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Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs overview

It is not known exactly where and when Egyptian writing first began, but it was already well-advanced two centuries before the start of the First Dynasty that suggests a date for its invention in Egypt around 3,000 B.C.E. The most well-known script used for writing the Egyptian language was in the form of a series of small signs, or hieroglyphs.

Some signs are pictures of real-world objects, while others are representations of spoken sounds. These sound signs are pictures that get their meaning from how the word for the object they represent sounds when said aloud. Some signs write one letter, some more, while others write whole words.

Like cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs were used for record-keeping, but also for monumental display dedicated to royalty and deities. The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek hieros ‘sacred’ and gluptien ‘carved in stone’. The last known hieroglyph inscription was 394 C.E.

Other scripts used to write Egyptian were developed over time. Hieratic was handwritten and easier to write so was used for administrative and non-monumental texts from the Old Kingdom (about 2613–2160 B.C.E.) to around 700 B.C.E. Hieratic was replaced by demotic, which means popular, in the Late Period (661–332 B.C.E.), and was a more abbreviated version. In turn demotic was replaced by Coptic, which may have been introduced to record the contemporary spoken language, in the first century C.E.

Most ivory plaques dating to the First Dynasty were made as labels. The pair of sandals incised on the back of this one indicates that it was a label for sandals, which were extremely prestigious items.

Labels such as these were usually decorated with representations of important events and this example shows Den, the fifth king of the First Dynasty, about to bring his mace down on the head of his vanquished enemy. The name of the king is written in the rectangular frame in front of his face, with the figure of a falcon, a symbol of royalty, above. The hieroglyphs behind the king give the name of one of his high officials, Inka.

This label is one of the few sources for information about activity inside or outside Egypt in the Early Dynastic period. The hieroglyphs on the right-hand side of the label read ‘first occasion of smiting the East’. That the enemy is an Easterner is indicated by his long locks and pointed beard. The gravel-spotted desert which serves as a ground-line rises to a hill on the right, suggestive of Egyptian depictions of foreign lands.

Such illustrations are a standard way of depicting kings and do not necessarily mean that any such campaign ever took place. Kings are shown, over a period of 2,000 years, smiting Libyan chiefs—some with the same name! However, all standard motifs must have a prototype, and, being one of the earliest known, this example might refer to a real historical event.

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