Ancient Egyptian Writing

Ancient Egyptian Writing

Ancient Egyptian writing is known as hieroglyphics ('sacred carvings') and developed at some point prior to the Early Dynastic Period (c. According to some scholars, the concept of the written word was first developed in Mesopotamia and came to Egypt through trade. While there certainly was cross-cultural exchange between the two regions, Egyptian hieroglyphics are completely Egyptian in origin; there is no evidence of early writings which describe non-Egyptian concepts, places, or objects, and early Egyptian pictographs have no correlation to early Mesopotamian signs. The designation 'hieroglyphics' is a Greek word; the Egyptians referred to their writing as medu-netjer, 'the god's words,' as they believed writing had been given to them by the great god Thoth.

According to one ancient Egyptian tale, in the beginning of time Thoth created himself and, in the form of an ibis, lay the cosmic egg which held all of creation. In another story, Thoth emerged from the lips of the sun god Ra at the dawn of time, and in another, he was born of the contendings of the gods Horus and Set, representing the forces of order and chaos. In all of these, however, the constant is that Thoth was born with an immense breadth of knowledge and, among the most important, the knowledge of the power of words.

Thoth gave human beings this knowledge freely, but it was a responsibility he expected them to take seriously. Words could hurt, heal, elevate, destroy, condemn, and even raise someone from death to life. Egyptologist Rosalie David comments on this:

The main purpose of writing was not decorative, and it was not originally intended for literary or commercial use. Its most important function was to provide a means by which certain concepts or events could be brought into existence. The Egyptians believed that if something were committed to writing it could be repeatedly "made to happen" by means of magic. (199)

This concept is not as strange as it might first appear. Any writer knows that one often has no idea what one wants to say until the end of the first draft, and every avid reader understands the "magic" of discovering unknown worlds between the covers of a book and making that magic happen again each time the book is opened. David's reference to "concepts or events" coming into existence through writing is a common understanding among writers. American author William Faulkner stated in his Nobel Prize address that he wrote "to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before" (1). This same motivation has been expressed in different words by many writers over the centuries, but before any of them even existed the ancient Egyptians understood this concept well. The great gift of Thoth was the ability not only to express one's self but to literally be able to change the world through the power of words. Before that could happen, however, before the gift could be put to its full use, it had to be understood.

The Creation of Writing

However much Thoth had to do with giving humans their system of writing (and, to the Egyptians, 'humanity' equaled 'Egyptian'), the ancient Egyptians had to work out for themselves what this gift was and how to use it. Sometime in the latter part of the Predynastic Period in Egypt (c. 6000 - c. 3150 BCE), they began to use symbols to represent simple concepts. Egyptologist Miriam Lichtheim writes how this early script "was limited to the briefest notations designed to identify a person or a place, an event or a possession" (3). Most likely the earliest purpose writing served was in trade, to convey information about goods, prices, purchases, between one point and another. The first actual extant evidence of Egyptian writing, however, comes from tombs in the form of Offering Lists in the Early Dynastic Period.

Death was not the end of life for the ancient Egyptians; it was only a transition from one state to another. The dead lived on in the afterlife and relied upon the living to remember them and present them with offerings of food and drink. An Offering List was an inventory of the gifts due to a particular person and inscribed on the wall of their tomb. Someone who had performed great deeds, held a high position of authority, or led troops to victory in battle were due greater offerings than another who had done relatively little with their lives. Along with the list was a brief epitaph stating who the person was, what they had done, and why they were due such offerings. These lists and epitaphs might sometimes be quite brief but most of the time were not and became longer as this practice continued. Lichtheim explains:

Love History?

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

The Offering List grew to enormous length till the day on which an inventive mind realized that a short Prayer for Offerings would be an effective substitute for the unwieldy list. Once the prayer, which may already have existed in spoken form, was put into writing, it became the basic element around which tomb-texts and representations were organized. Similarly, the ever lengthening lists of an official's ranks and titles were infused with life when the imagination began to flesh them out with narration, and the Autobiography was born. (3)

The autobiography and the prayer became the first forms of Egyptian literature and were created using the hieroglyphic script.

