thought this this was chosen because of the exceptional care taken by the goose to care for its offspring.  In fact, the goose is simply the phonetic sound used for the word son.

Horapollo was therefore the first to make the “big mistake” in trying to decode hieroglyphs – he, like so many after him assumed that a goose literally meant a goose, a chick and chick and so on.


The Rosetta stone

Little progress was made with transcription until the discovery of the Rosetta stone. The Rosetta stone would eventually turn out to be the key discovery which allowed Egyptian hieroglyphs to be deciphered and finally understood (although it still took a quite some time to complete!). The French discovered the Rosetta Stone during Napoleons expedition to Egypt in 1799, but it was an Englishman Thomas Young, who began deciphering it, and a Frenchman Jean-François Champollion who would finally crack the code.

The Rosetta stone, today in the British Museum

The Rosetta stone, today in the British Museum

From the very beginning, there was no mystery about what the Rosetta Stone said. It clearly had three scripts – these were Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic and Greek. Many scholars could read the Greek, so we quickly know that the stone was basically a thank-you note written in 196 B.C. from the priests of Egypt to King Ptolemy V, the Greek ruler of Egypt.

Ptolemy had granted some favours to the priests, especially reducing their taxes, so they erected the stela to thank him. After listing the specific benefits granted to priests, they also thanked him for general kindness to the people: releasing prisoners, restoring sacred buildings, and so on.

The Greek script at the bottom is the most complete. It is important for several reasons. First, it gave a readable version of the text. Second, at the end it actually tells the reader that the stela contained the same message in all three scripts, providing a strategy for decipherment. Third, it provided the name King Ptolemy, which would prove to be the most important of all clues.


Thomas Young

The English scientist Thomas Young began deciphering the Rosetta Stone during his summer vacations.

Young made a great contribution to the work, but for a long time was working under the mistaken impression that the inscriptions were pictographic (in fact, now we know that hieroglyphs can sometimes be pictographic, but not all the time!).

However, young recognised the name of the king Ptolemy, which he saw in the Greek text – therefore he knows it must also appear in the Demotic and hieroglyphic texts – from this he reasoned that the hieroglyphs and Demotic characters for the name couldn’t be ideographic.

Thomas Young

Thomas Young

There is no picture of what a Ptolemy was, so at least for names, there must have been an alphabet. Others before Young had suggested that the ovals called cartouches by Bonaparte’s men held the names of the kings.

He figured that the hieroglyphs inside the cartouche must correspond to letters spelling out Ptolemy. The rectangle must be a P, the semicircle a t, the loop an o, the lion an l, the statue bases an m, the reed leaves a y, and the folded cloth an s, forming “Ptolmis.” The Greek version of the name is actually “Ptolemaios,” which is pretty close. Young figured out this approximation. He now had seven letters of the alphabet.

Getting this far had been incredibly hard. The process took 20 years. Young published partial alphabet and also made some correct (and incorrect) guesses for groups of words in 1819, but he never took it much further. The problem was that he never gave up his conviction that hieroglyphs were ideograms, an idea that had been firmly entrenched for centuries





Champollion a Frenchman, denied that Young was the first to figure out an alphabet. In 1822 Champollion published his Lettre à M. Dacier, which proclaimed that he had cracked the code and could read hieroglyphs in fact, his interpretation was little better than young’s at this point.

Champollion however, was about a catch a lucky break, in the form of a visit from his friend Jean-Nicolas Huyot. Jean-Nicolas had recently returned from an expedition to Egypt, during which he had recorded detailed drawings of many of the Hieroglyphics he had found. Huyot showed Champollion a series of drawings he had made at the temple of Abu Simbel – Inside one of the cartouches he had copied were four hieroglyphs.  𓇳 𓄟 󴗛󴗛

Jean-François Champollion

Jean-François Champollion


While they meant little to Huyot, Champollion had an advantage – he had a working knowledge of the Coptic language – Coptic is a language derived from ancient Egyptian.

He saw the circle and correctly reasoned it must represent the sun, but he also knew that the Coptic word for sun is ra. Now he was left with three hieroglyphs to decipher. From his alphabet he also knew that the last two hieroglyphs were s. So, he had Ra__ss. Champollion also knew from classical sources that there was a King Ramses, so he guessed that the unknown sign was an m. He was very close. The unknown sign is really an ms biliteral, but still, he has the name correct: Ramses.

Huyot had his drawings from other sites as well, and he showed Champollion another cartouche: 𓅡 𓄟 󴗛󴗛

It was known that the ibis represented the god Toth. With the other hieroglyphs he came up with Tothmosis, another king’s name known from the classical writers. But this wasn’t the breakthrough.

The breakthrough was when Champollion realized that mss is very much like the Coptic word for birth, mise. Now the names of Ramses and Tothmosis didn’t just have phonetic value. They meant something: “Ra is born” and “Toth is born.” The phonemes spell out words with meanings; hieroglyphs weren’t just ideographic. The Big Mistake was over.