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Facts About Hieroglyphics

Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past—or else we're destined to repeat it.

Hatshepsut Tomb

On Queen Hatshepsut's tomb, this hieroglyph was found.

On Queen Hatshepsut's tomb, this hieroglyph was found.

What is Hieroglyphics?

Hieroglyphics, in Greek, which means 'sacred carvings,' was initially used in ancient Egyptian times. Instead of using letters and words, as we do today, they used pictures of common objects that would portray what they wanted to say. In some cases, the drawings would stand for a phonetic sound, just like our letters are used today. In other instances, hieroglyphics would be a very literal and sometimes symbolic interpretation. They were used to telling their stories, beliefs, and even gossip. The more hieroglyphics we find, the more we can understand about Ancient Egypt.

Hieroglyphics literally means sacred carvings.

Hieroglyphics literally means sacred carvings.

History of the Egyptian Writing

Hieroglyphics are the oldest form of written language. The earliest use of hieroglyphics dates back to 3100 BC; therefore, that is the best guess of when written language began being used.

The earliest form of hieroglyphics looks much like what we are most familiar with when we think of Egyptian writing, although there are other forms. Hieratic is one such form. It was used much like today's cursive, with fewer lines and pictures joining in the next. Hieratic was most often the form used by scribes or others that wrote a lot since it was much quicker to write using this form.

In 600, hieroglyphics began being phased out and were replaced by demotic. Demotic is much more similar to how we write today.

The final form of hieroglyphics the Egyptians used was Coptic. Coptic was a combination of demotic symbols and the Greek alphabet. By the third century A.D., when the Egyptians were writing Coptic, hieroglyphs were no longer used. Arabic replaced Coptic in the 13th Century A.D.

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone

Translations: What Does It Mean?

For many years, no one had any way of deciphering anything written in hieroglyphics. In 1799, that changed when a Frenchman found a stone with three different kinds of writings. This stone was found near Rosetta; therefore, it was referred to as the Rosetta Stone. It contained Egyptian hieroglyphics, Greek, and demotic. Since they could translate Greek, they used Greek writing as a guide to better understand hieroglyphs.

Although for centuries prior, many had seen hieroglyphs but did not know what they meant. The difficulty in interpreting symbols occurred because they used three different ways to write within the same text. Egyptian scribes may use the drawings literally, figuratively, or even phonetically. Literally would be a drawing of an eye, meaning an 'eye.' Figuratively, they may draw an eye to mean 'to see.' If they spoke the English language, the same drawing might be used phonetically to use the phonetic sound of 'i.' Despite this example, they do not use vowel sounds in their writing, nor do they use spaces or punctuation. Fortunately, they often used the same words at the end of sentences, referred to as determinatives. Determinatives make interpreting hieroglyphs a tad easier.

Another complication in translating ancient hieroglyphics is that they did not always write in the same fashion. Sometimes they would write from left to right, much like we do, and even top to bottom. They would also write right to left, which could be confusing when interpreting hieroglyphics.

King Tut's Tomb


Types of Hieroglyphics

We use 26 letters in our written language, whereas Egyptians had more than 700 hieroglyphs that they regularly used in their everyday writing. Within these 700 hieroglyphs, there were three types of characters; picto-ideograms, phonograms, and directives.

Picto-ideograms: Picto-ideograms may be more commonly known as word signs, the earliest type of hieroglyphs. Each hieroglyph in this type is referred to as a pictograph or an ideogram. Pictographs were a literal translation of the object depicted and were most common in the earliest writings. Ideograms were used later to represent the qualities an object symbolized. For example, a lion means a lion if used as a pictogram, or courage if used as an ideogram.

Phonograms: Phonograms are sound symbols, much like our letters. These were developed after the picto-ideograms. They represent around 100 of the hieroglyphs known, although there are 24 that are mainly used. These 24 are referred to as the hieroglyphic alphabet. Despite having a hieroglyphic alphabet, they still used picto-ideograms, combining the two, intermingling them within the same sentence. Therefore, it is not realistic to only learn these 24 figures since they would only let you read a portion of any hieroglyphic writings.

Determinatives: Determinatives were the third type of hieroglyphics used in ancient Egypt and could be thought of as a guide to meaning. They are crucial when translating hieroglyphics since every thought ended in a determinative. Determinatives would often explain what the previous writings were discussing. For instance, a "sentence" may end in a picture of a person, which allows the reader to know that the writing was discussing the person it depicted in the determinative. Determinatives also let the reader and the translator know that the thought ended.

