Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics

The Ancient Egyptian alphabet is different to many other writing systems because they used picture words to write instead of the letters we use today.

The hieroglyphic system is an ancient form of writing that was used as far back as 3000 B.C.

There were thousands of symbols in the hieroglyphic system, and each individual symbol was called a “hieroglyph.”

The word hieroglyph means “holy carving,” and was named by the Ancient Greeks.

The Egyptians used hieroglyphs on their temple walls, public monuments, and inside the tombs of their wealthier dead.

They carved them in stone, but also painted them on wood and other smooth surfaces. “Papyrus” was the name given to paper in Ancient Egypt, and was used as a portable way to write.

The Hieroglyphic System

The hieroglyphic system is different to how we write today in many ways.

For starters, it could be written in almost any direction: right to left, left to right, top to bottom, bottom to top, even in spirals!

The reader would have to figure out what direction the writing went based on the direction the hieroglyphics faced.

For example, if the symbol of a man was facing right, it was likely that it had to be read from left to right.

There was no punctuation in the hieroglyphic system, either, which meant that there were no full stops to show where sentences ended.

A single hieroglyph could either stand for a whole word (an “ideogram”) or just a sound (a “phonogram.”)

Who were Scribes?

Since the hieroglyphic system was so complicated, it took years of education to learn it.

The people who were trained to read and write hieroglyphs were called scribes, and they would begin training at a very young age of six or seven.

Scribes were treated with respect in Ancient Egypt.

Scribes didn’t have to pay taxes or enter the army, and it was a very clean, respectable job.

However, only wealthy children got the opportunity to train as scribes.

What were Hieroglyphics used for?

Hieroglyphics would be used to write protection spells on the tombs of pharaohs and wealthy dead people, as well as in official correspondence between the pharaoh (ruler) of Egypt and their court.

The magic practiced in Ancient Egypt was very strongly connected to the written word.

Although the performance of spells required the use of religious objects and other magical items (such as talismans and statues) none could work without using words.

Because of this, hieroglyphics were important to magical practice. Many examples of magical texts have been found on papyrus scrolls discovered in Egypt.

However, because hieroglyphics were so hard to learn, another form of the language developed for common use, called “hieratic.”

“Hieratic” writing was sort of like hieroglyphics, but there was a lot less of them. For the common folk, the “demotic” writing system was developed, which used no pictures at all.

Do we understand Hieroglyphics?

For nearly 2000 years after the end of Ancient Egyptian civilisation, nobody could read hieroglyphics.

Scholars spent a lot of time studying them, but they weren’t able to figure out what they meant.

Their first guess was that the hieroglyphic system was very simple, and that the hieroglyphs were drawings of real things rather than symbols.

A French scholar named Champollion was the first to figure out how to read them.

Using an artefact discovered in Egypt, he worked out what each symbol meant, and how Egyptians chose their meaning.

The black stone was covered in writing. The upper part was in hieroglyphics, the middle part was in “demotic” (the easiest form of Egyptian writing) and the lowest part was in Greek.

This stone was used as a reference to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

This artefact, the Rosetta Stone, is one of the most important discoveries from Ancient Egypt. Without it, we might never have figured out what Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics meant!

Jean-Francois Champollion

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics Facts for Kids:

  • The symbols used in the Ancient Egyptian alphabet were called “hieroglyphs.”
  • There were thousands of hieroglyphs, and each one had multiple meanings.
  • A hieroglyph could either stand for a whole word (“ideogram”) or a sound (“phonogram.”)
  • The word hieroglyphic means “holy carving.”
  • Hieroglyphics could be written in any direction.
  • There were three systems of writing used in Ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphics, which were the most complex; hieratic, which was used by the priests and religious figures; and demotic, which was the most common kind, and was used by the public.
  • Only scribes learned to read and write hieroglyphics in Ancient Egypt, and being a scribe was a great job.
  • Hieroglyphics were used in protection spells in the tombs of the pharaohs.
  • Hieroglyphics were translated using an artefact called the “Rosetta Stone,” which allowed historians to compare them to Ancient Greek and figure out their meaning.

What did you learn?

What does the word “hieroglyphic” mean?
Holy carving

What time does the oldest known example of hieroglyphic writing come from?
3000 B.C

What are the names of the two types of hieroglyphs?
Ideograms and phonograms

What was the name of the stone that was used to translate Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics?
The Rosetta Stone