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The History and Purpose of Hieroglyphics

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Writing was a crucial element of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Egyptian writing has a rich and diverse history, and it helped their society thrive for thousands of years. We can still use their hieroglyphics to learn about the ancient Egyptians today. The word “Hieroglyphics” stems from the Greek words “Hiero”, meaning holy, and “Glyph”, meaning writing (Combined it is “Holy Writing”). While a definitive answer is unknown, hieroglyphics may have come from prehistoric rock drawings in the Nile River area.

The first known hieroglyphs date back to around 3000-3200 B.C.E. While there were initially over 1,000 unique hieroglyphs, this number was reduced to around 750 over time. Hieroglyphs are mainly comprised of objects in the world such as snakes and owls. Egyptian Hieroglyphs were normally written on temple and tomb walls, although they can also be found on memorials, gravestones, statues, and coffins. Occasionally, hieroglyphs were written on papyrus, a paper-like substance made from the papyrus reed. Only a limited amount of people knew how to write; officials, priests, craftsmen, and scribes (people who specialized in recording information) could use hieroglyphics. These people used tools like chisels and hammers on stone, along with brushes and colors for smooth surfaces such as wood and papyrus. Hieroglyphics were used for nearly 3000 years, and the last hieroglyphic texts were written between 400 and 450 A.D. Greek, Roman, and Christian beliefs dominated the region at the time, and the ancient Egyptian writing system was replaced.

While Egyptian Hieroglyphics have a unique history, it is important to note the purpose of this writing, along with the other types of writing that benefited the ancient Egyptians. As previously stated, hieroglyphs are commonly found on tombs and coffins. After someone passed away, their name was usually written on their tomb/coffin. Egyptians believed that this act would provide the deceased person with identity and protection after death. If the name was removed, as the successors of the pharaohs Tutankhamun and Hatshepsut did, the Egyptians believed that the person would have no reason to live in the afterworld. Additionally, hieroglyphs could be written on monuments, statues, and in temples. This was typically to record past events and history, like battles and pharaohs, or to record information important to generations in the future. Hieroglyphs could be used to label and record goods, however this is more common with the other ancient Egyptian writing systems, Hieratic and Demotic script. Hieratic script was developed as a simpler writing system compared to hieroglyphics for religious documents.

Hieratic script contains traces of hieroglyphics (most letters form the simplified and outlined shape of one), however each character looks more cursive-like. Hieratic script was written on papyrus, and was written right to left (English is written left to right). Demotic script was developed around 660 B.C.E., and it was used on general documents- more commonly used than both Hieratic and hieroglyphics. People could use it to record goods, trade, and economic activity. Demotic means “Popular script” in Greek. Also written on papyrus, this script mainly derived from Hieratic script. There are nearly no traces of ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics in Demotic script. The last document in Demotic Script that we know of at this point was written on December 2, 425 A.D. Around 300 B.C., Greeks and Romans began to spread their culture- along with Christianity- across the ancient Egyptian territory. Christians in the area developed Coptic, a language based on Greek. As Coptic spread throughout the area, Hieroglyphics, Hieratic Script, and Demotic Script were slowly phased out. A lot of information about Egyptian hieroglyphics was unknown until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which had the same text in three different languages: Hieroglyphics, Greek, and Demotic Script. Jean-François Champollion, from France, with help from the scientist Thomas Young, of England, decoded the artifact in 1822.

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics, along with the Hieratic and Demotic Scripts, were revolutionary to the Egyptians, as they opened up opportunities for communication, religion, and recording data. Even today, historians benefit from the text ancient Egyptians wrote over 2,000 years ago.

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