Development & Use of Hieroglyphic Script

Hieroglyphics developed out of the early pictographs. People used symbols, pictures to represent concepts such as a person or event. The problem with a pictogram, however, is that the information it contains is quite limited. One may draw a picture of a woman and a temple and a sheep but has no way of relaying their connection. Is the woman coming from or going to the temple? Is the sheep an offering she is leading to the priests or a gift to her from them? Is the woman even going to the temple at all or is she merely walking a sheep in the vicinity? Are the woman and sheep even related at all? The early pictographic writing lacked any ability to answer these questions.

The Egyptians developed the same system as the Sumerians but added logograms (symbols representing words) and ideograms to their script.

The Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia had already come upon this problem in writing and created an advanced script c. 3200 BCE in the city of Uruk. The theory that Egyptian script developed from Mesopotamian writing is most sharply challenged by this development, in fact, because if the Egyptians had learned the art of writing from the Sumerians, they would have bypassed the stage of pictograms and begun with the Sumerian creation of phonograms - symbols which represent sound. The Sumerians learned to expand their written language through symbols directly representing that language so that if they wished to relay some specific information regarding a woman, a temple, and a sheep, they could write, "The woman took the sheep as an offering to the temple," and the message was clear.

The Egyptians developed this same system but added logograms (symbols representing words) and ideograms to their script. An ideogram is a 'sense sign' that conveys a certain message clearly through a recognizable symbol. The best example of an ideogram is probably a minus sign: one recognizes that it means subtraction. The emoji is a modern example familiar to anyone acquainted with texting; placing the image of a laughing face at the end of one's sentence lets a reader know that one is joking or finds the subject funny. The phonogram, logogram, and ideogram made up the basis for hieroglyphic script. Rosalie David explains:

There are three types of phonograms in hieroglypics: uniliteral or alphabetic signs, where one hieroglyph (picture) represents a single consonant or sound value; biliteral signs, where one hieroglyph represents two consonants; and triliteral signs where one hieroglyph represents three consonants. There are twenty-four hieroglyphic signs in the Egyptian alphabet and these are the phonograms most commonly used. But since there was never a purely alphabetic system, these signs were placed alongside other phonograms (biliterals and triliterals) and ideograms. Ideograms were often placed at the end of a word (spelled out in phonograms) to clarify the meaning of that word and, when used in this way, we refer to them as "determinatives." This assists in two ways: the addition of a determinative helps to clarify the meaning of a particular word, since some words look similar or identical to each other when spelled out and written down only in the phonograms; and beacuse determinatives stand at the end of the word they can indicate where one word ends and another begins. (193)

A modern-day example of how hieroglyphics were written would be a text message in which an emoji of an angry face is placed after an image of a school. Without having to use any words one could convey the concept of "I hate school" or "I am angry about school." If one wanted to make one's problem clearer, one could place an image of a teacher or fellow student before the angry-face-ideogram or a series of pictures telling a story of a problem one had with a teacher. Determinatives were important in the script, especially because hieroglyphics could be written left-to-right or right-to-left or down-to-up or up-to-down. Inscriptions over temple doors, palace gates, and tombs go in whatever direction was best served for that message. The beauty of the final work was the only consideration in which direction the script was to be read. Egyptologist Karl-Theodor Zauzich notes:

The placement of hieroglyphs in relation to one another was governed by aesthetic rules. The Egyptians always tried to group signs in balanced rectangles. For example, the word for "health" was written with the three consonants s-n-b. These would not be written [in a linear fashion] by an Egyptian because the group would look ugly, it would be considered "incorrect". The "correct" writing would be the grouping of the signs into a rectangle...The labor of construction was lightened somewhat by the fact that individual hieroglyphs could be enlarged or shrunk as the grouping required and that some signs could be placed either horizontally or vertically. Scribes would even reverse the order of signs if it seemed that a more balanced rectangle could be obtained by writing them in the wrong order. (4)

