Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Hieroglyphs are a hallmark of ancient Egyptian civilisation and the fascination they exercise remains the same 200 years after Champollion cracked the code...
- The Decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphs
- The Beginnings
- The Rosetta Stone
- Champollion & Young
- Hieroglyphic script & writing conventions
- The hieroglyphic script
- Direction of text & writing conventions
- Royal names
- Translation & Transliteration
- Symbols and Gardiner’s list
- References & Credits
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are well known across the world and a hallmark of the civilisation. They were used across ancient Egypt and often appear in huge format, engraved on temple walls or in tombs. Although they were also often painted on papyrus on or stone, hieroglyphs were actually named after their association with religion and belief, and the ancient Egyptians referred to them as ‘gods words’1Loprieno 1995. Our term hieroglyph comes from the Greek for ‘sacred carvings/sacred carved letters’, ‘ιερογλυφικα/‘ΙΕΡΟΓΛΥΦΙΚΑ, which was in use from the Ptolemaic period2Loprieno 1995.
When people first started studying the ancient Egyptians, no one had been able to read the language for thousands of years. Early Egyptologists made all sorts of assumptions about what the hieroglyphs meant and what the ancient Egyptians wrote about!
Fortunately, Egyptologists are now able to decipher the vast majority of hieroglyphic texts or inscriptions. Although, as a hugely complex language some of its intricacies and exact meanings, particularly around symbolisms and metaphors, are still much debated. There are over 1000 ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and, as you will see below, many of them have several meanings and interpretations which shifted in different contexts or over the years.
Interest in the Egyptian script and its decipherment3decrypting the meaning of texts written in ancient or obscure languages or scripts. is attested to as early as the ancient Greeks who travelled and wrote about Egypt.
In many ways it is from this time onwards that the symbols used in Egyptian hieroglyphs were considered as ‘symbolic’ with each representing an object or idea rather than as fully functioning writing system4El-Daly 2005. Hieroglyphs continued to present a mystery to Western visitors to Egypt, who at first associated them with mystical symbolism rather than as a written script of a language5Parkinson et al. 1999.
Despite much early research having been subsequently disproved, many early interpretations of the script would later prove crucial to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
This includes a suggestion as early as 1761 by Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy that the cartouches that appeared on some inscriptions contained royal names6Parkinson et al. 1999 (Figure 1.1). This would later not only be proven correct but also a pivotal clue to break the code.
Nevertheless, the most important clue to the decipherment of hieroglyphs was the Rosetta Stone:
The Rosetta Stone
The discovery was made during the French occupation of Egypt between 1798 and 1801 under Napoleon Bonaparte. As well as a military campaign, this included an extensive scholarly expedition, which included over 150 scientists, artists, and scholars. This took over 19 years to publish, with 22 volumes of texts and plates detailing different information from all over Egypt.
As a whole this was named Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’expédition de l’Armée française, publié par les ordres de Sa Majesté l’Empereur Napoléon le Grand, (Collection of the observations and research made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army, published by the order of his Majesty the Emperor Napoleon the Great.)7Description de L’Égypte. But normally just referred to as the Description de l’Égypte (Description of Egypt).
It became evident quickly that it was part of stela, or standing stone, with three different inscriptions. Each of these was in a different script, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic (a cursive form of hieroglyphs), and ancient Greek (Figure 1.2).
The significance of the stone was soon realised, in part because of the ancient Greek which could be translated, and copies were made and sent to Paris by 1800.
However, in 1801 the French army was gradually forced to surrender to Anglo-Turkish troops in Egypt; this included taking possession of acquired antiquities, among them the Rosetta Stone9Parkinson et al. 1999.
And so it was that that the Rosetta Stone ended up in London in March 1802 where it remains to this day10Parkinson et al. 1999, Ray 2007. Several copies were made and sent to various institutions and universities for translation of the Greek and decipherment of the other two scripts11Parkinson et al. 1999.
Interestingly, its time in London has had a direct influence on the appearance of the Rosetta Stone12Parkinson et al. 1999. The wax treatment applied has gradually absorbed London grime, leading to its black appearance. The white of the inscription is actually chalk13Parkinson et al. 1999! This was often used to make texts more readable at the time, although is no longer practiced today. The stone and chalk has since mostly been cleaned14Parkinson et al. 1999.
The Rosetta Stone provided Egyptologists with the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. It provided two main things: proof that hieroglyphs were indeed the written script of ancient Egyptian and a bilingual inscription, one of which was already known (ancient Greek)15Parkinson et al. 1999.
