What are hieroglyphs?

Hieroglyphs are an ancient writing style used by the ancient Egyptians to record their history, achievements, stories, and sacred texts. They are a pictographic form of writing, meaning that they are made up of small pictures representing sounds. The word hieroglyph comes from ancient Greek meaning ‘sacred writing’. Many ancient hieroglyphs can be seen today in monuments across Egypt and on artefacts in museums all over the world.

How do we read hieroglyphs?

Each image represents an object or a sound. So a picture of a bee can mean ‘bee’. But, if an image of a bee were to be placed together with an image of a leaf, we may find that together they spell ‘belief’ or ‘bee-leaf’.

The Egyptians had over 2000 hieroglyphs in their language and used a very complex grammatical system to record their texts. As well as sounds from the English alphabet, the Egyptians also had signs representing sounds that we would use two letter to represent, such as ‘ch’ and ‘sh’ shown in the alphabet overleaf. Ancient Egyptian language didn’t have many vowel aounds and so we can add the sound ‘e’ to make reading the words easier. For example, the biliteral sign mn might be pronounced as ‘men’ today, or nb as ‘neb’. So how might you say nfr?

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The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 and records a decree issued by Ptolemy V over 2000 years ago. The decree is inscribed in three different scripts: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (top), ancient Egyptian demotic (middle), and ancient Greek (bottom).

In 1822 Jean-François Champollion used the Rosetta Stone to decipher the ancient texts and was the first to read Egyptian hieroglyphs in over 2000 years!

Today the Rosetta Stone can be seen at the British Museum, EA24.