The script could easily be read by recognizing the direction the phonograms were facing. Images in any inscription always face the beginning of the line of text; if the text is to be read left-to-right then the faces of the people, birds, and animals will be looking to the left. These sentences were easy enough to read for those who knew the Egyptian language but not for others. Zauzich notes how "nowhere among all the hieroglyphs is there a single sign that represents the sound of a vowel" (6). Vowels were placed in a sentence by the reader who understood the spoken language. Zauzich writes:

This is less complicated than it sounds. For example, any of us can read an advertisement that consists almost entirely of consonants:

3rd flr apt in hse, 4 lg rms, exclnt loc nr cntr, prkg, w-b-frpl, hdwd flrs, skylts, ldry, $600 incl ht (6).

In this same way, the ancient Egyptians would be able to read hieroglyphic script by recognizing what 'letters' were missing in a sentence and applying them.

Other Scripts

Hieroglyphics were comprised of an 'alphabet' of 24 basic consonants which would convey meaning but over 800 different symbols to express that meaning precisely which all had to be memorized and used correctly. Zauzich answers the question which may immediately come to mind:

It may well be asked why the Egyptians developed a complicated writing system that used several hundred signs when they could have used their alphabet of some thirty signs and made their language much easier to read and write. This puzzling fact probably has a historical explanation: the one-consonant signs were not "discovered" until after the other signs were in use. Since by that time the entire writing system was established, it could not be discarded, for specific religious reasons. Hieroglyphics were regarded as a precious gift of Thoth, the god of wisdom. To stop using many of these signs and to change the entire system of writing would have been considered both a sacrilege and an immense loss, not to mention the fact that such a change would make all the older texts meaningless at a single blow. (11)

Even so, hieroglyphics were obviously quite labor-intensive for a scribe and so another faster script was developed shortly after known as hieratic ('sacred writing'). Hieratic script used characters which were simplified versions of hieroglyphic symbols. Hieratic appeared in the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt after hieroglyphic writing was already firmly developed.

Hieroglyphics continued to be used throughout Egypt's history in all forms of writing but came primarily to be the script of monuments and temples. Hieroglyphics, grouped in their beautifully formed rectangles, leant themselves to the grandeur of monumental inscriptions. Hieratic came to be used first in religious texts but then in other areas such as business administration, magical texts, personal and business letters, and legal documents such as wills and court records. Hieratic was written on papyrus or ostraca and practiced on stone and wood. It developed into a cursive script around 800 BCE (known as 'abnormal hieratic') and then was replaced c. 700 BCE by demotic script.

Demotic script ('popular writing') was used in every kind of writing while hieroglyphics continued to be the script of monumental inscriptions in stone. The Egyptians called demotic sekh-shat, 'writing for documents,' and it became the most popular for the next 1,000 years in all kinds of written works. Demotic script seems to have originated in the Delta region of Lower Egypt and spread south during the 26th Dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BCE). Demotic continued in use through the Late Period of Ancient Egypt (525-332 BCE) and the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332-30 BCE) into Roman Egypt when it was replaced by Coptic script.

Coptic was the script of the Copts, Egyptian Christians, who spoke Egyptian dialects but wrote in the Greek alphabet with some additions from demotic script. Since the Greek language had vowels, the Copts incorporated them in their script to make the meaning clear to anyone reading it, no matter what their native language. Coptic script was used to copy and preserve a number of important documents, most notably the books of the Christian New Testament, and also served to provide the key to later generations for understanding hieroglyphics.

Loss & Discovery

It has been argued that the meaning of hieroglyphics was lost throughout the later periods of Egyptian history as people forgot how to read and write the symbols. Actually, hieroglyphics were still in use as late as the Ptolemaic Dynasty and only fell out of favor with the rise of the new religion of Christianity during the early Roman Period. There were lapses throughout the country's history in the use of hieroglyphics, but the art was not lost until the world the script represented changed. As Coptic script continued to be used in the new paradigm of Egyptian culture; hieroglyphic writing faded into memory. By the time of the Arab Invasion of the 7th century CE, no one living in Egypt knew what the hieroglyphic inscriptions meant.