Champollion & Young
While many scholars were involved in the decipherment of hieroglyphs the credit is usually given to Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), a French philologist16Adkins and Adkins 2000. Although much of his research was built on previous developments and work, including those of Thomas Young17Adkins and Adkins 2000; Ray 2007; Buchwald and Josefowicz 2020.
A major breakthrough by Champollion was the discovery of the different types of signs –phonographic and ideographic (explained in more detail below) – rather than one or the other, which had often been suggested in the past18Champollion 1824.
Champollion published his extensive research on Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1824. Further discoveries of bilingual texts proved many of Champollion’s theories to be exact and they still form the basis for much work on translation19Champollion 1824; Buchwald and Josefowicz 2020.
Nevertheless, the complexities of the script, its many different uses, and its extensive use in Egypt means that research on the language is still ongoing.
Earlier Medieval Arabic investigation of the hieroglyphs is often disregarded in the history of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs but there are a number of Arabic sources, dating as far back as the 7th century AD which provided early interpretations of the ancient Egyptian language20El-Daly 2005.
This included the idea that hieroglyphs were both phonetic, representing a sound, and symbolic — similar to Champollion’s ‘breakthrough’ a millennium later!
These medieval texts also discuss the existence of three distinct scripts used in ancient Egypt, hieroglyphic, Demotic — both of which can be seen on the Rosetta Stone — and hieratic, a cursive version of hieroglyphs. Much more research is needed on some of this earlier Arabic research21El-Daly 2005.
Furthermore, the connection between ancient Egyptian and Arabic, and certainly with Coptic — which was at first based on the ancient Egyptian language written in the Greek script with additional letters, and still partly in use today22El-Daly 2005 — still need to be explored further.
Egyptian hieroglyphs are typically thought of as pictographic (meaning what it represents) signs, but the reality is slightly more elaborate.
The hieroglyphic script
Some hieroglyphs are used to represent specific sounds (phonographic) and others are used to express whole words (logographic)23Loprieno 1995. This means that some of the signs actually mean what they represent, while others do not and should be read as sounds much as in our Latin script.
More confusing is that, depending on the context, the same hieroglyph could be read as either the thing or idea that it represents, logograms or ideograms, or as a particular sound or series of sounds, called phonograms.
Phonograms are written characters used to represent a particular sound used in speech, for example each of the 26 letters of the alphabet used in English are phonograms and each represents a particular sound which we know how to read aloud.
There are three types of phonograms in Egyptian hieroglyphs24Gardiner 1957, Bussmann 2017:
- Unilateral signs which represent a single consonant
- Bilateral signs which represent two consonants
- Triliteral signs which represent three consonants
These are also sometimes referred to as monoconsonantal, biconsonantal, and triconsonantal signs25Loprieno 1995.
This can sound confusing at first, but even in English, not all sounds used in the language can be represented by a single letter and so we have to use additional phonograms, for example ‘th’ or ‘ch’. This was the same in the ancient Egyptian script, except that rather than needing 2 letters or signs to represent these sounds they could use a single one.
The additional difficulty is that hieroglyphs were used as both phonogram and ideogram signs. Again, this is less complicated than it sounds and first. Take the following two examples:
The hieroglyph referenced D21 in Gardiner’s sign-list can be used as an ideogram and means ‘mouth’, which it represents. The ancient Egyptian for mouth is ‘r’ so D21 can also be used to represent the sound, or phonogram, ‘r’.
The hieroglyph D2 can mean ‘face’ (as an ideogram) and also be used as a bilateral sign for the sound ‘hr’.
If you think about it, we have similar symbols in English, things like ‘&’ or ‘@’, except imagine that if as well as meaning ‘and’, & could be used to represent the sound ‘and’. So, for example the word ‘sand’ could be spelled ‘s&’. This is often referred to as the rebus principle after its similarities with rebus puzzles.
Not all hieroglyphs can be used for these two purposes, although some can also be used in at least three different ways. For example:
O1 is the hieroglyph for house, which is vocalized as ‘pr’ in Egyptian. So O1 can also be used for the sound ‘pr’. But it can also be used to qualify or classify the rest of the word as being a building or associated with a building26Bussmann 2017.
A good parallel for this use of hieroglyphs is perhaps emojis, which can change the meaning or tone of sentence by conveying an idea but are not meant to be read out loud. For example, if you were to write:
This would qualify your sentence — in one you are too warm, the other too cold — but not actually change the meaning of the words themselves.
This is a slightly imperfect analogy but can be a useful way to think about the use of some hieroglyphs. They might be translated as an actual word (logogram), a sound (phonogram), or convey/emphasise an idea (ideogram).
