Archive for category Early Writing

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Fun with Hieroglyphs

Cooper N.

One way or another, we have all seen or heard of Egyptian hieroglyphics and at least vaguely know what they are. If you mention the word “hieroglyph” to a person on the street, one basic definition will immediately come to mind: pictures. Hieroglyphs are basically a written language made up of pictures that ancient Egyptians used as one of the earliest forms of literacy. Each picture or symbol represents a very specific person, place, thing, action or even sound. These pictures can be found carved or painted on walls and stone tablets from ancient Egyptian ruins, and seem to depict some sort of message or story. But are these symbols as straightforward as they seem? Some of them are, such as a man, a cat, or a bull could be easily distinguished just by looking at their respective glyphs, but there are lots of variations of these that look mighty similar to one another and might not actually make sense until put into context. In this blog post, my aim is to enlighten my readers on the sheer vastness that the world of hieroglyphs holds, and that a simple picture may not be so simple at all.

Sir Alan H. Gardiner is an English Egyptologist and scholar who in the early 20th century organized and translated a series of what he found to be the most commonly found hieroglyphs. For the main premise of this post, I will be solely referring to Gardiner’s sign list as it adequately demonstrates just how many different meanings can be depicted from hieroglyphs that, to the modern human eye, may look very much the same. The list consists of 26 main categories, each one covering a specific subject and consisting of many different symbols that go even further in depth. For example, category A is titled “man and his occupations” and within this category there are 55 different symbols that depict certain actions or roles that men were commonly known for. As you may have guessed, many of these symbols look terribly similar to one another, to the point where it feels like you may be looking at one of those “spot the difference” brain-teasers. For example, take a look at these two hieroglyphs:


(Retrieved from: )

            They look extremely similar, and one could make the inference that they both possibly refer to an elderly man. If that’s the case, then these two symbols should be able to be used interchangeably, right? I’m afraid not, since the glyph on the left with the cane (A19) refers to an elderly man being weak and fragile, whereas the other one with the pronged staff (A20) refers to a wise elder. Even though they look the same at first glance, they definitely have separate definitions that would change the meaning of whatever message they are a part of.

There is such a wide variety of symbols that it is no wonder why it has taken thousands of years to decipher them. Under section A alone we can see many examples of hieroglyphs that I couldn’t even guess the meaning of. Like this sequence of hieroglyphs A27 – A33 just look like a group of people dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller:

(Retrieved from: )

But upon some research, one would learn that these men are not dancing to an 80’s pop hit, but instead these glyphs (in the respective order) refer to things such as “to transition,” “in high spirits,” “head over heels,” “to praise,” “to turn away,” “to dance,” and “to travel.” At least one of these symbols is about dancing, so maybe my judgement isn’t completely off after all.

Once we get down to section D, which is “parts of the human body,” we are delighted with 63 symbols, 75% of which certainly do not look like any human body parts I am aware of. Some can be distinguishable however, like D4 is definitely an eye:

(Retrieved from: )

…But then D5 – D7 also look like eyes?

(Retrieved from: )

            It is true that all of these symbols are referring to eyes, the only difference being that D5 is wearing makeup, D6 has a painted upper eyelid, and D7 has a painted lower eyelid. And then we have D8:

(Retrieved from: )

Which doesn’t even look that much like an eye to me, but it is referring to a “closing eye.” I had no idea that there would be so many different kinds of eyeballs, but hey, the Egyptians must have had their reasons for all of these specific variations.

            All in all, the topic concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs has been a rather fun and interesting one to explore. As someone that has never properly done any research on this subject before, I had no idea just how vast the categories of symbols could go, and I’ve only just scratched the surface. A symbol of a man is not just any man, and an eye might not just be any eye. A dozen different variations exist with very slight differences, each one carrying with it a completely different meaning that would change the overall message. These ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs truly give a whole new meaning to the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

The Rise and Fall of Papyrus

Ali J.

Our modern word paper was derived from the word papyrus, and for good reason. Paper has not always been as advanced or as easy to come by as it is today. Ancient papyrus was a waxy material made from the Cyprus papyrus plant that grows along the Nile river in the freshwater marshes. While it was used by Greek, Roman, and Egyptian scholars it was strictly grown and produced in Egypt then shipped out to these places for a hefty price. While it is most popular use is for recording a written language this 10-foot-tall reed plant was also used for other things. These include, mattresses, furniture like chairs and tables, boxes, baskets, sandals, utensils, rope, and even boats, so it was very versatile. The plants stalk was not the only useful part of the plant either, as the root was used for food, perfume, and even medicine.

