The latest known inscription written in Egyptian hieroglyphs stands in the temple of the goddess Isis on an island in Lake Nasser. The date of this inscription, the Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, is August 24, 394.
The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom was evidently written for the benefit of a few pagans in the Red Sea area and was supplemented with demotic script, a form of Egyptian handwriting. Already hieroglyphs had been all but replaced with Greek letters, and the knowledge of how to read them was fast dying out.
The Mystery of Hieroglyphs
Just how long there remained people who could read and write Egyptian hieroglyphs is something of a mystery. The secret appears to have entirely died out by the Dark Ages, probably even earlier.
In 1422, interest in hieroglyphs revived with the discovery of an Egyptian manuscript that was brought to Florence for study. Scholars eagerly turned to Greek and Roman writings to see if either of those ancient peoples possessed the key to deciphering the mysterious symbols, but without success.
Not only did the ancient Greeks have no answers on how to read hieroglyphs, they believed that the strange symbols did not denote phonetic sounds. Greek tradition only enshrouded hieroglyphs in further mystery, teaching that the signs were allegorical.
The Rosetta Stone
The first step to deciphering hieroglyphs came in 1799, when Pierre-François Bouchard happened to see the Rosetta Stone. Bouchard was an engineer with Napoleon Bonaparte’s invading French army. While overseeing work on fortifications at Rosetta on the Nile, Bouchard observed a large, oblong piece of basalt that the soldiers had turned up. Feeling that it must have historical importance based on the characters with which it was carved, he brought it to the attention of the archaeologists among the corps of experts that Napoleon had brought to Egypt.
The Rosetta Stone was partly broken, but it was plain to see that it contained three inscriptions—one in hieroglyphics, one in demotic script, and one in koine Greek. The latter inscription could be read easily enough. The text of the Rosetta Stone was written by the priests of Memphis as a decree confirming the divine rule of Ptolemy V and noting his beneficence to both the priests and the people. From then on, Ptolemy was to be regarded as a god, and both his birthday and his coronation day were to be celebrated annually. Similar stones were to be placed in every temple of Egypt, with inscriptions written in the language of the gods, the language of documents, and the language of the Greeks.
Needless to say, European scholars were thrilled. The fact that the same inscription had been translated into three scripts offered an unprecedented chance to crack the code of the Egyptian language. Not only would scholars come to an understanding of demotic (the language of documents, also something of a mystery at that time), but they would be able to decipher the intriguing but puzzling hieroglyphs!
For several years, scholars attempting to crack the code of the Rosetta Stone floundered aimlessly. Then in 1814, English physicist Thomas Young made the first breakthrough. By identifying the name Ptolemy in the hieroglyphs, distinguished by a cartouche as a symbol of good luck, Young was able to connect some of the hieroglyphs with certain phonetic sounds.
The work was carried on by teacher and Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion after some correspondence with Young. Champollion compared the symbols in Ptolemy’s name with those in other names in other inscriptions and spent the next few years putting together a dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Reading the Hieroglyphs
While there were hundreds of signs used in Egyptian hieroglyphics, only 24 of them represented sounds. These phonetic symbols, or phonograms, were the symbols most commonly used. Only consonant sounds were represented. A phonogram could indicate a single consonant sound, or a combination of the sounds of two or three consonants.
Because hieroglyphic writing did not include vowels, sometimes other symbols were necessary to aid the reader in distinguishing between words that had the same consonant sounds but different meanings. For this purpose, ideograms were often used. An ideogram illustrated the meaning of the preceding word. For example, a male given name might be followed by a picture of a man, confirming that a man is the topic of discussion.
Finally, some hieroglyphs were logograms, a form of picture writing. For example, when an Egyptian scribe wished to mention the sun, he simply drew a picture of it.
But hieroglyphs, even the phonograms, do not form an alphabet. Like Hebrew and Arabic, the Egyptian hieroglyphic script lacks vowels, a key component of a true alphabet. Such scripts are called abjads.
The alphabet as we know it undoubtedly started out as picture writing and gradually developed into the use of symbols to represent consonant sounds, just as the hieroglyphs did. The concept of writing appears to have originated in Mesopotamia and spread along with traders, diverging into different branches and scripts as it traveled. Of course, once it arrived in Egypt, it took the form of hieroglyphics.
The script that we are most familiar with appears to stem from an abjad called “Proto-Sinaitic.” This script has been found in a variety of locations on the Sinai Peninsula and may have been developed by Canaanite workers who settled the Nile Delta. The script has marked similarities to hieroglyphics, and may even have been derived from the latter.
Over time, the Proto-Sinaitic script is thought to have developed into the Phoenician script. This script became familiar to many cultures because the Phoenicians were traveling merchants. However, the writing of the Phoenicians still did not contain vowels and is thus an abjad.
It was the Greeks who turned the abjad into an alphabet. The Phoenician language contained some consonant sounds unfamiliar to the Greeks, leaving them with a few unused letters. Some brilliant linguist had the idea of converting the extra symbols into letters representing vowel sounds, thus creating the first known true alphabet. The Greeks also gave us the word alphabet from their word alphabētos, a portmanteau word derived from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta.
The Romans then borrowed the alphabet from the Greeks, giving us the Latin alphabet that we use to write English today. In fact, Latin and Cyrillic (based on a Greek script written entirely in capital letters) are the two most common alphabets in the world, having been adapted to many, many languages.
An Explanation of Hieroglyphics
Great starting point with basic information.
Ancient Egyptian Scripts
A more extensive look.
Rosetta Stone Found July 19, 1799
Background from the History Channel.
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Rosetta Stone
Extensive article at the British Museum with video.
A comparison of consonant alphabets.
A comparison of Proto-Sinaitic scripts.
The Greek alphabet.
Interactive from PBS.
Compose sentences in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
View the Rosetta Stone in 3D.
The Greek Alphabet
Learn the letters.
The Riddle of the Rosetta Stone by James Cross Giblin
Our favorite resource on the subject!
The Rosetta Stone by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge
Short public domain work detailing the find.
Exodus by Brian Wildsmith
Beautifully illustrated, tells the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.
Lesson Plans & Unit Studies
Free eight-lesson course.
Napoleon: A Unit Study
Side trip for those interested.
Notebooking Pages & Printables
Hieroglyphic Translation Chart
Great for notebook!
Hieroglyphics Name Sheet