Showing posts tagged hieroglyphics

Wooden writing board

This board is an apprentice board. It can be seen in the unpracticed forms of the hieroglyphs and the uneven spacing of the words that this was done by a student, still learning how to draw a nice hieroglyph. 

Egyptian, First Intermediate Period, Dynasty 11, 2030 BC 

Source: Metropolitan Museum

Identifying the differences between hieratic handwriting

(You’ll have to bear with me guys, this admin is attempting something fairly radical in terms of layout and complexity. I apologise if this is formatted wrong.)

Much like the painters of pots in Ancient Greece, we can tell the difference between the different hands of scribes in documents written in the Hieratic script. All 3 documents above were written during the New Kingdom and are written by different people (scribes and not). Two of the documents (top) are part of a group known as the Late Ramesside Letters (BM EA 10411 & BM EA 10417) and the third document is one text from a group of papyri known as the Tomb Robbery papyri (BM EA 10052). 

The aim of this post is to demonstrate the way in which academics can tell different hands apart by looking at the way different scribes write the hieratic symbols that represent hieroglyphic signs.

Hieratic is the cursive, quick hand, form of the hieroglyphic script. What most of you will be most used to seeing is the monumental inscription form of hieroglyphs. While these are common on buildings and stele, the actual hand written form of hieroglyphs can take two forms. Cursive script and Hieratic script. Cursive script is the hieroglyphic script written as clear as the monumental inscriptions but using reed and ink. Hieratic is a handwritten script that has short form signs instead of the full hieroglyphic script. This is the most common script when working with administrative documents and letters between family. The 3 texts above fall into these categories and are all written in Late Egyptian (the form of the hieroglyphic script that developed during the Amarna period and continued to be used until the advent of Demotic and Coptic). 

In an attempt at consistency and fairness, I shall use 3 different hieroglyphic words to demonstrate the handwriting, taking examples of the words from each. The 3 words I will be using are imn (the name of the god Amun), pA (a particle meaning “the” or “this”), and the auxiliary particle (a sign set that denotes the beginning of a sentence in Egyptian grammar) iw.

For information’s sake BM EA 10052 is written by Scribe Thutmose, BM EA 10411 is written by Butehamun, and BM EA 10417 is written by Amenhotep.

imn (Amun)

The monumental inscription of Amun looks like this:

Butehamun (BM EA 10411) writes Amun like this:  

Thutmose (BM EA 10052) writes Amun like this: 

Amenhotep (BM EA 10417) writes Amun like this: 

As you can see, the 3 men write Amun very differently to one another. Butehamun makes a clear distinction of all three signs when writing and the signs are written on a slant. Thutmose writes Amun as three signs ligatured together. This perhaps has something to do with the speed at which he was writing the transcripts of the tomb robbery trials so uses the most shorthand form of the sign. Amenhotep’s “Amun” is written neatly and distinctively. The “mn” aspect of the sign is very similar to Butehamun’s but you’ll notice that Amenhotep takes the time to make the sign neat and writes all aspects of the sign, whereas Butehamun’s is less defined. 

pA (“the” or “this”)

The monumental inscription of pA looks like this:

Butehamun (BM EA 10411) writes pA like this: 

Thutmose (BM EA 10052) writes pA like this: 

Amenhotep (BM EA 10417) writes pA like this: 

Two forms of the pA bird are shown here, the long form and the short form. Butehamun writes the short hand version of pA as he is writing a letter to his son Tjaroy and therefore does not need to be formal. His writing of pA is consistant throughout all the letters to his family. Those that are official use his ligatured form of the long version of pA. Thutmose also uses the short hand version of pA but his lines are straighter than those of Butehamun. It is typical for him to ligature the two signs together when writing. Amenhotep uses the long form of pA. You can see that he makes the distinction of the wings of the first bird on top of the body whereas the others don’t. 

iw (auxiliary particle)

The monumental inscription of iw looks like this:

Butehamun (BM EA 10411) writes iw like this: 

Thutmose (BM EA 10052) writes iw like this: 

Amenhotep (BM EA 10417) writes iw like this: 

This is a more difficult sign to show the difference in. Butehamun ligatures the two lines representing the reed leaf so that they intersect noticeably and his “w” sign is straight but curved at the bottom. Thutmose’s writing of the sign does not ligature the reed but the “w” sign is straight but slanted (in the instance above it is ligatured to the next word). Amenhotep’s iw is written out fully and neatly. The “w” sign looks more like the quail chick (a “w” varient of the swirl sign above) and the reed leaf shows no sign of ligatures. 

