Hieroglyphs

The knowledge to read and write hieroglyphs was lost by 450 AD, and would remain so until the 1820s, when the Rosetta Stone was deciphered. It contains three parallel scripts – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. The hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts were more suited than hieroglyphs for use on papyrus, and existed alongside the other forms, especially in monumental and other formal writing. Please note that there is no standard system for transliteration. Adding to this, there is also a slight difference between English, French, and German transcriptions.

Interested in learning to read hieroglyphs? Check the last section at the bottom of this page.

Egyptian hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of glyphs:

    Phonetic — including alphabetic characters.
    Logographic — representing a word, or part of a word.
    Determinative — which narrow down the meaning of logographic or phonetic words.

As the hieroglyphs contain no vowels (as such), an "e" is generally inserted between the consonants to form readable words.

Transliteration

Translating hieroglyphs is not done directly, instead we first need to convert the hieroglyphs into readable alphabetic script. This is known as transliteration. Transliteration however use letters not normally present on keyboards:     Ꜣ   Ꜥ   ḥ   ḫ   ẖ   š   ḳ   ṯ   ḏ

These are not normal alphabetic characters, and as such there is no easy way to write them. Manuel de Codage (MdC), which is a standarized system for transliteration of hieroglyphic texts on computers makes this much simpler, by converting the characters above and substituting them with normal alphabetic characters.

Transliterationš
Manuel de CodageAaHxXSqTD

Gardiner's Sign List is a comprehensive list of commonly used hieroglyphs, the de facto standard in Egyptology. Manuel de Codage incorporate Gardiner's list to reference specific hieroglyphs, ordered into categories for birds, occupations etc.

The hieroglyph for the sun is part of Gardiner category N which relates to the sky, earth and water. It is designated N5, and is transcribed as ra. Honorific transposition is used to emphasize the significance of the sun sign, whereby the sign is shifted in front of royal names, despite appearing later in the name. The royal name cartouche for Neferkara, rꜤ-nfr-kꜢ is not read as Ra-nefer-ka, but rather as Nefer-ka-ra.

As hieroglyphs, unlike alphabetic scripts, can be placed above eachother, or form groups of signs, Manuel de Codage also incorporates features to change size, orientation, color and placement of signs. This is necessary to be able to place the signs exactly in their correct position in relation to eachother.

Let's look at an example.

To translate hieroglyphs there are a couple steps to go through. Consider these hieroglyphs:

Amenhotep in hieroglyphs

The translation process looks like this:

Transliteration ⇒   nṯr-nfr-zꜢ-rꜤ-imn-ḥtp-Ꜥnḫ-wḏꜢ-snb
Transcription ⇒   netjer-nefer za-Ra imn-Htp ankh wedja seneb
Translation ⇒   The Good God, Son of Ra, Amenhotep, Life, Prosperity and Health

Manuel de Codage is more than just transliteration, and the complete text looks like this:
Manuel de Codage ⇒   nTr-nfr-zA&ra-<-i-mn:n-Htp:t*p->-anx-DA-s
Gardiner numbers ⇒   R8-F35-G39-N5-M17-Y5-N35-R4-X1-Q3-S34-U28-S29

Amenhotep is transliterated imn-ḥtp, but written in MdC, the text is i-m:n-Htp:t*p. This is because MdC preserves position of individual signs. Furthermore, MdC can be written with alphabetic characters, and using Gardiner's sign list, or a mix of both (example: R4:t*p is valid.)
The colon ( : ) and the asterisk ( * ) modifies the placement of signs or grouped signs. Link to the documentation can be found below.

Software

I highly recommend JSesh Hieroglyphic Editor by Serge Rosmorduc, which, in my opinion, is the best editor to use for hieroglyphic texts of any kind. It is available for Windows, Linux and OSX and is completely free! You can even copy and paste the hieroglyphs straight into your Word documents, or, export them as JPG, PNG or SVG files or many other formats.