When the European nations began exploring the country in the 17th century CE, they had no more of an idea that the hieroglyphics were a written language than the Muslims had. In the 17th century CE, hieroglyphics were firmly claimed to be magical symbols and this understanding was primarily encouraged through the work of the German scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher (1620-1680 CE). Kircher followed the lead of ancient Greek writers who had also failed to understand the meaning of hieroglyphics and believed they were symbols. Taking their interpretation as fact instead of conjecture, Kircher insisted on an interpretation where each symbol represented a concept, much in the way the modern peace sign would be understood. His attempts to decipher Egyptian writing failed, therefore, because he was operating from a wrong model.

Many other scholars would attempt to decipher the meaning of the ancient Egyptian symbols without success between Kircher's work and the 19th century CE but had no basis for understanding what they were working with. Even when it seemed as though the symbols suggested a certain pattern such as one would find in a writing system, there was no way to recognize what those patterns translated to. In 1798 CE, however, when Napoleon's army invaded Egypt, the Rosetta Stone was discovered by one of his lieutenants, who recognized its potential importance and had it sent to Napoleon's institute for study in Cairo. The Rosetta Stone is a proclamation in Greek, hieroglyphics, and demotic from the reign of Ptolemy V (204-181 BCE). All three texts relay the same information in keeping with the Ptolemaic ideal of a multi-cultural society; whether one read Greek, hieroglyphic, or demotic, one would be able to understand the message on the stone.

Work on deciphering hieroglyphics with the help of the stone was delayed until the English defeated the French in the Napoleonic Wars and the stone was brought from Cairo to England. Once there, scholars set about trying to understand the ancient writing system but were still working from the earlier understanding Kircher had so convincingly advanced. The English polymath and scholar Thomas Young (1773-1829 CE) came to believe that the symbols represented words and that hieroglyphics were closely related to demotic and later Coptic scripts. His work was built upon by his sometimes-colleague-sometimes-rival, the philologist and scholar Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832 CE).

Champollion's name is forever linked with the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of hieroglyphics because of the famous publication of his work in 1824 CE which conclusively showed that Egyptian hieroglyphics were a writing system composed of phonograms, logograms, and ideograms. Contention between Young and Champollion over who made the more significant discoveries and who deserves the greater credit is reflected in the same ongoing debate in the present day by scholars. It seems quite clear, however, that Young's work lay the foundation on which Champollion was able to build but it was Champollion's breakthrough which finally deciphered the ancient writing system and opened up Egyptian culture and history for the world.

Egyptian hieroglyphs

Egyptian hieroglyphs ( / ˈ h aɪ r ə ɡ l ɪ f s / ) [5] [6] were the formal writing system used in Ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphs combined logographic, syllabic and alphabetic elements, with a total of some 1,000 distinct characters. [7] [8] Cursive hieroglyphs were used for religious literature on papyrus and wood. The later hieratic and demotic Egyptian scripts were derived from hieroglyphic writing, as was the Proto-Sinaitic script that later evolved into the Phoenician alphabet. [9] Through the Phoenician alphabet's major child systems (the Greek and Aramaic scripts), the Egyptian hieroglyphic script is ancestral to the majority of scripts in modern use, most prominently the Latin and Cyrillic scripts (through Greek) and the Arabic script and possibly Brahmic family of scripts (through Aramaic).

The use of hieroglyphic writing arose from proto-literate symbol systems in the Early Bronze Age, around the 32nd century BC (Naqada III), [2] with the first decipherable sentence written in the Egyptian language dating to the Second Dynasty (28th century BC). Egyptian hieroglyphs developed into a mature writing system used for monumental inscription in the classical language of the Middle Kingdom period during this period, the system made use of about 900 distinct signs. The use of this writing system continued through the New Kingdom and Late Period, and on into the Persian and Ptolemaic periods. Late survivals of hieroglyphic use are found well into the Roman period, extending into the 4th century AD. [4]

With the final closing of pagan temples in the 5th century, knowledge of hieroglyphic writing was lost. Although attempts were made, the script remained undeciphered throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period. The decipherment of hieroglyphic writing was finally accomplished in the 1820s by Jean-François Champollion, with the help of the Rosetta Stone. [10]

How Writing Changed the World

Humans had been speaking for a couple hundred thousand years before they got the inspiration or nerve to mark their ideas down for posterity.

