Pick of the Day : Hieroglyphics, Graphics Vs. Words

D's Art Takes_Art Blog_Pick of the Day_by Divvya Nirula

In today’s Pick of the Day, for D’s Art Takes, I Divvya Nirula present my take on – “Hieroglyphics, Graphics Vs. Words”

Egypt is captivating, the myths, the history, and the legends. There is something mystical and mysterious about the stories of this land that is never dull. Having formally researched and studied several ancient cultures for my courses, Egypt is a class apart. Fascinating as a language, it looked like no other language. Even Japanese and Chinese Kanji had some structural similarities or the graceful calligraphy of Persian. The tiny pictures of Hieroglyphs were intriguing.

The Inscrutable world of Hieroglyphics

Not just myself, but the world of Hieroglyphics has held the interest of generations. Never did the creators imagine their creation, a method of recording, to survive thousands of years. The Egyptians used the hieroglyphic script to represent their language. The pictorial elegance led Herodotus amongst others, to consider Egyptian hieroglyphs as revered. So they referred to them as ‘holy writing’.

The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek hiero ‘holy’ and glypho ‘writing’. However, ancient Egypt called it ‘medu netjer’, ‘the gods’ words’ as it was believed that writing was an invention of the gods.

This is one of the scripts that are perhaps the most interesting to decode. There are three basic types of signs: logograms, representing words; phonograms, representing sounds; and determinatives, placed at the end of the word to help clarify its meaning. Naturally, the number of signs used remains much higher compared to alphabetical systems. There are over a thousand different hieroglyphs in use initially and later reduced to about 750 during the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BCE).

Deciphering Hieroglyphs

The complex symbols remained a mystery for years. In 1798 CE, Napoleon on commission to Egypt had his researchers copy several Egyptian texts and images. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone with the Ptolemic decree ( Ptolemy V) in Greek was a breakthrough. With all the languages it was easy to decode the text. So, historians and linguists owe Napoleon for his extraordinary efforts and foresight.

In the 1820s CE, Frenchman Jean-François Champollion famously deciphered hieroglyphs using this 2nd-century artifact, with its triple text of Hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Greek.

The way to read hieroglyphs is by column from top to bottom or in rows from the right or from the left. 

Origin Of Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Like most ancient scripts, the origin of Egyptian hieroglyphs falls in the less understood category. Not to say that they are not decoded, just the concept that it tries to put across is misunderstood, sometimes.

One claim is that they reference the rock pictures produced by prehistoric hunting communities. These people lived in the desert west of the Nile. They were apparently familiar with the concept of communicating by means of visual imagery. Some of the motifs depicted on these rock images coincide with pottery vessels of early Pre-dynastic cultures in Egypt. The vessels were buried in tombs, and it is also in tombs of the Naqada III/Dynasty 0 period (c. 3200-3000 BCE). The Hieroglyphic was scientific, adhering to complex structures or simple, depending on usage.

The Land Of Papyrus

Papyrus, the chief portable writing medium in Egypt, appears during the First Dynasty (c. 3000-2890 BCE). A blank roll found in the Tomb of Hemaka, an official of King Den, is one of the first discovered. Clay tablets, like the Mesopotamian, from the late Old Kingdom (2686-2160 BCE) surfaced in the Dakhla Oasis. Bone, metal, and leather were popular writing equipment. Surviving inscriptions on leather dating back to the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE) have also been found. The preservation of leather is poor compared to papyrus, it is uncertain how extensively leather was used.

By the Late Pre-dynastic/Early dynastic transition (c. 3000 BCE) the content of the writing changed. Documentation was in the context of royal art to commemorate royal achievements. Royal writing is found on ceremonial heads and special palettes. These items honoured the memory of the rulers both in terms of the ruler’s achievements during their life and his relationship with the various gods and goddesses.

Around 2500 BCE the oldest known example of Egyptian literature, the “Pyramid Texts” emerged. These were carved on the inside of pyramids’ walls, and later, around 2000 BCE. Here emerged a new type of text known as the Coffin Texts, a set of magical and liturgical spells inscribed on coffins.

Development of Ancient Hieroglyphs

Evolving gradually, many versions of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script developed. In addition to the traditional hieroglyphs, there were also two cursive equivalents- hieratic and demotic.

The Hieratic, was a choice for the priests and temple scribes. They wanted to simplify the process of writing. Hieroglyphs gradually developed into a stylized form and derived into the hieratic ‘priestly’ script. The hieratic developed along with the hieroglyphic script. Some of the hieroglyphs found in tombs dating to the c. 3200-3000 BCE period were in the form of royal serekhs. A stylized format of the king’s name. Some serekhs written on pottery vessels had hieroglyphs in cursive format, possibly a premature stage of hieratic. Hieratic followed a right to the left pattern, mostly on pottery sherds and papyrus. It was used not only for religious purposes but also for the public, commercial and private documents.

Reading Recommendations

#1 The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day: translated by Raymond Faulkner, with an Introduction by Ogden Goelet, Carol Andrews (preface), James Wasserman(foreward).  (Published by Chronicle Books; 2nd Rev. Ed edition (1 October 1994)

#2 Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt,: by John Baines and Jaromir Malek


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