In order to differentiate between the different ways that some hieroglyphs can be used, another type of symbol called a determinative can be used, in this case probably a simple dash or stroke: | (Z1 in Gardiner’s sign-list).
Therefore, the sign O1 with the dash would mean ‘pr’ as in house rather than as part of a longer word with the ‘pr’ sound in it.
Direction of text & writing conventions
Hieroglyphs can be ready both left-to-right and right-to-left, or in some cases vertically, particularly when there are also artistic depictions such as on the walls of temples or tombs. Fortunately, based on which direction the hieroglyphs are pointing we can tell which way they are supposed to be read (Figure 2.4 and 2.5):
Hieroglyphs can also be read vertically, from top to bottom and in these case bold lines are sometimes placed between the hieroglyphs to indicate they should be read in this way (Figure 2.6):
Another writing convention in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs was around royal names, particularly those of the Pharaohs. From at least the Middle Kingdom onwards27Shaw 2000, Pharaohs had a total of five different names or epithets28Manley and Collier 2003:
- Horus Name
- Two Ladies Name
- Golden Horus Names
- Praenomen, often referred to as the throne name this is the one that is the most often used in Egyptian texts29Allen 2014.
- Nomen, this is the birth or personal name of the Pharaoh and the one normally used by archaeologists and Egyptologists30Allen 2014.
Each of these names has a different writing convention, the most well-known of which are the cartouches used for the Praenomen and the Nomen (Figure 2.7).
Based on the writing conventions listed above the cartouche should be read top right to bottom left.
This rendered phonetically (a process called “transliteration”) as ‘r’-ms sw hk3 iwnw’ the first half of which is readable as ‘Ramses’, with the second part, an epithet meaning ruler of iwnw, or Heliopolis31Manley and Collier 2003.
The second is not strictly necessary here but it makes the cartouche more aesthetically pleasing. Redundant hieroglyphs are often added to inscriptions to make them more artistic and/or symmetrical. This also means that the same word or name may not always be written the same way. This can vary according to context, association of the word or perhaps even personal preference.
The name ‘Ramses’ is a good example of this as it was used by several Pharaohs, even though the other names and the epithets, especially the ‘Praenomen’ would have varied between them, and we see different iterations of ‘Ramses’.
As we can see, different hieroglyphs (with the same phonetic values) are used to write the same name (‘Ramses’):
Ramses I cartouche (Figure 2.9) uses a different hieroglyph with the same meaning for ‘r’’: N5 rather than C2, and for ‘sw’: M22 rather than O34. The ‘s’ and ‘w’ are also both emphasised with monoconsonatal hieroglyphs, S29 and G43.
A crucial stage in any translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs is called transliteration. This is way of converting letters from one alphabet or script to another. In this case from Egyptian hieroglyphs to the Latin script used in English and other European languages.
Many languages, including ancient Egyptian, have sounds which do not exist in English, and Egyptologists have approximated the correct sounds by adding dots or lines under letters. For example, an underlined d, ‘ḏ’, is pronounced ‘dj’ (as in jaw).
Therefore, even though not all of the monoconsonantal hieroglyphs can be transcribed into our normal alphabetic letters, these additional ‘letters’ allow each of them to be transliterated.
A key thing to understand is that there are no hieroglyphs for vowels, only consonants, and the Egyptians would have known which vowels or sounds to use between the consonants. Even though some of them are transliterated as our vowels, such as ‘i’, these would not have been pronounced quite the same and effectively functioned as consonants rather than vowels.
15 of the sounds from phonograms from ancient Egyptian are similar to the Latin alphabet and can be pronounced in the same way:
b, d, f, g, h, i, k, m, n, p, r, s, t, w, y
There are also an additional 9 sounds which are transliterated as:
- Ȝ can be pronounced roughly as ‘a’ but is actual a glottal stop made deeper in the throat. You can think of it in terms of the London accent: e.g. ‘bo’le’ (instead of ‘bottle’), or ‘bu’er’ (instead of butter’)33Manley and Collier 2003. Or the inflection before saying things like ‘uh-oh’
- ‘ again can be roughly pronounced as an ‘a’, but is more similar to ‘ah’
- ḏ pronounced like a hard ‘j’, ‘dj’
- ḫ a hard ‘h’, similar to ‘loch’34Manley and Collier 2003 but often pronounced ‘kh’
- ẖ similar to ḫ but slightly softer again normally pronounced ‘kh’
- ḥ ‘h’ but made slightly deeper in the throat
- ḳ ‘kh’ but made slightly deeper in the throat
- ṯ roughly ‘ch’ (as in chill)
- š ‘sh’ (as in sheep or shrill)
So in total, there are 24 sounds. These 24 sounds correspond to the following 24 unilateral/monoconsonantal hieroglyphs:
Other hieroglyphs can then be transliterated using a combination of the 24 sounds used above. For example, Y5 (Figure 3.2) is pronounced ‘mn’:
Determinatives such as B1 (Figure 3.2) do not need to be transliterated as they affect the meaning or connotations of words/phrases but not the pronunciation. Because of the large number of hieroglyphs transliterating them in this way makes it much easier for Egyptologists to manage and it also means that they don’t have to constantly draw and re-draw them!
