Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Working with Hieroglyphs I: Ideographic Hieroglyphs

Working with Hieroglyphs I: the Alphabet and Basic Nouns
So this is a coffin here in the Garstang Museum. And it’s the coffin of a man named Userhat. It was excavated in 1902 by John Garstang, and it was one of the first objects to be displayed in the Institute of Archaeology, here in Liverpool. The reason we are interested in it is two reasons. The first one is because it’s got some nice, clear hieroglyphic inscription. And the other one is that there’s a soldier originally buried inside this. After its discovery, the coffin was split up from its inner human shaped coffin that once sat inside. And that’s now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
But what we have is the outer coffin, and it’s where some texts are preserved very nicely for us to read. There’s one thing. This is a Middle Kingdom coffin, so it’s a little bit earlier than the period we’re interested in. We’re interested in the New Kingdom. But the fact there’s a soldier buried in here is important for us, because we get some insight into the afterlife expectations of this type of person. Let’s now take a look at the types of items that the soldier, Userhat, buried in our coffin in the Garstang Museum, would expect to receive to keep him alive in the afterlife. So it’s written on this horizontal list of hieroglyphs here.
And we start at this end, and it reads, an offering which the king gives to Osiris, Lord of Djedu, the great god, Lord of Abydos, so that he may give a voice offering of– and that’s where our offering list starts, but that’s where the inscription also breaks off. Happily, these are entirely formulaic inscriptions. And we can predict the list of offerings that would be written along there quite happily. I’ll give you the first two, which you can just about see bread and beer in the form of a loaf of bread, and a little jar of beer. The other items are also pictures of the things they are.
So we want you to crack the code and see if you can decipher what these objects are that Userhat wishes to receive in the afterlife from the living.

Now that we are beginning to understand how hieroglyphs work, I’ll introduce another use of hieroglyphs: ideograms (where hieroglyphs represent the object that they depict). I’ll use the coffin of Userhat, a soldier like Sa-Djehuty, which is in the University of Liverpool’s Garstang Museum of Archaeology. I’d like you to concentrate on the provisions that Userhat expects to be offered to him, in order that he continue to live in the afterlife. In the video, I start you off by showing you how to read ‘bread’ and ‘beer’, but what do you think these following symbols taken from the coffin are? And what will they be used for in the next life?


You’ll probably be able to guess the more obvious pictures, but you might need guidance with the other two. Happily, help is at hand in the form this website, which breaks the offering formula down into its component parts.

Incidentally you may notice a difference in the script of the video and my commentary in relation to one of the epithets of Osiris. Can you find where this is? It’s not a mistake as such, so why can I translate this epithet in two different ways?

This article is from the free online

Superpowers of the Ancient World: the Near East

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now