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Hieroglyphs emerged from the preliterate artistic traditions of Egypt. For example, symbols on Gerzean pottery from circa4000 BC resemble hieroglyphic writing. For many years the earliest known hieroglyphic inscription was the Narmer Palette, found during excavations at Hierakonpolis (modern Kawm al-Ahmar) in the 1890s, which has been dated to circa 3200 BC. However, in 1998 a German archaeological team under Günter Dreyer excavating at Abydos (modern Umm el-Qa’ab) uncovered tomb U-j of a Predynastic ruler, and recovered three hundred clay labels inscribed with proto-hieroglyphs, dating to the Naqada IIIA period of the 33rd century BC. The first full sentence written in hieroglyphs so far discovered was found on a seal impression found in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen at Umm el-Qa’ab, which dates from the Second Dynasty. In the era of the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, about 800 hieroglyphs existed. By the Greco-Roman period, they numbered more than 5,000.

Scholars generally believe that Egyptian hieroglyphs “came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and, probably [were], invented under the influence of the latter …” For example, it has been stated that it is “probable that the general idea of expressing words of a language in writing was brought to Egypt from Sumerian Mesopotamia.” On the other hand, it has been stated that “the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy” and that “a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt…”  Given the lack of direct evidence, “no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt.”

Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, including single-consonant characters that functioned like analphabet; logographs, representing morphemes; and determinatives, which narrowed down the meaning of a logographic or phonetic words.

As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified glyph forms developed, resulting in the hieratic (priestly) and demotic(popular) scripts. These variants were also more suited than hieroglyphs for use onpapyrus. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed alongside the other forms, especially in monumental and other formal writing. The Rosetta Stone contains three parallel scripts – hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek.

Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BC), and after Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, during the ensuingMacedonian and Roman periods. It appears that the misleading quality of comments from Greek and Roman writers about hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. Some believe that hieroglyphs may have functioned as a way to distinguish ‘true Egyptians’ from the foreign conquerors. Another reason may be the refusal to tackle a foreign culture on its own terms which characterized Greco-Roman approaches to Egyptian culture generally. Having learned that hieroglyphs were sacred writing, Greco-Roman authors imagined the complex but rational system as an allegorical, even magical, system transmitting secret, mystical knowledge.

By the 4th century, few Egyptians were capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the myth of allegorical hieroglyphs was ascendant. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in AD 391 by the Roman EmperorTheodosius I; the last known inscription is from Philae, known as the The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, from AD 396

As active knowledge of the hieroglyphs and the related scripts disappeared, numerous attempts were made to decipher the hidden meaning of the ubiquitous inscriptions. The best known example from Antiquity are the “Hieroglyphica” by Horapollo, which offer an explanation of almost 200 glyphs. Horapollo seems to have had access to some genuine knowledge about the hieroglyphs as some words are identified correctly, although the explanations given are invariably wrong (the goose character used to write the word for ‘son’, z3, for example, is identified correctly, but explained wrongly to have been chosen because the goose loves his offspring the most while the real reason seems to have been purely phonetic). The Hieroglyphica do thus represent the start of more than a millenium of (mis)interpreting the hieroglyphs as symbolic rather than phonetic writing.

In the 9th and 10th century, Arab historians Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya offered their interpretation of the hieroglyphs. In his English translation of Ibn Wahshiyya’s work[10], Joseph Hammer points out that Athanasius Kirchnerused this among several other Arabic works in his own attempts at decipherment.

Kirchner’s interpretation of the hieroglyphs is probably the best known early modern European attempt at ‘decipherment’ (others include the works of Johannes Goropius Becanus), not least for the fantasticness of his claims. Like other interpretations before, Kirchner’s ‘translations’ were hampered by the fundamental notion that hieroglyphs recorded ideas and not the sounds of the language. As no bilingual texts were available, any such symbolic ‘translation’ could be proposed without the possibility of falsification.


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