I hope this has been somewhat enlightening on the subject as it is quite difficult to tackle. As academics we have to look for the subtle nuances and differences found in the writing of the signs by different people to identify different writers of different documents. I hope I have been able to explain this well enough and I do hope you’ve enjoyed it. 

All images from the British Museum (linked in their names at the top)

“Regnal year 30, month 3 of the Inundation, day 7:
The god departed for his horizon. The Dual King Sehetepibre
rose up to heaven, and was united with the sun-disk,
the divine flesh mingling with the one who fashioned it.”

- The Story of Sinuhe, R 5-7: Sinuhe describes the death of king Amenemhat I.
(Hieroglyphs written using JSesh, after Koch, 1990.)

“Regnal year 30, month 3 of the Inundation, day 7:

The god departed for his horizon. The Dual King Sehetepibre

rose up to heaven, and was united with the sun-disk,

the divine flesh mingling with the one who fashioned it.”

- The Story of Sinuhe, R 5-7: Sinuhe describes the death of king Amenemhat I.

(Hieroglyphs written using JSesh, after Koch, 1990.)


Maya script, also known as Maya glyphs or Maya hieroglyphs, is the writing system of the Maya civilization of Mesoamerica, presently the only Mesoamerican writing system that has been substantially deciphered. The earliest inscriptions found, which are identifiably Maya, date to the 3rd century BC in San Bartolo, Guatemala. Writing was in continuous use until shortly after the arrival of the conquistadors in the 16th century AD.

The Maya script is generally considered to be the most fully developed Mesoamerican writing system mostly because of its extraordinary aesthetics and because it has been partially deciphered. In Mayan writing, logograms and syllable signs are combined. Around 700 different glyphs have been documented, with some 75% having been deciphered. Around 7000 texts in Mayan script have been documented.

Maya writing used logograms complemented by a set of syllabic glyphs, somewhat similar in function to modern Japanese writing. Maya writing was called “hieroglyphics” or hieroglyphs by early European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries who did not understand it but found its general appearance reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs, to which the Maya writing system is not at all related.

The codices and classic texts were written by scribes who were usually members of the Maya priesthood in a literary form of the Ch’olti’ language. The Ch’olti’ language is an extinct Mayan language which was spoken in the Manche region of eastern Guatemala. The Ch’olti’ language has become of particular interest for the study of Mayan Hieroglyphs since it seems that most of the glyphic texts are written in an ancient variety of Ch’olti’ called Classic Ch’olti’an by epigraphersand which is thought to have been spoken as a prestige dialect throughout the Maya area in the classic period.

The decipherment of the writing was a long and laborious process. 19th century and early 20th century investigators managed to decode the Maya numbers and portions of the texts related to astronomy and the Maya calendar, but understanding of most of the rest long eluded scholars. In the 1960s, progress revealed the dynastic records of Maya rulers. Since the early 1980s it has been demonstrated that most of the previously unknown symbols form a syllabary, and progress in reading the Maya writing has advanced rapidly since.

(Reblogged from ancientpeoples)
“The mouth of a man saves him,
And his speech grants him indulgence.”

-The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor, 17-19.
(Hieroglyphs written using JSesh, after Blackman, 1932.)

“The mouth of a man saves him,

And his speech grants him indulgence.”

-The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor, 17-19.

(Hieroglyphs written using JSesh, after Blackman, 1932.)

