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How we deciphered Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs

How we deciphered Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs
The ancient Egyptians’ language had archaeologists baffled until the hieroglyphs were carefully deciphered using the Rosetta Stone.


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Ancient Egypt and hieroglyphs

Ancient Egypt and hieroglyphs

Ancient Egypt has exerted power of influence on the world of learning for over two millennia.

The Greek historian Herodotus identified the pyramids at Giza as places of royal burial, but his works did not help 19th Century scholars in understanding ancient Egyptian writing. Greek and Roman writers could not read hieroglyphs either.



Ancient Egypt: How the language fell in disuse

  • Ancient Egypt was conquered, first by Persians, then by Macedonian Greeks under Alexander the Great in 332BC.
  • The Ptolematic dynasty, named after Alexander's general, Ptolemy I, ruled Egypt for three centuries. It ended with the death of Cleopatra VII and the Roman occupation in 30BC.
  • From AD 395, Egypt was ruled first by Coptic Christians, then by Muslims, until the time of Napoleon.
  • Spoken Coptic descended from the language of ancient Egypt, but written Coptic was entirely alphabetic, like Greek. Still, the Coptic language provided approximate pronunciation for hieroglyphs.


An attempt at understanding hieroglyphs

Greek and Roman authors thought that hieroglyphs were symbols of ancient Egyptian wisdom. They dismissed any phonetic component in the hieroglyphs.

This misguided view of hieroglyphs as 'picture writing' obscured any attempt at deciphering it. Near the 18th Century, Danish scholar Georg Zoëga thought that some hieroglyphs might be phonetic signs.


The turning point in understanding hieroglyphs

The turning point in understanding hieroglyphs
  • In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt. Military engineers discovered the Rosetta Stone in July 1799 while rebuilding an old fort in the Nile Delta.
  • It was clear that the bottom inscription on the Rosetta Stone was written in the Greek alphabet and the top part in Egyptian hieroglyphs.
  • In the middle was a script about which little was known. Today we know this scripts as a cursive form of ancient Egyptian writing.


Hieroglyphs: breaking the code

  • In 1802, a French and a Swedish scholar used similar techniques to unravel the text. They searched for the name Ptolemy, by isolating repeated groups of symbols in about the same position as the Greek inscription.
  • They drew up a tentative alphabet and applied it to the rest of the inscription. Other words such as 'Greek', 'Egypt', and 'temple' could be identified. But the demotic text (a cursive form of hieroglyphs) was not an alphabet, nor completely unrelated to hieroglyphic.
  • In 1815, an English scientist and polymath, Thomas Young, traced how the pictographic hieroglyphs, showing people, animals, plants and other objects, had developed into their abstract, cursive equivalents in demotic. Young concluded that demotic consisted of a mixture between hieroglyphics and letters of the alphabet.


The name of Cleopatra: A crucial clue in understanding hieroglyphs

In 1822, Jean-François Champollion found an essential clue from the newly discovered cartouche (oval rings enclosing certain groups of hieroglyphs, generally names and titles) containing the name of Cleopatra. The alphabet was now mostly correct and allowed him to translate the names of dozens of rulers.

When Tutankhamun's cartouche was discovered in 1922 and deciphered, it turned out that the "chick" pictogram was phonetic for the vowel 'u', the 'shepherd's crook' was a symbol meaning 'ruler. This was the turn of uncovering the secrets of a great civilisation.



Egyptian Senet

Egyptian Senet

One of the earliest known board games, Senet was played in 3100 BC and loved by Queen Nefertari and the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Played using a longboard having three rows of ten squar...

The Royal Game Of Ur

  • Also known as Twenty Squares, this 4500-year-old game, first unearthed in ancient Mesopotamia, is impressive in its complex rules and intricate design.
  • The beautiful game board uses twenty squares and has a narrow bridge in the middle part, was played in Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and many other ancient civilizations.
  • To finish the game as winners, players had to race their opponent to the opposite end of the board, moving pieces according to knucklebone dice rolls.

The Game of Mehen

  • Named after the Egyptian serpentine deity, Mehen is also known as the Egyptian Snake Game and was played between 3100 to 2300 BC.
  • Six players could simultaneously play this spiral board, each having a piece crafted in the shape of a lion or a sphere.
  • The rules of this game are not very clear because it lost its popularity after the decline of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and is hardly found in archaeological records.

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Changing Habits Of Punctuation

Changing Habits Of Punctuation

The digital age combined with short attention spans and time constraints has led to the demise of various punctuation skills like the omission of apostrophes, deliberate spelling mistakes a...

The Blank Space: Early History Of Punctuation

  • Early stone inscriptions did not even have the punctuation we all take for granted: The blank space.
  • Ancient Greece and Rome had the written word for keeping records of political speeches and texts, which were carefully used by the orator for maximum rhetorical effect and verbal impact.
  • In 200 BCE, the Alexandrian Aristophanes worked on easing pronunciation of Greek for foreigners by using small circles to denote pauses, emphasising the rhythm of the sentence.
  • The 7th-century encyclopaedist Isidore Of Seville later took up the task of inserting grammar in the same text, inventing the period, the colon and the comma.

Punctuation In Religious Texts

  • The language in the Quran had cantillation marks written above the line to signify the kind of pause required.
  • The 9th Century Torah manuscripts show vowel additions and cantillation marks that help in the recitation of the same.
  • Modern Arabic and Hebrew texts have similar punctuation marks as many western languages.

The breaks and sonic links were primarily used to aid singing, sense-making and enhancing the beauty of the verses.

Ancient Mesopotamia

Ancient Mesopotamia

The ancient Mesopotamia civilization was the origin-place for many inventions including scriptures, wheels, and .. soap.

The first evidence of a soap-like substance was in 2800 BC, i...

Egyptians And Babylonians

In 1500 BC, the ancient Egyptians devised ways to make soap-like components using alkaline salts and oil. This was further enhanced by the Neo-Babylonians, by adding ashes, cypress extracts, and sesame oil.

The Romans

The Latin word for soap ‘Sapo’ is mentioned in an ancient encyclopedia (penned in circa 77 AD) by a Roman Naturalist Pliny the Elder. The author talked about how the product was used more by the Gaulish and Germanic men rather than Romans (which preferred to scrap their skins clean by using essential oils and white sand).

A Greek physician Galen writes about soap and its use in the Roman empire in 2nd century AD.