Most Famous Examples

Hieroglyphics were written wherever a scribe or Egyptian layperson could find to write. Scientists have found hieroglyphs on papayra (much like paper), tomb walls, the stone of great monuments, and little slabs of rock that had gossip and rumors written on them. Here are some of the most essential hieroglyphics that scientists have found, which have significantly helped in learning the history of ancient Egypt.

Rosetta Stone: One of the most famous hieroglyphs was found near Rosetta, near the Nile Delta; they named it the Rosetta Stone. It is dated back to 196 BC. As stated earlier, it helped in learning how to translate hieroglyphics. The stone was found by a French officer in 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte went on an expedition through Egypt. It was not until 1814 when Thomas Young, a British Linguist, used the stone and the three languages written on it to begin the translation of hieroglyphics.

King Tut's Tomb: King Tut's Tomb, with over 3500 artifacts, was a place rich with history. Hieroglyphs were written on many of the walls, the tomb, and the artifacts. Each wall of the tomb itself held a different theme. A funeral procession was depicted on the east wall. The south wall showed King Tut's arrival in the Underworld. Then the north wall represented King Tutankhamen's entrance into the afterlife. This representation shows a lot about how they felt about the afterlife, which gives us great insight into the beliefs of ancient Egypt.

Cleopatra's Needle: Cleopatra's Needle is a misnomer since, for one, there are three obelisks, not one as the name implies, and none of them were constructed during Cleopatra's reign. Yet, they are filled with hieroglyphs and give us much insight into ancient Egypt. One of the needles was built during Pharaoh Tuthmose III's reign. This one now resides in London, where it can be viewed. The others are in New York and Paris. These tombs have writings that tell about the Egyptian gods.

We can understand a great deal about ancient Egypt through hieroglyphics, from how rulers ruled, what workers did, and which gods were the most prized. They started over five thousand years ago, yet we still have evidence of this writing today. We also can view many of these interesting drawings in museums throughout the world.


  • Ancient Scripts: Egyptian. Accessed February 28, 2012.
  • Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Accessed February 28, 2012.
  • The Tomb. Accessed February 28, 2012.

© 2012 Angela Michelle Schultz


l on June 13, 2019:

i could use more information i just went to the fild musiume yester day

i on January 16, 2017:


Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on June 02, 2012:

I have been to countless museums that have had this beautiful craftsmanship. I strongly recommend going.

Dianna Mendez on June 02, 2012:

Fascinating subject. Thanks for the history and explanation of hieroglyphics. I would love to see some up close but guess for now, it will have to be your photos.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on June 02, 2012:

Winsome, LOL.. Yes, I think we have caught up with our videos. THat's like a billion pictures every ten minutes or so... so how many words does that equal. LOL.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on June 02, 2012:

Thank you so much Twinstimes 2! I appreciate you stopping by.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on June 02, 2012:

Goodlady. I agree. :) What amazes me is how many stories are similar across countries. LIke almost all religions have some sort of great flood story. It makes you wonder where the stories originated.

Winsome from Southern California by way of Texas on June 02, 2012:

Hi AM, very nicely and professionally written--I didn't find one exaggeration. You know, if a picture is worth a 1000 words, the Egyptians were way ahead of us. Maybe with our present use of videos for instruction, we might be able to catch up. =:)

Karen Lackey from Ohio on June 02, 2012:

Interesting Hub. I enjoyed the translation of the hieroglyph! Up and Interesting.

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on June 02, 2012:

It's fascinating material, thank you so much! Enjoyed learning all about Hieroglyphics; always fascinated by how humans have communicated and told stories. Thanks-

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on June 01, 2012:

I am so glad you were interested in this. I am very fascinated by anything to do with ancient Egypt. I wish that I was a scientists who uncovered many of these great mysteries. :)

point2make on June 01, 2012:

An excellent hub...thank-you for the lesson and the information. I have always been fascinated by hieroglyphics. Their pictorial representations, at first glance,seem so simple and yet their complexity becomes apparent very quickly.

I really enjoyed your hub...well done....voted up!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on June 01, 2012:

honestly, not really. I did put some translations on the page that I found on Wikimedia Commons, but aside from that I can't. There are some fun kid sites that use the hieroglyphic alphabet and you can spell your name... kind of... It's fun for kids, but not accurate since that's not really how they wrote.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 01, 2012:

Another very interesting article. Can you understand any hieroglyphs? I had a hard enough time with Cyrillic (sp?)! Voted up and interesting.