The Rosetta Stone is an ancient Egyptian granodiorite stele inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V. The decree appears in three scripts: the upper text is Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the middle portion Demotic script, and the lowest Ancient Greek. Because it presents essentially the same text in all three scripts (with some minor differences between them), it provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Originally displayed within a temple, the stele was probably moved during the early Christian or medieval period and eventually used as building material in the construction of Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta. It was rediscovered there in 1799 by a soldier, Pierre-François Bouchard, of the French expedition to Egypt. As the first Ancient Egyptian bilingual text recovered in modern times, the Rosetta Stone aroused widespread public interest with its potential to decipher this hitherto untranslated ancient language. Lithographic copies and plaster casts began circulating amongst European museums and scholars. Meanwhile, British troops defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, and the original stone came into British possession under the Capitulation of Alexandria. Transported to London, it has been on public display at the British Museum since 1802. It is the most-visited object in the British Museum.

Ever since its rediscovery, the stone has been the focus of nationalist rivalries, including its transfer from French to British possession during the Napoleonic Wars, a long-running dispute over the relative value of Young’s and Champollion’s contributions to the decipherment, and since 2003, demands for the stone’s return to Egypt.

Study of the decree was already under way as the first full translation of the Greek text appeared in 1803. It was 20 years, however, before the decipherment of the Egyptian texts was announced by Jean-François Champollion in Paris in 1822; it took longer still before scholars were able to read other Ancient Egyptian inscriptions and literature confidently. Major advances in the decoding were: recognition that the stone offered three versions of the same text (1799); that the demotic text used phonetic characters to spell foreign names (1802); that the hieroglyphic text did so as well, and had pervasive similarities to the demotic (Thomas Young, 1814); and that, in addition to being used for foreign names, phonetic characters were also used to spell native Egyptian words (Champollion, 1822–1824).

Two other fragmentary copies of the same decree were discovered later, and several similar Egyptian bilingual or trilingual inscriptions are now known, including two slightly earlier Ptolemaic decrees (the Decree of Canopus in 238 BC, and the Memphis decree of Ptolemy IV, ca. 218 BC). The Rosetta Stone is therefore no longer unique, but it was the essential key to modern understanding of Ancient Egyptian literature and civilization. 

The Ancient Egyptian family is somewhat of a complex construction much like today’s modern families. 

The basic terms for family members are:

 hi (pronounced hē) husband     nbt-hi  (pronounced nebet hē) wife (literally: possessor of husband)

 it (pronounced ēt) father     mwt (pronounced muwt) mother

 sAt (pronounced saat) daughter   sA (pronounced saa) son

  snt (pronounced senet) sister  sn (pronounced sen) brother

   Abt  (pronounced abet) family

However some of these terms could be used to represent other members of the extended family as well. In particular the terms sn and snt (brother and sister) could be used to mean cousin, uncle, aunt or other family members. This makes it difficult to make a comprehensive family tree of areas like Deir el Medina as it is not always clear just how people mentioned in texts are related to each other (there are a lot of social type texts found at this site particularly to do with daily life, wills, legal documents etc). 

The terms sA and sAt (son and daughter) can also be confusing as a man might refer to his wife as his daughter in a legal text. We can see an example of this in a document known as the “Adoption Papyrus” whereby a man adopts his wife as his daughter so that she may inherit his property on his death and in another section talks about a woman adopting her servants, which I will talk about below.

Year 1, 3rd month of Summer, day 20, under the Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Ramesses (XI). On this day, proclamation to Amun of the shining forth of this noble god, he arising and shining forth and making offering to Amun. 
Thereupon Neb-nufe, my husband, made a writing for me, the musician of Seth Nanufe, and made me a daughter of his, and wrote down for me all he possessed, having no son or daughter apart from myself. ‘All profit that I have made with her, I will bequeath it to Nanufe, my wife, and if <any of> my own brothers or sisters arise to confront her at my death tomorrow or thereafter and say “Let my brother’s share be given (to me) —-.” ‘
Before many and numerous witnesses: … 

Behold, I have made the bequest to Rennufe, my wife, this day before Huy-irymu, my sister.’

This was probably be because the couple was unable to have any children of their own and thus, to prevent legal issues with the rest of the man’s family, he adopted his wife to make her the sole heir. 

