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The Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt

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Ancient Egyptian art emerged and took shape more than five thousand years ago in the ancient Egypt’s civilization at the Nile River. It was towards the end of the fourth millennium BC that several independent city-states were unified which began the more than 3000 years of Egyptian civilization.  The agricultural prosperity brought about by the yearly flooding of the Nile River leaving behind fertile soil is a factor in the longevity of the civilization. Great monuments and structures were built especially for pharaohs who were considered as living gods. Expressed in paintings and sculptures, the ancient Egyptian art is highly stylized and symbolic and intended to preserve knowledge of the past.  Most of the elements of this ancient art form are said to have remained stable throughout the 3000 year period (3000 BC- 3rd century), free from any outside influence. The Egyptian civilization is highly religious that most of its art forms were depictions of gods, goddesses and pharaohs who were considered as divine.

The key characteristics of this ancient art are its “homeometric regularity, keen observation and exact representation of actual life and nature, and strict conformity to a set of rules regarding representation of three dimensional forms” (National Geographic). Order and proportion were maintained in the art pieces, with the use of lines and simple shapes which aims to present exactness and completeness of events. Social and political hierarchy is also maintained based on the relative importance of certain figures.  A pharaoh or a god, for example, is usually drawn bigger than the other figures to clearly define their status or importance. Symbolism is also important in maintaining order. Animals, nature and color each represent meanings that enhance the completeness of an event depicted in the art forms. Most of this ancient art pieces were found in sacred places or in burial tombs. In accordance with the Egyptian’s belief in life after death, accurate depictions of events, people and nature were made with the intention to accompany the dead in the afterlife. Among the ancient Egyptian art form includes papyrus, sculpture, paintings and hieroglyphs.

Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt.  At about the same time that the civilization along Nile River was founded, the ancient Egyptian script was also created. Derived from two Greek word, hieros meaning holy and glyphein or writing, the Egyptians regarded their script as the word of God. Hieroglyphic script is composed of a variety of pictures and symbols that has either independent or multiple meanings (Almenos.com).

Hieroglyphic inscriptions are usually found in temples carved in walls and stone tablets made to last for eternity. Papyrus was also use for writing purposes.  Pictorial representations called ideograms was first used by the Egyptians.  Certain objects, in this manner, represent certain word or meaning.   Ideograms are associated with sounds (phonograms) which later on evolved to the twenty five symbols of the Egyptian alphabet. The Egyptian script can either be written from left to right, right to left and top to bottom.  Knowledge of this script however was lost as other languages superseded this ancient form.  Deciphering these symbols written with no gaps between words was very difficult until the script was decrypted by Champollion who studied the Rosetta stone for 14 years and discovered the key (National Geographic). The symbols of humans and animals indicate direction as they are always in the beginning of the word.

The integration of art and script in many art works constitute a magnitude of the ancient Egyptian art. Hieroglyphic inscriptions are found in sculptural pieces, tombs, papyrus, jars, walls of temples and may others. The Digital Egypt discusses the different variations in the integration of art and script. According to this article, there are several ways in which the ancient Egyptian artist combined script and writing. These include:

  1. fusion (full integration) – fully intertwined image and words. Formal art and hieroglyphic script together project a particular vision of the world, both communicative (conveying information) and performative or active (creating an ideal reality in material that can last forever). Typical of monumental sacred architecture on all scales, for the cults of the gods (temples), the cults of kings (temples of the royal cult), and the cults of the blessed dead (offering-chapels, most located over the burial place, many at other sacred places. In the temple relief fragments in the Petrie Museum, the ‘horizon of eternity’ is created in the fullest integration with columns of script do not have dividing lines (shown in picture, block from the building, reign of King Amenemhat I at Kptos).
  2. unmarked separation – separate fields of script and image, without a framing line between image and script. This variation offer different possibilities for communication. Example is this burial stela of the king’s daughter Neskhons, from her burial at Thebes, dated to Dynasty 21 (about 1000 BC).
  3. marked separation – separate fields of script and image, with framing line between the two. This variation separates the script and image by the introduction of framing line. Example is the Abydos offering-chapel stela of the herald Shenu, Dynasty 12 (about 1900 BC)
  4. combinations of 1-3 – The principle of combination can best be studied from the more substantially preserved examples of monumental architecture: the more ambitiously varied artistic programmes may be absent from smaller monuments, for reasons of scale, and are generally lost in the case of buildings from which only small fragments survive. Example is a block from a building dated to the reign of king Rameses III about 1175 BC) at Koptos.
  5. script without image – Image fields without hieroglyphic captions are rare in the surviving sources, except in lower-status and so non-literate environments.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions are also found in almost all art forms of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The clay funerary cones (below) that decorated mudbrick facades of private tombs bears three columns of hieroglyphic text. These were found at the tomb of Meryrose, viceroy of Nubia, a territory to the south of Egypt. The name of Merymose is found in the third column while the first column and the top of the second form the phrase “revered before Osiris.” This is followed by “king’s son of Kush,” the title given to the viceroy of Nubia, The Book of the Dead (picture below) is a funerary text that emerged in the New Kingdom.

Its function was to secure a successful passage into the afterlife for the deceased through the spells and images it contained. This fragment contains text written in cursive hieroglyphics drawn in black ink within vertical columns. Also shown is a picture depicting the funeral procession to the tomb.  The procession moves to the left with Anubis, the jackal god of embalming, on a shrine left of the scene. In the middle, a priest drags the canopic chest containing the viscera of the deceased. A line of women mourners is seen on the right of the scene (Wikipedia). Wooden coffins are also decorated on the outside with emblems and pictures of gods and goddesses aimed to protect the dead in the afterlife. Hieroglyphic texts are also inscribed containing traditional offering formula asking for benefits of the deceased in the afterlife.

The colorful history of the ancient Egyptian civilization had continued to fascinate historians and people, in general. Much of what we know now about this ancient civilization was inscribed in many art forms that were made to last for eternity. Many of their practices and innovations before are the building blocks the architecture, language, communication and art of today’s society.  The uniqueness, ingenuity and quality of this ancient art are well depicted and will forever be preserved in the pages of our world’s history.


Art in Ancient Egypt. National Geographic. Accessed July 27, 2007. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/07/070711-egypt-artwork.html”

Art and Script in Ancient Egypt: Variation in the Integration of Art and Script. Digital Egypt website. < http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/art/orientation.html>

Hieroglyphs: A Short Introduction. 11 December 2006. <http://almenos.com/artandculture.php?subaction=showfull&id=1165859864&archive=&start_from=&ucat=26&>

Compilations from British Museum, Egyptian Life. http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/life/explore/main.html
History of Art, H. W. Janson, Prentice Hall and Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1966

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