Egyptian hieroglyphs

The Translation of Hieroglyphs since the Roman Period

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The slab stela of the Old Kingdom Egyptian princess Neferetiabet (dated c. 2590–2565 BC), from her tomb at Giza, with hieroglyphs carved and painted on limestone.

Egyptian hieroglyphics have always been seen as a mysterious and exotic area that has captured the interest of society from the Roman occupation of Egypt, right down to the present day.  Though they have always been a subject of interest, people’s understandings of this ancient script have been forever influenced by aspects that limited their understanding for hundreds of years.  This postlooks into those influences passed down from generation to generation of scholars and within normal society, from the days of the Roman tourists in Egypt, where Egyptian guides purposely gave the Romans misinformation and the interpretation of hieroglyphs was mistaken by the Roman views. Through the renaissance and classical periods, scholars were still influenced by early writings and the society, in which they themselves lived, right down to the eighteen hundreds, until one man, Champollion, decided to take a different view after being introduced to other ideas. But before this sudden change, he, like hundreds of others was unable to accept any other possibilities.  These early influences included the effects of Hor-Apollo’s writings, Kircher and Young, plus many others.  There are however some historians who don’t believe these writings were major influence.

The understanding of hieroglyphs, has like the majority of areas in society, been partial to the past writings on the subject.  Writers and in this case translators, can not help but be influenced by their own beliefs and understandings of the past.  J.B Bury assesses that writings are influences by the writer’s background.  R.M Crawford agrees, evaluating that there are always influences from training, from teacher to student, to teacher to student, down the generations.  It is evident that the translations of hieroglyphs have been effected by this transition of beliefs down the ages.  Therefore, the misinterpretations were also passed on, creating an obstacle that future generations were unable to avoid in their own interpretations.

The writings associated with the translations of hieroglyphs have greatly influenced the general interpretation of their meanings even in the Roman times.  Hilary Wilson demonstrates  in her book ‘Understanding Hieroglyphs’ that the writings of early translators influenced the understanding of the script until the nineteenth century AD.  Robinson, author of ‘The Story of Writing’, evaluates that the understanding of the Romans was misguided by an Egyptian priest by the name of Hor-Apollo.  Wilson asserts that Hor-Apollo wrote a book in Coptic which had a dramatic effect on the study of Hieroglyphs for many hundreds of years.  Hor-Apollo’s work insisted that each sign had a single pictorial or symbolic meaning, this makes it clear that he completely misunderstood the writing system used by his ancestors.  Unfortunately, because it was considered to have been written by someone informed, Hor-Apollo’s work was used as a guide for all future students of hieroglyphs.

Though the translations of Hor-Apollo were meant to be correct and did not intentionally lead people into thinking incorrectly, there were other influences on the Roman understanding of hieroglyphs that were purposely trying to lead them astray.  Pierre Montet asserts that under the Greek and Roman occupations, it gave the Egyptian community great satisfaction to mislead their foreign masters.  They did this by concocting unintelligible documents, of which the foreigners could make nothing.  Perrottet explains that because of this misinformation; it was misguidedly thought that hieroglyphs were only magical riddles, enchantments and spells.  Perrottet however disagrees with Hor-Apollo being the original major source of the misinterpretation.  He assesses that the Roman tourists were misled by spell books supposedly written ten thousand years earlier by Hermes Trismegistus.  These writings however were nothing more than items to entice tourist.

Hoijer is one of a group of historians who believe differently.  Hoijer evaluates that the Romans were not influenced by the writings and misinterpretations of others, but by the fact that like the majority of historians and society, they viewed the land and its culture through the distorted prism of their own culture.  Due to this, we can evaluate that as a result they misinterpreted almost everything.  Parkinson agrees with the point relating to culture, but also attributes the misinterpretation to the before-mentioned points concerning historians in the ancient world fueling the beliefs of the Romans, mentioning that the Egyptians also contributed to this, by fueling the disinformation.  The majority of translations supplied to the Roman tourists in the occupation of Egypt were catering for the tourist industry, showing that the first explanations of hieroglyphs were made to cater for needs of the ‘writers’.

Ostracon of ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’: a limestone ostracon with the concluding stanzas of ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’ written on one side in eight lines of hieratic (the other side is blank). Verse-points in red ink mark the ends of metrical verses.

