How we deciphered Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs
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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.
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.
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.
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