Decoding Hieroglyphs

Dorothy Grace Franklin (@dorothysbookshelf on instagram) guides us through our final lecture of the season!

Egyptologist, broadcaster and archaeologist Dr Chris Naunton closed LSA CA’s 2022-23 lecture season in style with a concise yet impactful history of writing in and decoding Hieroglyphs.

Dr Naunton started his talk with a brief overview of Egyptology, joking that he was a ‘fish out of water’ as an Egyptologist in a room full of Classicists – but there was no need for him to worry because his knowledge is masterly and wide-ranging! He introduced the three different Hieroglyph scripts and explained their development: the first type, Hieratic, is a cursive form developed for speed; Demotic evolved from Hieratic, and became the principal administrative language of the elite; the latest script is known as Coptic.

After this introduction, he embarked on a semi-narrative discussion of the history of hieroglyphic decipherment, exploring the question of: how do we get from a period of lost knowledge to a period of regaining knowledge?

The history of decoding hieroglyphs is highly Eurocentric, often simplified to be viewed as a competition between British scholar Thomas Young and French linguist Jean-François Champollion. However, Dr Naunton showed that this simplification is dismissive of the reality: years of international scholarly work were involved to get to the understanding of hieroglyphs we have now.

One of the best known examples of an early Egyptological scholar is Athanasius Kircher, who is widely considered to be the foremost scholar of Egyptology in his lifetime, despite never visiting Egypt. Kircher was highly focused on neo-platonic ideas, insistent on the presence of a universal religion based on the natural world and its elements. He believed that a part of this religion was present and encoded in hieroglyphs, and therefore that hieroglyphs were highly symbolic. A large portion of Kircher’s work was based on the ‘Mensa Isiaca’ or ‘Bembine Tablet’; however Kircher’s legacy is quite infamous as it turns out that the tablet was not actually written in hieroglyphics, but instead was a Roman bronze inscribed with faux-hieroglyphs — essentially, it was gibberish.

The next big leap into modern Egyptology and the decoding of hieroglyphs involves Napoleon Bonaparte, who in 1798 led an expedition into Egypt in the hope of disrupting the overland trade route between Britain and India. On this expedition was a group of artists and scientists who were tasked with documenting and creating a multi-volume set of books filled with drawings and descriptions; one book was on Ancient Egyptian monuments, one on the modern-built environment and one on the natural environment. The volume on Ancient monuments provided scholars a large array of materials, but that was not the only scholarly resource that emerged from this exploration, as the Rosetta Stone was discovered during the course of this expedition.

The discovery of the Rosetta Stone was a highly significant turning point in the history of decoding Hieroglyphs as it is inscribed in three scripts: Hieroglyphic, Demotic and Ancient Greek. The final line of the Greek confirms that the content of the text is the same in the three languages.

‘This decree shall be inscribed on a stela of hard stone in sacred [i.e.             hieroglyphic] and native [i.e. demotic] and Greek characters, and set up in each of the first second and third[-rank] temples beside the image of the ever living King’

Silvestre de Sacy and Johan David Akerblad were successful in completing the first step in translating the Rosetta Stone: finding demotic signs which corresponded to the Ancient Greek names. Moreover, they also noticed a correspondence in the number of signs, which prompted the question of ‘is demotic alphabetical, like Greek?’. From this observation, they incorrectly concluded that demotic and hieroglyph were highly binary in their signs, believing that the demotic was entirely alphabetic and hieroglyphs were entirely symbolic. However, they were correct in their deduction that non-Egyptian names had to be written alphabetically — this was a proposal which was highly relevant in building the foundation of polymath Thomas Young’s studies.

Young took Sacy and Akerblad’s deciphering of the Rosetta Stone further by recognising similarities between the forms of the hieroglyphic and demotic signs, and he formed a link between the two scripts. His attempts at deciphering these scripts led to a conclusion which opposed Sacy and Akerblad’s, stating that due to the similarities in both scripts, they must both be a large mixture of alphabetic and symbolic signs. Combined with the Napoleonic army’s original observations alongside Sacy and Akerblad’s comparative analysis, Young came to realise that the cartouches or ‘name rings’ contained the names of important figures, such as gods and kings. This revelation allowed Young to identify the name of Ptolemy the 5th within the hieroglyphs.

Dr Naunton here introduced the French linguist Jean-François Champollion, who, like a variety of scholars at the time, was unable to accept the part of the phonetic value of hieroglyphs. Analysing the bilingually-inscribed Philae Obelisk, Champollion used Young’s identification of the cartouche of Ptolemy to conclude that the other cartouche present on the Obelisk must be the name Cleopatra, which appeared within the Greek. Comparing the letters and signs present in both names, Champollion was able to guess the phonetic value of the remaining signs, both contributing original research and confirming Young’s ideas. This idea was repeatedly tested with a variety of cartouches found elsewhere. In 1822, Champollion published his announcement of his discoveries his iconic text Lettre à M. Dacier.

Champollion’s analysis of the a four-sign cartouche found repeatedly inscribed within the temples of Abu Simbel was described by Dr Naunton as a ‘creative leap’. Previous study had already came to the conclusion the the last signs were ‘ss’. Taking into account the importance of sun worship for Ancient Egyptians, Champollion deduced that the first sign was a representation of the sun, which he knew to correlate to the word ‘re’ in Coptic, and he looked within Manetho’s kinglist, a historic document written in Greek, for names which began ‘re’ and ended ‘ss’. It wasn’t long before the name ‘Ramesses’, the name of 11 of the kings in the 19th and 20th dynasties, was interpreted. Champollion then came across another similar cartouche, which he applied the same rules to, resulting in the translation of ’Thoth-m-s’. Looking again into Manetho’s kinglist, he found the name ’Tuthmosis’, which appeared four times in the 18th dynasty.

The process for deciphering the names found in hieroglyphs allows for historians to date famous Egyptian monuments and temples based on the timeline present in Manetho’s kinglist. In 1828, Champollion led the Franco-Tuscan expedition ‘armed with the ability to read the inscriptions’. And thus, Egyptology, in the format we see it today, was born.

Huge thanks to Dr Naunton for a really gripping talk and helping us to crack the code that will allow us to see hieroglyphs in a whole new light (even if our translation skills still have some way to go!). Stay tuned for the release of 10th Anniversary programme for 2023-24!