An additional symbol E23 (transliteration ‘rw’, Figure 3.2) is sometimes used as an ‘L’ in later periods but was likely not a traditional sound in ancient Egyptian.
Thanks to transliteration, Egyptian words we know from other sources can be relatively easy to identify in hieroglyphic form. The names of Pharaohs are particularly useful for this, especially from the Ptolemaic period onwards as the Greek versions of their names are well known.
A good example of this is the name Cleopatra, used by several queens of the Ptolemaic period, including the famous Cleopatra VII, often considered the final ruler of ancient Egypt. In hieroglyphs ‘Cleopatra’ is often written using primarily unilateral hieroglyphs. If you look at the following cartouche from the Temple of Edfu:
On this version of the name there are 11 hieroglyphs most of which you should be able to identify:
These can be transliterated as follows:
This gives us: ḳliwp3dr3t, or Cleopatra.
The final symbol ‘11’ is often used as a determinative for names associated with goddesses. In this case it may be used to emphasise the royal connotation of the name but also as to avoid an awkward blank space in the cartouche.
Going back to one of the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone:
A total of 7 hieroglyphs can be seen:
Which can transliterated as:
The other type of hieroglyphs widely used are numbers, which are normally depicted as the following:
Symbols and Gardiner's list
The huge number of hieroglyphs (over 1000!) mean that most Egyptologists use hieroglyphic lists to decipher the language and identify the signs.
These are lists created by Egyptologists or linguists to distinguish each of the symbols.
The ones most widely used are Gardiner’s lists which incorporate the most common hieroglyphs and assigns each a unique code. This includes a letter and a number based on the type of hieroglyph. This is not based on their pronunciation or meaning but what they look like.
For example, if the hieroglyph represents a human figure it will be part of the ‘A’ list but body parts will be ‘D’s. This makes it easier for Egyptologists to identify hieroglyphs when they transliterate and translate texts.
Gardiner separated them into 27 different lists based on the type of object or activity that they represent36Gardiner 1957, Bussmann 2017:
This gives you an idea of the complexities of translating and interpreting ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Not only can the symbols used have several meanings, but they are the subject of religious, artistic and other conventions which affect the way that they are represented and their meaning.
Despite several centuries work on their decipherment and meaning, there is still much work to be done on understanding the intricacies of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, as well as on the potential links between ancient Egyptian and other languages.
Adkins, Lesley and Adkins, Roy. (2000). The Keys to Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. New York: Harper Collins.
Allen, James Peter. (2014). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs (3rd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Buchwald, Jed Z and Josefowicz, Diana Greco. (2020). The Riddle of Rosetta: How an English Polymath and a French Polygot Discovered the Meaning of Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Bussmann, Richard. (2017). Complete Middle Egyptian. London: Teach Yourself.
Champollion, Jean-François. (1824). Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens égyptiens. Paris : Imprimerie royale.
Champollion-Figeac, Jacques-Joseph (Ed.) (1836-1841). Grammaire égyptienne, ou principes généraux de l’écriture sacrée égyptienne appliqués à la représentation de la langue parlée, Par Champollion Le Jeune. Publié sur le manuscrit autographe. Paris : Firmin Didot Frères, 1836-1841, in-fol°, VII, XXIV-556 p.
Champollion-Figeac, Jacques-Joseph (Ed.) (1841-1843). Dictionnaire égyptien, en écriture hiéroglyphique, par J.f. Champollion Le Jeune, publié d’après les manuscrits autographes. Paris : Firmin Didot frères, 1841-1843, in-fol°, XXXVI-488 p.
El-Daly, Okasha. (2005). Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writing. London: UCL Press.
Gardiner, Alan. (1957). Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs (3rd edition). Oxford: Griffith Institute.
Loprieno, Antonio. (1995). Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Manley, Bill and Collier, Mark. (2003). How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs (revised edition). London: British Museum Press.