This is an element of historical writing that can not be avoided, as assessed by J.B. Bury.  With the Roman’s great depth of superstition and with nobody to contradict the Egyptian guides’ explanations; they had no reason to doubt what they were being told. This concept is explained by Carl L Becker, that we write history according to own present purposes, desires, prepossessions and prejudices.  These influences corrupted the understanding of the Romans and the future understandings of the hieroglyphic script.

The understanding of the Romans set groundwork for classical writers, along with the influence of ancient writers.  Robinson outlines that with the renaissance, the revival of classical learning, came with a revival of the Roman belief in Egyptian hieroglyphic wisdom.  Due to this revival, renaissance writers continued to write and translate hieroglyphs to the standards set out by the Roman beliefs.  This led to the first book, written in the sixteenth century by Pierius Valerianus, on hieroglyphs, being basically fictitious.  This is because Valerianus took a narrow-minded view in his translations, taking his cue directly from Hor-Apollo’s incorrect translations and not even attempting to look at them in any other way.  Though, I must add even in the sixteenth century, they could be seen as obviously flawed as they accounted for little in the actual translations of texts.  Valerianus’ writings are in direct contradiction to Hoijer’s idea that the writers are influenced only by their beliefs.  This is evident because it was Roman influence that renaissance writers based their works on, if Hoijer was correct then Valerianus’ work would not have taken much, if any cue from Hor-Apollo, but more from his own culture and teachings.  This point is also conveyed by Sacks, who demonstrates the limitations of the sixteenth century interpretations.  Sacks assesses that because the translations of text were flawed and made no logical sense, classical scholars continued to believe long after the time of the Romans, that hieroglyphs were nothing more than riddles and enchantments.

Scholars and philosophers continued to attempt to translate the hieroglyphs as they believed they would find ancient wisdom and long-forgotten truths.  Wilson assesses that spiritual and religious scholars wished to find confirmation of biblical stories and some proof of the existence of figures such as Abraham, Joseph and Moses.  This is another example of how the writing of history affected the understandings of hieroglyphs.  In this case, the religious scholars were taking their experience of the Bible and religious areas, and trying to link it to the translation of the hieroglyphs.  This was mainly because of the writings in the Bible illustrating the land and culture of the Egyptians, so they alleged that the Bible would be confirmed by the ancient script.  Wilson is therefore acknowledging that the understandings were based on both ideas of influence: the writers and the cultures and experiences of society and individuals.

In the late seventeenth century, the Coptic language was revived and would later be essential in the deciphering of the hieroglyphs.  But scholars were still under the impression that the writing of Hor-Apollo and Valerianus held the key to translating the hieroglyphs.  In the renaissance, scholars were interested in Egypt and were anxious to discover the meaning of the hieroglyphic writing.  The Jesuit, Kircher, was the best known of these pioneers. Kircher outlined that Egyptian hieroglyphics for the most part, only expressed ideas, rather than sounds and ideas.  Due to this misinterpretation, Champollion was still possessed by this idea in the nineteenth century. In the mid seventeenth century, Athanasius translated a cartouche for a priest and came out with a long rambling paragraph, however the cartouche really only read the name ‘Psamtik’ spelt phonetically. This mistake is an example of how the ideas and experiences of others have caused a distortion in finding the truth and what is thought of as the truth.

Robinson evaluates that it was only later that the enlightenment made by the revival of the Coptic language brought about questions of the classical views of the hieroglyphs.  Though the views did start to be questioned by the few, the original views were still held by the majority.  It was the few who made progress towards the actual deciphering of the hieroglyphics.  This shows progress could only be made by those who took a more impartial view over their work.  As in the writing of history, scholars cannot create a reasonable view of the truth without looking at all the evidence; the academics on the path to decipherment had to do the same to find progress to a true understanding.  For instance, Barthélemy discovered that the cartouches contained the names of pharaohs only by looking outside society’s understandings and beliefs drawn from Hor-Apollo’s writings.  However it was Zoëga who finally commented that some hieroglyphs might be phonetic signs.  This was only because, unlike other academics, Zoëga thought more on his own terms, rather than further illustrating the writings of others, this independence of thought further contradicts the idea that it was only culture and experience that led to a misguided understanding.