Families might also adopt their servants (Slaves would be the wrong term to use here as they were not “slaves” in the modern sense of the word. These people were well looked after and were considered part of the family). Servants would be adopted when a couple had no children of their own and therefore wished to pass their belongings on to someone. So a servant might be referred to in a text as “Neferhotep son of his Mistress Mutemhab” meaning that he was a servant adopted by the family he worked for and therefore part of that family. They would then be known as “freemen/women” who were then recognised in society as full Egyptians and any children they might have would also then be full Egyptians. 

Now behold, I have made her a freewoman of the land of Pharaoh, and if she bears either son or daughter, they shall be freemen of the land of Pharaoh in exactly the same way, they being with the stable-master Padiu, this younger brother of mine. And the children shall be with their elder sister in the house of Padiu, this stable-master, this younger brother of mine, and today I make him a son of mine exactly like them.’

Appearance of His Majesty upon the throne of Horus in the Palace “Exalted-of-Beauty”:

Then His Majesty said to the nobles and Companions who were in his retinue, the true scribes of hieroglyphs, and the overseers of every secret:

"My heart desires to see the primaeval writings of Atum: unroll for me the great census, and let me know the god in his creation, and the Ennead in their forms, present to them the divine oblations and offer them cakes upon their offering-tables, that I may know the god in his guises, and that I may fashion him like his first state.

They made me their protector, in order to establish their monuments upon earth, and that they offer to me the inheritance of Geb, (which is) all that the Aten encircles. My office has been given to me as overseer of the land, for he knows my teaching is precise. I acted like the god, so that I create abundance in what was assigned to me. They have given to me because of what they love, in order to do in accordance with what they have commanded.”

Then said these Companions:

"“What your soul commands is what comes to pass, O sovereign lord. May your Majesty proceed to the houses of writings, that your Majesty may see all the god’s words.”

His Majesty went to the house of the book, His Majesty was then unrolling the writings, with these Companions Then His Majesty found the writings of the house of Osiris, Foremost of the Westerners and Lord of Abydos…

- The Neferhotep Stela

The Neferhotep Stela is a 13th Dynasty “konigsnovellen” of the king Neferhotep I, and therefore comes from towards the end of the Middle Kingdom. It was found at Abydos, and although transcribed, was lost while in transit to the Boulaq Museum in Cairo.

The “konigsnovellen” are a kind of genre of text almost always found inscribed on walls, which describe an action of the king. Usually, the king makes an appearance before his officials, and announces a plan to do something (usually related either to work done on a temple, or a military expedition) in high-flown rhetoric, followed by the courtiers addressed telling the king this is a good idea, or sometimes raising objections, which are overruled by the king, who knows best. The king’s idea is then carried out.

It’s a kind of mixture of a statement that work was done (e.g., to restore this temple), a legitimation of the king through his association with the divine, and a kind of policy statement. We shouldn’t imagine they were for reading by anyone in particular, though, as few people could read hieroglyphs in ancient Egypt, and often (as in the case of another Middle Kingdom example, the Semna Stela), acted more a physical manifestation of a policy or action than as a text as such. Texts of this sort have been found dating to as early as the beginning of the 12th Dynasty (such as the Tod temple inscription of Senusret I) through to the Late Period.

In the Neferhotep Stela, Neferhotep announces his restoration of the cult statue of Osiris at the temple of Abydos. The rhetoric surrounding the king is even more grandiose than for 12th Dynasty monarchs, and it may be that with the weakening of royal power there was felt to be a need to bolster the king’s position with ever-more grand stylings.

It is interesting to note in the passage above the reference to the “true scribes of hieroglyphs”; these are presumably the people who compose texts which are cut into rock as hieroglyphs rather than texts composed on papyrus in the hieratic script. Mentions specifically of this particular group of scribes is not common.

Ancient Egyptian names

Names, to the Egyptians, were meaningful. Together with your titles – your job – they summed up who you were. Your name could even be considered a part of your soul.