Parkinson, Richard B, Diffie W, Fischer M and Simpson, R. S. (1999). Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment. London: British Museum Press.
Ray, John. (2007). The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egyptian. Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard University Press.
Shaw, Ian. (ed). (2000). The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Author: Dr Chloë Ward.
Illustrations (unless otherwise stated): Chloë Ward.
Photo: Sheet from the Papyrus of Amenhotep.
Period: New Kingdom | Dynasty: Dynasty 18 | Reign: reign of Amenhotep II–Thutmose IV | Date: ca. 1427–1390 B.C. | Geography: From Egypt, Upper Egypt, Thebes; Probably from Dra Abu el-Naga, Tomb of Amenhotep, TT A 7 | Medium: Papyrus, ink, pigment | Dimensions: H. 34.9 cm (13 3/4 in.); W. 33.7 cm (13 1/4 in.); Framed: H. 35.5 cm (14 in.); W. 35.6 cm (14 in.); Th. 2 cm (13/16 in.) | Credit Line: Theodore M. Davis Collection, Bequest of Theodore M. Davis, 1915 | Accession Number: 30.8.70a | Purchased in Egypt by Theodore M. Davis, 1890. Bequeathed to the Museum by Davis, 1915; accessioned, 1930. | Metropolitan Museum. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)
SECTION 1: The Decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Photo: The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. Photograph (CC) User:Hans Hillewaert / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain. CC BY-SA 4.0.
Fig 1.1: Blank example of a cartouche – Example of a ‘cartouche’ containing the throne name of Ramesses III. Photo and drawing: Chloë Ward.
Fig 1.2: The Rosetta Stone as it was published in the Description de L’Égypte (1809-1829).
Fig. 1.3: Jean-François Champollion (by Leon Cogniet, 1831) and his table of phonetic signs (1822).
Portrait of Jean-François Champollion by Leon Cogniet (1831) | Musée du Louvre, Accession number INV 3294 | Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain. CC BY-SA 4.0.
Table of phonetic signs (1822) | British Museum , “Lettre à Monsieur Dacier” | Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain. CC BY-SA 4.0.
SECTION 2: Hieroglyphic script & writing conventions
Photo: Temple of Hathor (detail), Dendera. Photo: Jeremy Zero / Unsplash. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0).
Fig. 2.1: Examples of hieroglyphs (Gardiner’s numbers D21 and D2). Table: Patrice Bonnafoux.
Fig. 2.2: Hieroglyph O1 used three different ways. Table: Patrice Bonnafoux.
Fig 2.3: Hieroglyph Z1 used as a determinative. Table: Patrice Bonnafoux.
Fig 2.4: The hieroglyphs are ‘facing’ right so they would be read right to left. Photo: Chloë Ward.
Fig 2.5: The hieroglyphs are ‘facing’ left so they would be read left to right. Photo: Chloë Ward.
Fig 2.6: Medinet Habu, note the vertical lines separating the hieroglyphs. Photo:
Fig 2.7: Cartouche of the Nomen of Ramses III. Photo: Chloë Ward.
Fig. 2.8: Cartouche of the Nomen of Ramses III – reading order and transliteration. Drawing: Chloë Ward.
Fig. 2.9: Cartouche of the Nomen of Ramses I – transliteration: ‘r’ ms s sw w’. Drawing: Chloë Ward.
Fig. 2.10: hieroglyphic variants of Ramses birth name. Table: Patrice Bonnafoux.
SECTION 3: Translation & Transliteration
Photo: False Door of the Royal Sealer Neferiu.
Period: Old Kingdom–First Intermediate Period | Dynasty: Dynasty 8–11 | Date: ca. 2150–2010 B.C. | Geography: From Egypt; Probably from Northern Upper Egypt, Dendera area | Medium: Limestone, paint | Dimensions: H. 115.5 cm (45 1/2 in.); W. 67.3 cm (26 1/2 in.); D. 12.6 cm (4 15/16 in.) | Credit Line: Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1912 | Accession Number: 12.183.8 | Metropolitan Museum of Art. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0).
Fig. 3.1: List of monoconsonantal signs. Table: Patrice Bonnafoux.
Fig. 3.2: Examples of hieroglyphs (Y5, B1, E23). Table: Patrice Bonnafoux.
Hieroglyphs ‘Cleopatra’. Drawing: Chloë Ward.
Hieroglyphs ‘Ptolemy’. Drawing: Chloë Ward.
Fig. 3.3: Egyptian numerals. Table: Patrice Bonnafoux.
Fig. 3.4: Gardiner’s categories with examples of Hieroglyphs. Table: Patrice Bonnafoux.