But when a Mesopotamian people called the Sumerians finally did scratch out a few bookkeeping symbols on clay tablets 5,000 years ago, they unknowingly started a whole new era in history we call, well … history.

The presence of written sources denotes the technical dividing line between what scholars classify as prehistory versus what they call history, which starts at different times depending on what part of the world you're studying.

In most places, writing started about the same time ancient civilizations emerged from hunter-gatherer communities, probably as a way to keep track of the new concept of "property," such as animals, grain supplies or land.

By 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), and then soon after in Egypt, and by 1500 B.C. in China, people were scribbling, sketching and telling their world about their culture in a very permanent way.

When memory failed

When ancient Mesopotamians started settling down onto farms surrounding the first cities, life became a bit more complicated. Agriculture required expertise and detailed recordkeeping, two elements that led directly to the invention of writing, historians say.

The first examples of writing were pictograms used by temple officials to keep track of the inflows and outflows of the city's grain and animal stores which, in the bigger Sumerian urban centers such as Ur, were big enough to make counting by memory unreliable.

Officials began using standardized symbols &mdash rather than, say, an actual picture of a goat &mdash to represent commodities, scratched into soft clay tablets with a pointed reed that had been cut into a wedge shape. Archaeologists call this first writing "cuneiform," from the Latin "cuneus," meaning wedge.

The system developed quickly to incorporate signs that represented sounds, and soon all of Mesopotamia was taking notes, making to-do lists and (presumably) writing love letters.

Egyptian writing &mdash the famous hieroglyphics &mdash developed independently not long thereafter, under similar circumstances, historians think.

A few thousand years later, as variations on the two systems spread throughout the region, the entire ancient world had writing schemes that vastly improved the efficiency of economies, the accountability of governments and, maybe most importantly to us, our understanding of the past.

Literacy a privilege

Reading and writing in ancient times wasn't for the masses, however. Daily life in Mesopotamia and Egypt was time-consuming, and so writing became a specialized profession, usually for members of the elite class. The highly-regarded scribes of ancient Mesopotamia were even depicted in art wearing cuneiform writing implements (a bit like a set of chopsticks) in their belts as a mark of their importance.

Literacy remained a privilege of aristocratic males in most societies all the way until the 19th-century, when public education became more widespread around the world.

That means that while the historical period is exponentially better understood than the experiences of humans before writing was invented, written accounts are largely about the experiences of the upper classes, historians say.

About one in five people today, concentrated mostly in Third World nations, are illiterate.

Word formation, morphology, and syntax

Word formation in Egyptian is similar to the “ root and pattern” system found across the Afro-Asiatic language phylum. In such systems, consonantal “roots” that indicate the general meaning of a word join with vocalic “patterns” that create more specific meaning. An example in English would be the difference between the words wake and woke, in which the root Square root of √ wk provides a basic notion of “being awake” and combines with the patterns -a-e and -o-e to create verbs of a particular tense. In ancient Egyptian texts, roots were predominantly composed of three consonants, and vowels were omitted.

Of the original Afro-Asiatic verb system, only the stative survived. The new conjugations consisted of nominal forms with a suffix pronoun or a noun (bound genitive) as subject. Suffixes indicated tense and voice. Later these conjugations were replaced by adverbial predicates (e.g., preposition plus infinitive).

Stem modifications were limited. An s- causative stem corresponds to the Semitic causatives, but it was no longer productive by Late Egyptian. The pronouns are close to those of Semitic. Some nouns of place or instrument were formed with the prefix m-. The masculine singular noun had no ending or was *-aw, feminine singular *-at, masculine plural *-āw, and feminine plural *-āwāt.

Syntax was governed by a rigid word order, with modifiers occurring in second position. Genitival constructions are of two types in all phases of Egyptian: noun with reduced stress bound to the possessor or noun plus the genitival adjective n(y) ‘of’ followed by the possessor.