Papyrus baskets

Papyrus sandals

The making of papyrus was quite complicated. After harvesting the triangular plant, it is stripped to its core. The core is then sliced into very thin strips. These strips are soaked in water to remove some of the sugar content. Afterward, the water is slowly drained away as the strips are pounded flat. All these strips are then placed overlapping each other either into small sheets or long scrolls and finally pounded again. The second pounding releases a sticky substance which is the remaining sugar caused by the breaking down of the plants cellular structure that binds the sheets together. The sheet or sheets are then placed under a heavy rock to dry for six long days.

For places that were too far away to transport this luxury Egyptian good, parchment was used instead. By about 50 AD parchment had taken over the papyrus industry. Although one could not make scrolls with parchment one was able to make books out of this animal skin-based material. Ancient scholars found books to be a better way to record information because they could flip back and forth, instead of a long strip of paper where one would have to unroll and reroll many times to find the information they were looking for. After 400 AD papyrus was virtually out of the market and only being used by the Egyptians. Everyone wanted to use parchment, as it was more affordable and could be produced anywhere. After the fall of the Roman empire people were no longer interested in trading with the Egyptians, so papyrus was almost obsolete.


A fragment of an ancient papyrus


In 800 AD when the Chinese invented paper, not even the Egyptians were using papyrus anymore, because paper, like parchment, was easier to access. Finally, by 1200 AD almost every community developed their own way of making paper and it was being transported all around the world for a cheaper price then papyrus too.

The papyrus industry was demolished and almost lost to ancient civilizations and us but because of the dry climate of Egypt many remnants of papyrus documents have been left behind. From these artifacts we are able to not only get an insight into the ancient Egyptian culture, but also how the papyrus industry worked, and we can now make this material ourselves. Today the plant is still being grown in a controlled fashion by the Nile river for the production of modern papyrus. We are still able to make modern papyrus which is used today as a specialty paper by artists and calligraphers to make masterpiece pictures and even greeting cards. The Cyprus papyrus plant holds the status of a luxury once again.



Carr, Karen. “Parchment and the History of Books.” Study Guides, Publisher Name Study Guides Publisher Logo, 21 Apr. 2018,

Dunn, Jimmy. “Tour Egypt.” Egypt: Wadjet, Goddess of Lower Egypt, Papyrus, and Protector of Pharaoh,

“Egyptian Papyrus.” Egyptian Papyrus – Cyprus Plant – What Is Papyrus, 2008,

Szymanski, Terrence. “Papyrus Making 101: An Introduction to Papyrus.” U-M Library, 4 May 2004,

The Ruthwell Cross

Paityn C.

All images courtesy of Undiscovered Scotland.

St Paul and St Anthony Sharing Bread

In the 8th century, the Ruthwell Cross, a work of insular art, was created. Insular art is “the artistic tradition which flourished in Britain and Ireland after the departure of the Romans” (British Library). The Ruthwell Cross is a stone cross located in Dumfriesshire, Scotland; it rises about “5.2m or 17 feet tall” (Undiscovered Scotland). It is widely known as “an early Christian monument of international importance” because of the depictions of Jesus Christ engraved onto it (British Library).

Read the rest of this entry »

The Rosetta Stone

Larissa B.

Photo of the real Rosetta Stone in the British Museum in London, England

An ancient Egyptian artifact known as the Rosetta Stone is a notable object of historical linguistic studies that unlocked the ability for scholars to begin understanding the language of Hieroglyphics. The pictorial writing system is not simply understood and has yet to be deciphered word-for-word. The three feet-nine-inch-long Stone contains two different languages­ – ancient Egyptian presented in two different scripts, Hieroglyphs and Demotic, and ancient Greek – that describe the reign of King Ptolemy V. Up until the rediscovery of the Stone in 1799, the script of Egyptian hieroglyphs was mostly untranslatable as not many people understood the characters. With the rediscovery of the Stone, scholars also rediscovered an old writing system, which in turn has allowed intellects to better understand the history of ancient writing. Hieroglyphic writing disappeared nearly 1800 years ago, leaving the full translation of the text on the Rosetta Stone ultimately unknown.