Napoleon Bonaparte played a large role leading up to decipherment.  When he traveled to Egypt he took with him a large number of scholars.  These scholars studied and measured every site and every visible monument, finally publishing their findings in ‘La Description de l’Egypt’.  However the influence of past work in the decipherment of hieroglyphs prevented them from deciphering the elements they studied.  Scholars in the case of the Rosetta stone immediately concluded that the inscription was wholly non-phonetic, its symbols expressing ideas in the manner of Hor-Apollo.  This demonstrates that even in the early eighteen hundreds, scholars were bound by the words of Hor-Apollo.

In the mid-seventeenth century, certain European scholars theorized that Egyptian hieroglyphs were the source of inspiration for the ancient Hebrew letters.  This was because of their need to find a source for their own studies and a desire to inflate the importance of these studies by linking them to the ever mysterious hieroglyphs.  The wants and needs of these scholars show that in research and writing of history and historical elements, writers write for their own needs and desires, rather than looking at the full picture.  This reiterates Crawford’s explanation for writing history.  There was no real evidence that backed up their theory, but only small insignificant links that could have applied to a large number of scripts.  Therefore, the decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1823 didn’t agree with their theory, for the two scripts were shown to work on completely different principles.  None the less, the scholars were convinced for some time that their theory was correct because they were influenced by the mysterious and fantastic mystery behind the hieroglyphs, again showing that ideas of understanding are influenced by both writings and experiences.

Parkinson outlines that, in the decipherment efforts in the early nineteenth century, it was seen that there was a difference between the hieroglyphic and the Egyptian Demotic writings found on the Rosetta stone.  With the weight of the renaissance tradition concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, scholars were convinced that the invisible principles of operation of the two scripts were completely different.  This, however, was later proven untrue, but the scholars could not see past the understandings of yesteryear.  It was Thomas Young who first noted what he called a ‘striking resemblance’ between some demotic symbols and the ‘corresponding hieroglyphs’, he noted that ‘none of these characters could be reconciled, without inconceivable violence, to the forms of any imaginable alphabet’.  Young put a step forward in right direction but came unstuck as the spell of Hor-Apollo’s writings was too strong.  The influence of the early work of Hor-Apollo and Young’s experience and teachings, made Young unable to accept anything but that all hieroglyphs (apart from foreign names) were non-phonetic.

Even Jean-Francois Champollion, the final decipherer of the hieroglyphic script, at first continued to believe that the hieroglyphs were entirely non-phonetic.  Champollion was not only influenced by Hor-Apollo and other past historians and translators, but also by the scholars of his own time.  He was mostly influenced by Young’s work.  Unlike Young, Champollion had an originality and rigour, which was based on a knowledge of Egypt and its languages far superior to his predecessors.  This was a key component in translating the hieroglyphs, as it allowed Champollion to look at a far bigger picture, yet he was still caught in the webs of disinformation from the past.  Robinson outlines that the early efforts of Champollion in 1822 were based on the premise that non-Egyptian names and words in both demotic and hieroglyphic were spelt alphabetically.

Champollion did not expect that this decipherment would apply to the entire hieroglyphic system.  The idea dating back from the classical times, that hieroglyphics for the most part only expressed ideas, rather than sounds and ideas, still possessed Champollion’s mind.  Champollion was also greatly possessed by the work of Kircher, therefore his progress was impaired because he did not want to even think of challenging the work of these writers who were said to be educated in the true values of the hieroglyphs, though this was not true.

Adkins evaluates that Champollion, though for unknown reasons, later changed his mind about the phonetic issues with hieroglyphs, this was most likely due to yet another outside influence.  A French scholar of the Chinese language suggested that there were phonetic elements even in the indigenous spellings of the Chinese script with its thousands of characters.  This outside influence, though not directed at hieroglyphics, could have made Champollion wonder whether the same philosophy could be assumed for deciphering Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

Champollion also realized that among the one thousand four hundred and nineteen signs in hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone it contained only sixty-six different signs.  Through his understanding of languages and his experience and teachings of them, Champollion grasped an understanding of hieroglyphs never before realized.  His experience told him that if the signs were truly and only semantic symbols, there would logically expected to be more than sixty six signs on the Rosetta stone, each one representing a different word as they would have been logograms.  It was only through Champollion’s change of mind that we today understand the true nature of hieroglyphics, that the writing system is a mixture of semantic symbols, phonetic signs, phonograms and pictograms.