Egyptian Writing Research Will Lead To New Insights

In reference to the ink analysis, Thomas Christiansen, a Danish Egyptologist who took part in the study, told the University of Copenhagen that “the priests must have acquired them or overseen their production at specialized workshops much like the Master Painters from the Renaissance.” These specialty ink workshops may have been attached to the temple.

The Danish research team wrote in the PNAS that “already in antiquity the drying properties of lead oxide and lead white were known and exploited.” There is some documentary evidence to support this. For example, a Hellenistic text on alchemy states that red ink production was already something that specialty workshops understood and produced for Greek scribes.

The Danish team of experts were unable to determine the origin of the lead used to create faster drying inks. This could have helped them to understand the process involved in the manufacture of these specialty inks.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the history of ink making. The Danish team has more or less proven that the ancient Egyptians were pioneers in the production of specialized pigments. In fact, according to the authors of the study, the earliest Egyptian ink “chemists” even found a way to make an “almost invisible ink,” as stated in the PNAS study.

More research into Egyptian ink pigments will tell us more about their properties, which can be very useful. It can help experts to better understand how these compounds deteriorate over time. This in turn can help preservation experts who oversee the storage and exhibition of historic texts and manuscripts from antiquity.

Top image: Egyptian writing sample from a medical treatise (inv. P. Carlsberg 930) belonging to the Tebtunis temple library with headings marked in red ink. Source: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection / PNAS

Notable features

  • Possibly pre-dates Sumerian Cuneiform writing - if this is true, the Ancient Egyptian script is the oldest known writing system. Another possibility is that the two scripts developed at more or less the same time.
  • The direction of writing in the hieroglyphic script varied - it could be written in horizontal lines running either from left to right or from right to left, or in vertical columns running from top to bottom. You can tell the direction of any piece of writing by looking at the way the animals and people are facing - they look towards the beginning of the line.
  • The arrangement of glyphs was based partly on artistic considerations.
  • A fairly consistent core of 700 glyphs was used to write Classical or Middle Egyptian (ca. 2000-1650 BC), though during the Greco-Roman eras (332 BC - ca. 400 AD) over 5,000 glyphs were in use.
  • The glyphs have both semantic and phonetic values. For example, the glyph for crocodile is a picture of a crocodile and also represents the sound "msh". When writing the word for crocodile, the Ancient Egyptians combined a picture of a crocodile with the glyphs which spell out "msh". Similarly the hieroglyphs for cat, miw, combine the glyphs for m, i and w with a picture of a cat.

Teaching ideas

Show students the image of the palette and ask them to describe it. What is it made from? What are the different parts? How do they think it was used? Ask the class to make a list of all the different things we use for writing today. Which ones do they think they would find in a modern workplace?

Demonstrate how to make pens from reeds or bamboo skewers and help students make their own. Have the class practise writing with hieroglyphs while sitting cross-legged on the floor. Use black and red watercolour cakes or Chinese ink blocks for the ink, and a variety of different surfaces – papyrus (or paper), bits of broken flowerpot, sheets of wood – to write on. Some students may like to try making a complete set of scribal equipment using the instructions in For the classroom.

Using the two paintings from Nebamun’s tomb in A bigger picture, have the class look at the differences in how the scribes and field workers are shown. Are their clothes and hair different? Why are the field workers bowing down while the scribes sit or stand? Print out the two scenes and give them to groups. Ask them to identify the following items:

What do the class think the scribes are counting, and why? Look at the statue of Peshuper and at the flask in A bigger picture. Notice how fat the scribes are. Why do the students think these men would want to be shown as fat?

Using the resources in For the classroom, explore Egyptian numbers and mathematics with the class. Try some simple Egyptian mathematical problems. Challenge groups to do some addition and subtraction exercises manually before checking the answer with a calculator. Ask them to time each process and make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of each method to share with the class.

The first Egyptian writing was made up of pictures and symbols. Discuss how we use symbols to communicate today, for example, road signs, emoticons, logos. Give students examples of hieroglyphs and ask them to collect images of modern signs and symbols that either look similar or have the same meaning. Make a display or presentation comparing the ancient and modern signs and ask students to label them with their meanings.

