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How Hieroglyphs Work

Introduction to hieroglyphs
Welcome to the Garstang Museum. This is only the first week of the course but one of the things we’re going to be doing regularly is looking at how each of the key areas communicated. And what we’ve got this week is Egypt, of course, so that means ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. So that’s what I’m going to introduce you to now. We’ll try and give you an understanding of the system itself. So what were ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs? They are little pictures. That’s what you see all over temple walls and tomb walls, engraved into those walls.
They’re little pictures of everyday objects and things from the ancient Egyptian world - people, parts of the human body, animals, parts of animals’ bodies, architectural elements, earth, sky, so on and so forth. There are hundreds and hundreds of them. Now the earliest translators really struggled with how to translate these things. What they did was try and read them symbolically. And that kind of makes sense. So you see a little bird, and it must mean a bird. You see something else, and it must be what it is. It’s not quite that simple.
It was only in 1799 when the Rosetta Stone was discovered that scholars were first able to make some really serious advances and crack the code once and for all. And it was Francois Champollion who was the person who really cracked the code using the Rosetta Stone. There were other scholars involved as well, such as Thomas Young. But Champollion is usually credited with finally cracking the code. And what he did was this. The Rosetta Stone itself found in Egypt by the Napoleonic mission in 1799 had a couple of different languages on it. And in particular, it had a passage written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. And it was recognised that that same passage was written underneath it in the Greek scripts.
Of course, the Greek is a known script. All you need to do now is find, in the hieroglyphs, the same word as the Greek. And there was a clue to that. It was realised that the ancient Egyptians wrote their Pharaoh’s names, their kings’ names in what we call cartouches, so oval shapes so they really stand out in the script. Once that was understood, you could find names like Cleopatra and Ptolemy down in the Greek part and start matching them up to the hieroglyphic parts. So a couple of the first words to be properly deciphered were Cleopatra and Ptolemy. And what that led us to understand is that there is an alphabetic element to the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic system.
Those little signs can stand for sounds just like our own alphabet, A, B, C, D. They are signs that stand for particular sounds, ah, buh, ce, de. The same thing happens with the ancient Egyptian, but rather than a letter “A,” they might have a vulture. And that will give you an ah type of sound. So that’s how hieroglyphs work, and that’s how the system was cracked, all thanks to the Rosetta Stone and these particularly clever individuals.

Since we’re talking about the afterlife expectations of our soldier, Sa-Djehuty, all based on that little statue that was discovered at Abydos, we may as well look in more detail at the type of funerary equipment that he might have been buried with. And coffins, nicely inscribed with hieroglyphs, come top of the list.

In this video, I am standing in front of the coffin of another soldier, named Userhat. But before we look at the coffin in detail, we’re going to need to understand a little about the hieroglyphs that are written on it.

In this section, I introduce you to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and look back to how the discovery of the Rosetta stone allowed scholars to crack the code in the first place. In the following steps, I’ll teach you more about how hieroglyphs work, and by the end of it, you’ll be able to translate a few genuine ancient Egyptian words yourself.

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Superpowers of the Ancient World: the Near East

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