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.