The Egyptians used the sound values of their pictograms to spell out words that were hard to draw, like names or ideas. Get students to explore how this worked by creating and solving picture rebus puzzles, for example, drawings of an eye and a deer for ‘idea’. After solving a few puzzles as a class, individual students can draw their own name as a rebus. Then, working in groups, they could create picture messages in rebus form for the rest of the class to decipher.

In much the same way as text message abbreviations, written Egyptian omitted vowels. Ask the class to translate a few text messages and to identify what makes this type of communication different from the normal written word. Discuss why people send texts. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this method of communication? Demonstrate how the Egyptians used determinative signs to avoid confusion.

Ancient Egyptian education was all about preparing young people for the jobs they would do as adults. Using the resources in For the classroom, list and discuss all the ways in which ancient Egyptian education was different from today. Compare the benefits of practical experience and theoretical knowledge. Ask students to work in pairs and imagine a conversation between an ancient Egyptian child and someone of the same age today. What are their daily lives like? What are they learning? When will they start work? How do they imagine their future?

As part of their education, Egyptian students had to copy texts known as ‘instructions’. As well as providing writing practice, these texts gave advice on how to behave at work and in private life. Look at the example of a student’s work in For the classroom and compare it with corrected work the students have. Print out a selection of Amenemopet’s maxims from For the classroom and give them to groups to discuss - you may need to adapt the language. Do students think these are still good advice today? You could ask them to select the most relevant examples and use them as the basis for a class assembly.

You might arrange to visit your local town hall to find out how modern administrators work. Look at jobs such as:

  • writing letters
  • ordering supplies
  • paying wages
  • filing documents
  • keeping records

Ask groups to find out how Egyptian scribes did these jobs, then collect images of modern office workers to display alongside.

Unravelling the literacy of the Egyptian Pharaohs

It is well known that only about one percent of ancient Egyptians mastered the difficult art of reading and writing hieroglyphics. But there is little information about the education of royal children and how many of the powerful rulers of Egypt learned this important skill. Researchers from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland have examined ancient texts to find clues regarding the literacy of Egypt’s Dynastic rulers.

The most famous of all ancient Egyptian scripts is hieroglyphic. However, throughout three thousand years of ancient Egyptian civilisation, at least three other scripts – Hieratic, Demotic, and later on, Coptic – were used for different purposes. Using these scripts, scribes were able to preserve the beliefs, history and ideas of ancient Egypt in temple and tomb walls and on papyrus scrolls.

From left to right, examples of Hieratic, Demotic, and Coptic script. Photo source: Wikimedia

“For administrative documents and literary texts, ancient Egyptians used mainly hieratic, which was a simplified form of writing used since the Old Kingdom, the time of the builders of the pyramids in the third millennium BC. In the middle of the first millennium BC, even more simplified demotic appeared" said Filip Taterka, Egyptologist and doctoral student at the Institute of Prehistory in Adam Mickiewicz University.

Writing in Ancient Egypt—both hieroglyphic and hieratic—first appeared in the late 4th millennium BC during the late phase of predynastic Egypt. The Egyptians called their hieroglyphs "words of god" and reserved their use for exalted purposes, such as communicating with divinities and spirits of the dead through funerary texts. Each hieroglyphic word both represented a specific object and embodied the essence of that object, recognizing it as divinely made and belonging within the greater cosmos.

By the Old Kingdom (2,600 – 2,200 BC), literary works included funerary texts, epistles and letters, hymns and poems, and commemorative autobiographical texts recounting the careers of prominent administrative officials. It was not until the early Middle Kingdom (2,100 – 1,700 BC) that a narrative Egyptian literature was created. This is believed to have been the result of the rise of an intellectual class of scribes and mainstream access to written materials. However, the overall literacy rate was still only around one percent of the entire population. The creation of literature was thus an elite exercise, monopolised by a scribal class attached to government offices and the royal court of the ruling pharaoh.