The understanding of the Egyptian hieroglyphs has been influenced greatly by misguided writings and explanations.  It is only through evaluation of these influences that we can grasp an idea of how the writings have influenced and changed that understanding.  Though scholars have varying views on these influences, whether they believe that understanding was based on writings, culture and experiences, or solely on culture and distorted views, we see that understanding has indeed changed throughout time.  It has evolved from a misguided, narrow-minded view, to one only achieved by people thinking outside society’s understandings.

Bibliography

Adkins, L and R. (2001), The Keys of Egypt, Harper Collins, London, pp. 1-12, 34-35, 37-43, 63, 82

Baines, J., Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society, in Man, New Series, Vol.18, No.3 (September 1983), pp.572-599

Bloomfield, L. (1933), Language History, Holt Publishers, California, USA, pp. 288 – 291

Davis, C.S.H., The Ancient Egyptian Language, in Science, Vol.21, No.542 (June 23, 1893), p.345

Edgerton, W.F., Egyptian Phonetic Writing from It’s Invention to the Close of the Nineteenth Dynasty, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.60, No.4 (December, 1940), pp.473-506

Faulkner, R.O., Wente, E.F. and Simpson, W.K., The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions and Poetry, New Edition (London, 1973)

Flinders Petrie, W.M., Egyptian Tales Translated from the Papyri (London, 1895)

Gardiner, A., Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs (Cambridge, 2005)

Gardiner, A.H., The Nature and Development of the Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing, in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol.2, No.2 (April, 1915), pp.61-75

Griffith, F.L., On the Writing in Ancient Egypt, in The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol.30. (1900), pp.12-13

Lichtheim, M., Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume One: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (London, 1975)

Lichtheim, M., Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume Two: The New Kingdom (London, 1976)

Ockinga, B.G., A Concise Grammar of Middle Egyptian (2005)

Parkinson, R., Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment (London, 1999)

Parkinson, R.B., The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640BC (New York, 1998)

Parkinson, R.B., Voices From Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Middle Kingdom Writings (London, 1991)

Ray, J.D., The Emergence of Writing in Egypt, in World Archaeology, Vol.17, No.3, Early Writing Systems (February, 1986), pp.307-316

Shaw, I., and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London, 2003)

Shaw, I., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (New York, 2003)

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Philology: Introduction to the Significance of Language Analysis

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When you first enter an ancient history or archaeology degree you are introduced to several sets of material evidence. Notably, the archaeology, material evidence, and philological evidence. But the philological side is more often than not rarely mentioned again. This is quite a shame considering some of the most interesting and revealing information comes from the ancient written sources. People generally fall into the trap of ignoring the writing in favour of the archaeology and artefacts and frankly you can’t really blame them because humans are naturally attracted to pretty visual things. I see this every day with the likes and shares on my Facebook page. But philology is all important too and if students can learn even a little about ancient writing and textual criticism, a whole new side to history and analysis opens up to them as it should.

DSCN0428BB - Clay Tablets with Liner B Script
DSCN0428BB – Clay Tablets with Liner B Script (Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis))

Philology is derived from the Greek terms φίλος (love) and λόγος (word, reason) and literally means a ‘love of words’. It is the study of language in literary sources and is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. Philology is generally associated with Greek and Classical Latin, in which it is termed philologia. The study of philology originated in European Renaissance Humanism in regards to Classical Philology but this has since been combined to include in its definition the study of both European and non-European languages. The idea of philology has been carried through the Greek and Latin literature into the English language around the sixteenth century through the French term philologie meaning also a ‘love of literature’ from the same word roots.

Generally philology has a focus on historical development. It helps establish the authenticity of literary texts and their original form and with this the determination of their meaning. It is a branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationships of a language or languages. This makes it all the more significant to study as language is one of the main building blocks of civilisation.