The Rosetta Stone is believed to be one of several slabs of granodiorite stele that all contain an official message, or “decree,” that was issued by a congress of priests around 196 BCE. This decree was thought to be created as a celebration of the first anniversary of King Ptolemy V’s kingship. This message was to be placed in every temple in Egypt and was designed to establish a cult following towards the new King. After Ptolemy’s reign and Roman Emperor Theodosius came into power, he issued the closing of all non-Christian temples sometime between 379 and 392 BCE, and subsequently caused the demise of the Rosetta Stone. In the 1400s when old temples were being used in the construction of new ones, the Rosetta Stone is thought to have been used in one of the building’s foundations. It was not until 1799 that the Stone was rediscovered during Napoleon’s reign. It is believed that one of his soldiers, a Frenchman named Pierre-Francois Bouchard, uncovered the stone in the town of Rashid (Rosetta, translated in English) while digging the foundations for a new Fort. At the time of the discovery, the French were in battle with the British. When the French were defeated, the British ordered that all artifacts uncovered during the time of battle be ceased over to British. The French complied, and the Rosetta Stone now rests in the British Museum in London, England.

Once the Stone was placed in the British Museum, the stone was colored in white chalk with the purpose of creating increased legibility. The two-language narrative contained fourteen lines of the Egyptian language written in hieroglyphs, said to be the prestigious script of the priests; thirty-two lines of Demotic, the script Egyptians used for everyday purposes; and around fifty-three lines of ancient Greek, said to be the language of the administration. After the stone became clearer to read, scholars began to conduct studies to decipher what the stone read. One of the first steps in deciphering the Stone lay in the works of Johan David Akerblad and Antoine Isaac Silerstre de Sacy. Akerblad composed an alphabet of twenty-nine Demotic letters, in which Silerstre de Sacy was able to uncover five names that the Stone mentioned. Aside from a few names, the two could not determine the meaning of the leftover characters. Another notable man to mention is Hubert Pascal, who first translated the Greek section of the Stone into both French and Latin in hopes of reaching a greater radius of scholars who may be able to continue the Stone’s archaeologic literary studies. An English physicist named Thomas Young was the first intellect to focus on the hieroglyph section of the Stone. Hieroglyphs is a script, a way pf writing Ancient Egyptian, that uses pictures or symbols to represent a word, syllable, or sound– a script that nobody could read after Theodosius’ reign and before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Young discovered that some of the hieroglyphs were phonetic, or represented syllables and sounds, rather than being solely alphabetic. The second most notable scholar of the Rosetta Stone is a Greek and Coptic-speaking Frenchman named Jean-Francois Champollion. In addition to further proving that the hieroglyphs were portrayals of recorded sound of the Egyptian, Champollion also noticed that some of the symbols were determinative, in which the symbol represented the meaning of the word itself rather than just the pronunciation of it. By using his knowledge of both Greek and Coptic language, he was able to decipher the Demotic symbols and translate them into Coptic, where he further applied this technique to the hieroglyphic symbols. In solving what some of the hieroglyphs meant, he was able to guess the meaning of the remaining symbols. Due to this work, Champollion is considered to be the first translator of the Rosetta Stone.

University of Saskatchewan’s replica of the Rosetta Stone located in the Museum of Antiquities

While there is great comprehension of the contents of the Rosetta Stone, though a straight-forward translation of the Stone into English does not fully exist due to minor variances between the three different styles of text, there are certain aspects of the meaning of the Stone that most intellects can agree on. If it were not for the rediscovery of the Stone, the script of Egyptian hieroglyphs may still be lost in history. The modern study of the Stone has allowed scholars to better understand and translate the ancient script, as well as learn of significant events of Egyptian history. As previously mentioned, the script states notable deeds and accomplishments produced by King Ptolemy during his kingship, in particular the charity of gifts to the temple, granting tax reductions to his people, and restoring the peace of the civilization. Though educated individuals presently possess a general understanding of how to translate the Stone, the entire context of the stone still holds a few grey areas as the language of hieroglyphs demands attentive study in order to accurately translate its characters. Over four hundred symbols have been recorded to date, but the section of hieroglyphs in the Stone demands further studies. Until then, the full translation of the stone rests in interpretation. One thing is for sure though, the script of hieroglyphs that represents the ancient Egyptian language has been rediscovered, offering greater appreciation for historical writing systems.

Translations of the Rosetta Stone