The Seated Scribe, a statue from Saqqarah dated 2600–2350 BC. Photo source: Wikimedia

According to Mr Taterka, evidence suggests that Egyptian royal children were taught hieratic, a simplified, cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphs, while classical hieroglyphs were probably reserved for children who would enter the priesthood, and for the future heir to the throne.

"Relatively late sources suggest that even one of the first rulers of Egypt - Aha - mastered the writing skill. He was believed to be an author of a few medical treaties, although the reliability of this report is, of course, debatable," said Mr Taterka.

The researcher found numerous references to the Pharaoh’s skills in writing in the texts of the Pyramids, and archaeological evidence, such as writing implements showing traces of use found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, further support the belief that royal rulers were literate.

"The most famous Egyptian text that speaks of the royal literacy is the Prophecy of Neferti. It is a story concerning the first king of the fourth dynasty - Sneferu. In the story, the ruler writes down the words of Neferti - the wise man from the East- on papyrus. Although this story cannot be treated as proof of literacy of Sneferu himself, since it was created a thousand years after his reign, it clearly shows that at least in the time of the 12th dynasty, the Egyptians could imagine such a situation," said Mr Taterka.

The researcher explained that knowledge of hieroglyphics was necessary to fulfil the Pharaoh’s royal duties, which included religious rituals, during which the ruler would recite sacred texts. The ruler was the only intermediary between gods and humans and was often identified with the god Thoth, the inventor of the hieroglyphs.

While it may appear as an obvious conclusion that the elite were literate in hieroglyphics, the same was not true in other civilisations. According to Taterka, most of the royals of Mesopotamia did not have a command of the cuneiform script, which may have been due to the fact that it was a lot more difficult to master.

Featured image: Photo of a relief-section of hieroglyphs in the great temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel. Photo source: Wikimedia


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

Facts about Egyptian Writing 7: the scripts

There are two types of scripts. Both are the demotic or popular scripts and hieratic or priestly scripts. The Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic are available in Rosetta stone. Look at facts about Egyptian music here.

Facts about Egyptian Writing 8: the late survival of Hieroglyphs

During the 6th and 5th centuries BC, Hieroglyphs were still employed. At that time, Persian was the ruler. The usage was continued when Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great.

Facts about Egyptian Writing

Ancient Egyptian Writing - History

Papyrus of Ani from the Bridgeman Art Library
[Public Domain]

The Ancient Egyptians used picture words to write called hieroglyphics. It is a very old form of writing that they starting using as early as 3000 B.C. Hieroglyphics was a very complicated way of writing involving 1000s of symbols. Some of the symbols represented sounds, like our letters, and other's represented entire words.

More about Hieroglyphics

  • It could be written in almost any direction left to right, right to left, or top to bottom. The reader would figure out which way to read it by the direction of the symbols.
  • They didn't use any punctuation.
  • One of the goals in writing hieroglyphics was that the writing would look like art and be beautiful to look at.
  • A single picture symbol could stand for a whole word, called an ideogram, or a sound, called a phonogram. For example, a picture of an eye could mean the word "eye" or the letter "I".

Since writing in hieroglyphics was so complicated, it took years of education and practice to be able to do it. The people who trained to write were called scribes. They would start training at a very young age of six or seven.

Being a scribe was a good job in Ancient Egypt. Scribes didn't have to pay taxes or enter the army. They were very highly thought of and only the children of the wealthy got the opportunity to train as scribes.

The Ancient Egyptians often wrote on tablets or walls, but they also wrote on a type of paper called papyrus. Papyrus paper was made from a tall reed like plant called Papyrus. The Egyptians would use strips of the inner stem of the plant to make the paper. They would make two layers of strips one horizontal and the other vertical. Then they would cover it in a linen cloth and apply pressure with a mallet or stones. The strips would bind together over time making a single flat sheet to write on.

Rosetta Stone
Source: the website of the European Space Agency

In 1799 a French soldier found a special stone in the city of Rosetta. This stone had the same message written in both hieroglyphics and Greek. This was important because it helped to translate what the hieroglyphics said and could be used to help translate other hieroglyphics as well.