There are several branches of philological studies that can also be undertaken:

Comparative philology is a branch of philology which analyses the relationship or correspondences between languages. For instance, the commonalities between Latin and Etruscan or further flung languages of Asian or African provinces. It uses pre-determined techniques to discover whether languages hold common ancestors or influences. It uses comparison of grammar and spelling which was first deemed useful in the 19th century and has developed ever since. The study of comparative philology was originally defined by Sir William Jones‘ discovery in 1786 that Sanskrit was related to Greek and German as well as Latin.

Cognitive philology studies written and oral texts in consideration of the human mental processes. It uses science to compare the results of research using psychological and artificial systems.

Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on th...
Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on the Rosetta Stone

Decipherment is another branch of philology which looks at resurrecting dead languages and previously unread texts such as done and achieved by Jean-Francois Champollion in the decipherment of Hieroglyphs with the use of the Rosetta Stone. And more recently by Michael Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B. Decipherment would be key to the understanding of still little understood languages such as Linear A. Decipherment uses known languages, grammatical tools and vocabulary to find and apply comparisons within an unread text. By doing so more of the text can be read gradually as similarities and grammatical forms become better understood. The remaining text can then be filled in through further comparison, analysis, and elimination of incorrect solutions.

Textual philology editing is yet another branch of philology with includes the study of texts and their history in a sense including textual criticism. This branch was created in relation to the long traditions of Biblical studies; in particular with the variations of manuscripts. It looks at the authorship, date and provenance of the text to place it in its historical context and to produce ‘critical editions’ of the texts.

Significant Examples:

The importance of philology is exhibited in its use and achievements. Without philology the bible translation would be even more wrong, trust me read it in the original Greek. We would not be able to translate hieroglyphs, Linear B, Linear A, Sanskrit, any ancient language. Our entire written past would be blank, we would not have the information we have now on mathematics, social structure, philosophy, science, medicine, civilisation, transport, engineering, marketing, accounting, well anything really, knowledge would not have been rediscovered or passed on without the ability to study texts and language. Understand the love of words.

The Understanding of Hieroglyphs from Roman Times Onwards: An Overview

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Egyptian hieroglyphics have always been seen as a mysterious and exotic script that has captured the interest of society from the Roman occupation of Egypt, right down to the present day.  Though they have always been a subject of interest, people’s understandings of this ancient script have been forever influenced by aspects that limited their understanding.  This report looks into those influences passed down from generation to generation of scholars and within everyday society, from the days of the Roman tourists in Egypt, where Egyptian guides purposely gave the Romans misinformation, and the interpretation of hieroglyphs was mistaken by the Roman views. Through the renaissance and classical periods, scholars were still influenced by early writings and the society,  right down to the eighteen hundreds, until Champollion decided to take a different view. But before this sudden change, he, like hundreds of others was unable to accept any other possibilities.  These early influences included the effects of Hor-Apollo’s writings, Kircher and Young, plus many others.  There are however some historians who don’t believe these writings were major influence.

Hieroglyphs typical of the Graeco-Roman period

The scholarship associated with the translation of hieroglyphs have greatly influenced the general interpretation of their meanings even in the Roman times.  Hilary Wilson demonstrates that the writings of early translators influenced the understanding of the script until the nineteenth century AD.  Robinson evaluates that the understanding of the Romans was misguided by an Egyptian priest by the name of Hor-Apollo.  Hor-Apollo wrote a book in Coptic which had a dramatic effect on the study of Hieroglyphs.  Hor-Apollo’s work insisted that each sign had a single pictorial or symbolic meaning, this indicates that he completely misunderstood the writing system used by his ancestors.  Unfortunately, because it was considered to have been written by someone informed, Hor-Apollo’s work was used as a guide for all future students of hieroglyphs.

Though the translations of Hor-Apollo were meant to be correct and did not intentionally lead people into thinking incorrectly, there were other influences on the Roman understanding of hieroglyphs that were purposely trying to lead them astray. Montet asserts that in the Graeco-Roman period it gave the Egyptian community great satisfaction to mislead foreigners.  They did this by concocting unintelligible documents, of which the foreigners could make nothing.  Perrottet explains that because of this misinformation; it was misguidedly thought that hieroglyphs were only magical riddles, enchantments and spells.  Perrottet however disagrees with Hor-Apollo being the original major source of the misinterpretation.  He assesses that the Roman tourists were misled by spell books supposedly written ten thousand years earlier by Hermes Trismegistus.  These writings however were nothing more than items to entice tourists. With the Roman’s great depth of superstition and with nobody to contradict the Egyptian guides’ explanations; they had no reason to doubt what they were being told.

