What Are Hieroglyphics? A Description and Overview

(Last Updated On: January 3, 2019)
What Are Hieroglyphics?

What are hieroglyphics? What is the history of hieroglyphics and their origins? And what do hieroglyphics look like and how do we know what they mean? We’ll tackle these questions and more in this post.

What Are Hieroglyphics?

Humans have always had a unique ability to use symbols as a way to communicate with one another. It’s one of the things that sets us apart from other animals on this planet. Whether done through cave paintings or large images placed on the landscape, these pictures tell a story.

As we progressed, the ability to take those pictures and develop them into longer narratives that recorded and portrayed what was happening at the time became part of culture. Hieroglyphics were one such system of writing used by humans to convey stories and information to one another.

History of Hieroglyphics

Some of the most well-known hieroglyphics are those developed by the ancient Egyptians. They are also some of the earliest examples of writing we have on the planet. Most of the hieroglyphics people are familiar with now came from the age of the Pharaohs, and have been around for centuries.

It is believed that hieroglyphics as a written form of communication came into existence during the Naqada III era, which dates between the 33rd and 31st centuries BCE. The oldest versions of hieroglyphics that we have today date to this era. There are also symbols on pottery from the Gerzean era (41st century BCE) that some would argue were precursors to those Naqada III hieroglyphics.

An even earlier form of writing that may have inspired hieroglyphics is known as Sumerian script, which began in Mesopotamia. The Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures would have had contact with one another for trade, so it’s possible this writing system did have an impact on Egyptian hieroglyphics. If so, it was a large one because by the Second Dynasty (28th-26th centuries BCE), this form of communication was used widely all over Egypt.

What Do Hieroglyphics Look Like?

Even though this is a written language, hieroglyphics don’t look anything like the words we use today. Instead, they are pictures of objects or animals that can represent sounds or meanings. They are kind of like letters, but one hieroglyphic can also be used to signify a concept or a syllable.

Hieroglyphics are organized in rows or columns and can be read from right-to-left or left-to-right. To determine the reading direction, you have to look at the human or animal figures; their faces always point toward the beginning of the line.

Here you can see a simplified hieroglyphics chart used by school children:

Hieroglyphics chart
Hieroglyphics chart

Deciphering the Meaning of Hieroglyphics

As you can imagine, carving images and stories into stone is an incredibly time-consuming process. It could take years to complete a story. So for the sake of quickness and simplicity, a script was created by scribes called Demotic. Eventually, Demotic script became the preferred and standard of writing, so hieroglyphics fell into disuse. From the 5th century on, no one alive could read or decipher the meaning behind Egyptian hieroglyphics.

It wasn’t until the 1820s when archeologist Jean-Francois Champollion discovered a stone that had the same information on it written in Greek, hieroglyphics, and Demotic. It was named the Rosetta Stone, and it became the key to understanding hieroglyphics.

Thanks to the Rosetta Stone, we have extensive knowledge about what many hieroglyphics mean. But even today, there are some that still perplex us.

A World of Hieroglyphics

While Egyptian hieroglyphics are the most famous, they weren’t the only culture around the world to use symbols as a form of writing. The Maya inscribed hieroglyphics on bark. The Aztecs adopted a pictographic system from the Zapotec to convey their messages. The Ojibwe people in North America carved hieroglyphs into rocks and on animal hides.

Like all languages, hieroglyphs were developed so that people could communicate with one another and tell stories. While impressive, carving symbols into stone was a momentous task to undertake, so it fell out of favor for more convenient and simpler forms of communication.

Thankfully, because of the amount of detail and time spent to produce hieroglyphs, we get a unique look at the life and times of our ancestors and what was important to them and how they passed information from one generation to the next.

Did you know you can play thousands of quizzes about Ancient Egypt on Sporcle? Make sure to check a few out. You can start with the quiz below!

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