Manuel de Codage

The first printed version of MdC was published in 1988, which at best can be considered the stone age of computing. A slightly altered version of MdC was published online in 1997 at Utrecht University Centre of Computer-aided Egyptological Research (CCER), a project which no longer exists, though the Internet Archive have snapshots of the page from 2001 here. A copy of the page can be found here, and if that vanishes too, it is archived here.

Manuel de Codage is far from perfect however, there are a number of minor annoyances that has been rectified in an updated specification called the Revised Encoding Scheme for hieroglyphic (RES) which has been under (stalled?) development since 2002, but I have found no indication that it has been accepted as the "new" standard. The documentation can be found at The RES-project.

Hieroglyphic markup in Egyptology

Scribes used black ink on papyrus, with certain signs written in red ink. When Egyptology was still young, books and journals were almost universally printed in black and white, and often written by hand. To differentiate red signs, Egyptologists came up with an elegant solution, by simply underlining them. When dealing with crumbling monuments or papyri, exact annotation is crucial to preserve the text to minimise any ambiguity, especially since numerous hieroglyphic texts suffered damage or were lost following their discovery, making older publications crucial to preserving the content. These special brackets are used when copying hieroglyphs, but also in transcription.

__ Underlined words or signs indicate red ink.
[ ] Square brackets indicate that the original text is broken at the point in question and one or more signs are missing. When the identity of the missing signs can be reasonably inferred, either by parallelism within the text or, as often in the case of algorithmic structure, by the adjacent operations and/or numerical values, the proposed signs are inserted between square brackets.
⸢ ⸣ Half brackets indicate partially damaged signs that are reconstructable starting from what remains of the sign or signs.
< > Angle brackets indicate that the scribe has clearly forgotten one or more signs at this place.
{ } Curly braces are used where the scribe has written down a superfluous sign or signs. This most often arises in cases of haplography, erroneous duplication when copying another section of the copied text.
( ) Parentheses indicate words and expressions not in the original text but are necessary in the target language to indicate meaning.

Learn to read hieroglyphs

If you are interested in learning to read hieroglyphs, an excellent place to start is Manley's Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners. It will give you a peek into hieroglyphics, to see if learning to read hieroglyphs is really something you want to do. It is not for the faint-hearted, it will require much time to study. The books below are listed in in order of difficulty, each step becoming more difficult, but also more detailed and illuminating. The last two volumes are purely academic work, and require a good understanding of hieroglyphics, i.e. a much harder read.

  1. Manley, Bill. 2012. Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners. Thames & Hudson. Google it!
  2. Collier, Mark, and Manley, Bill. 1998. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. Google it!
  3. Kimrin, Janice. 2004. Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs : A Practical Guide. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  4. Allen, James P. 2010. Middle Egyptian An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Hoch, James A. 1997. Middle Egyptian Grammar. Mississauga: Benben Publications.

More details and information can be found at
The Egyptologists' Electronic Forum (EEF).

End of page
Kinglists
Ancient historians
Terms & information

OK – Old Kingdom
Dynasties 3-6

MK – Middle Kingdom
Dynasties 11-12

NK – New Kingdom
Dynasties 18-20

SIP – Second Intermediate Period
Dynasties 13-17

Thebes – The Southern capital

Memphis – The Northern capital

Epitome – Manetho’s original Aegyptiaca was lost in antiquity, and in the following centuries, it was replaced by Epitomes (summaries) by rivalling advocates of Jewish, Egyptian, and Greek history that saw each side trying to establish the truth according to their point of view.

Vorlage – From the German for prototype or template, a vorlage is a prior version of a manuscript, in this case an earlier version of the canon.

Recto and verso – Recto is the front side and verso is the back side of a written or printed text.

Cartouche – oval band enclosing a pharaohs name

Hieratic – cursive form of hieroglyphic script

Hyksos – Greek form of ḥḳꜢ-ḫꜢswt or “rulers of foreign lands,” referring to peoples who migrated and controlled parts Egypt during the SIP.

Mortuary Temple – where the gods and the king who built the temple were worshipped.

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