Not all names have straightforward meanings as words, but many do. Some names invoked the protection of a particular god, as in the case of the Fifth Dynasty official Harkhuf (“Horus-protects-him”), while others were a wish on the part of a parent, as in the case of the First Intermediate Period noble called Ankhtifi, whose name means “may he live”, or perhaps the feeling of their parents about them, which might explain the name of the Fifth Dynasty official Senedjemib – “(the one) who pleases” (literally, “the one who makes the heart happy”). Others are explicitly theological, as in the case of the Middle Kingdom official Khnumhotep – “Khnum-is-satisfied”, or the 11th Dynasty minor official Heqanakht, whose name, referring to the divine personification of magic (Heqa), means “Heqa is powerful”.

Kings’ names, too, are loaded down with meaning. Not only is the king often given a name at birth connected with the gods, such as the three 12th Dynasty kings called Senwosret (“man of Wosret”), but on their accession to the throne their birth name became prefixed with the phrase son of Re, and acquired four other names. Each of these names was, like their birth name, prefixed with a title, but unlike the birth name, were carefully composed statements about the king’s divine origin, and political authority. When written out fully, the first of the king’s was the “Horus” name; this linked him with the son of underworld god Osiris, who avenged his father’s murder by defeating his uncle, Set, in a struggle for the kingship of Egypt, and was thus regarded as the ideal king. From the 18th Dynasty onward, every king took a “Horus” name which began with Kanakht, “the strong bull”.

After this was the “Two Ladies”, or Nebty name. This name was prefixed with a special hieroglyph, depicting the goddesses Wadjet and Nekhbet. Nekhbet (“She of Nekheb”) was the protector of the city of Nekheb, while Wadjet (“She who is Green”) was the deified eye of Ra, who, according to several myths, became the uraeus, or rearing cobra which sits on the forehead of royal crowns. For reasons which are not clear, Tutankhamun’s funerary mask has both Wadjet and Nekhbet on the brow.

Next came the “Horus of Gold” name. The significance of this name is more contested, but presumably had similar meaning to the “Horus” name. The meaning of this name may be connected with the origin of Book of the Dead Spell 77, which is titled “Spell for Transforming into a falcon of gold”.

Next is the nesu-bity name. This name is preceded by two words, written with a sedge plant and a bee. The significance of this name is far from clear, though several possibilities have been suggested, including that it signifies that the king is king of Upper and Lower Egypt. Alternatively, they may represent two complementary natures of kingship, civil and religious. Both words are used next to the king’s name to mean “King so-and-so”, but bity is used more rarely for this, and appears to be relegated to more ritual or religious functions. The Fifth Dynasty king Neferirkare (“Beautiful Is The Action of Re’s Soul”) is described in the tomb of the sem-priest Rawer as “bity Neferirkare” on the day of his coronation (the “day of taking the prowrope of the god’s boat”), and the 18th Dynasty king Amenhotep I was referred to after his death only as bity at the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina, where he was worshipped as a god and consulted as a divine oracle.

Finally came the king’s son of Re name.  This was their birth name, and this name often invoked the god Ra, particularly in the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties, but was not necessarily so, and could be connected with other gods or goddesses, as in the four 11th Dynasty kings called Montuhotep (“Montu-is-satisfied”), or the number of kings of the First and Second Intermediate Periods called Intef (“May-he-bring”).

Gods’ names could also be meaningful, though the origin of some – in particular, Osiris – remain problematic. Some simply named the thing they were most associated with, like Ra, which is also the word for “sun”.  Others identified them with a particular town, like Andjety (“the one of Andjet”). Some described what the god did, like Wepwawet, whose name means “the one who opens the road”, perhaps referring to his action in clearing the way for Osiris in the underworld. Some others described their nature, like the lioness goddess Sekhmet, which means “She-who-is-powerful”, or Amun, whose name means “The hidden one”, and whose name may indicate his connexion with the mysterious creator god, “He-whose-names-are-hidden”.

Whatever your status in the world, from the highest to the lowest, your name was much more than just what you were called.

Egyptian Curse of the Day:


“As for any person, any scribe, any wise man, any commoner, or any inferior who will do an evil thing in this tomb, who will damage its inscriptions, who will delete its images; they will submit to the wrath of Thoth…”

(Sarah Colledge - own translation)

Tomb of Djefay-Hapy, Twelfth Dynasty at Siut

(Reblogged from ratty-sarah)
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