Hoijer is one of a group of historians who believe differently.  Hoijer evaluates that the Romans were not influenced by the writings and misinterpretations of others, but by the fact that like the majority of historians and society, they viewed the land and its culture through the distorted prism of their own culture.  Due to this, we can evaluate that as a result they misinterpreted almost everything.  Parkinson agrees with the point relating to culture, but also attributes the misinterpretation to the before-mentioned point concerning historians in the ancient world fueling the beliefs of the Romans, mentioning that the Egyptians also contributed to this, by fueling the disinformation.

The understanding of the Romans set groundwork for future scholars.  Robinson outlines that with the renaissance, the revival of classical learning, came a revival of the Roman belief in Egyptian hieroglyphic wisdom.  Due to this revival, renaissance writers continued to write and translate hieroglyphs to the standards set out by the Roman beliefs.  This led to the first book, written in the sixteenth century by Pierius Valerianus, on hieroglyphs, being basically fictitious.  This is because Valerianus took a narrow-minded view in his translations, taking his cue directly from Hor-Apollo’s incorrect translations and not attempting to look at them in any other way.  Sacks assesses that because the translations of text were flawed and made no logical sense, classical scholars continued to believe long after the time of the Romans, that hieroglyphs were nothing more than riddles and enchantments.

Scholars and philosophers continued to attempt to translate the hieroglyphs as they believed they would find ancient wisdom and long-forgotten truths, confirmation of biblical stories and some proof of the existence of figures such as Abraham, Joseph and Moses.  This is another example of how the writing of history affected the understandings of hieroglyphs.  In this case, the religious scholars were taking their experience and trying to link it to the translation of the hieroglyphs.  This was mainly because of the Egyptian connection to the biblical stories; so scholars alleged that the Bible would be confirmed by the ancient script.

In the late seventeenth century, the Coptic language was revived and would later be essential in the deciphering of the hieroglyphs.  But scholars were still under the impression that the writing of Hor-Apollo and Valerianus held the key to translating the hieroglyphs.  In the renaissance, scholars were interested in Egypt and were anxious to discover the meaning of the hieroglyphic writing.  The Jesuit, Kircher, was the best known of these pioneers. Kircher outlined that Egyptian hieroglyphs only expressed ideas rather than sounds and ideas.  Due to this misinterpretation, Champollion was still possessed by this idea in the nineteenth century. In the mid seventeenth century, Athanasius translated a cartouche for a priest and came out with a long rambling paragraph, however the cartouche really only read the name ‘Psamtik’ spelt phonetically. This mistake is an example of how the ideas and experiences of others have caused distortion.

Robinson evaluates that it was only later that the enlightenment made by the revival of the Coptic language brought about questions of the classical views of hieroglyphs.  Though the views did start to be questioned by the few, the original views were still held by the majority.  It was the few who made progress towards the actual deciphering of hieroglyphs.  This shows progress could only be made by those who took a more impartial view over their work.  For instance, Barthélemy discovered that the cartouches contained the names of Egyptian Kings and Queens only by looking outside society’s understandings and beliefs drawn from Hor-Apollo’s writings.  However it was Zoëga who finally commented that some hieroglyphs might be phonetic signs.  This was only because, unlike other academics, Zoëga thought more on his own terms.

The demotic language scripts on the Rosetta St...
The demotic language scripts on the Rosetta Stone, year 196 BC.

Napoleon Bonaparte played a large role leading up to decipherment.  When he traveled to Egypt he took with him a large number of scholars.  These scholars studied and measured every site and every visible monument, finally publishing their findings in ‘La Description de l’Egypt’.  However the influence of past work in the decipherment of hieroglyphs prevented them from deciphering the elements they studied.  Scholars in the case of the Rosetta stone immediately concluded that the inscription was wholly non-phonetic, its symbols expressing ideas in the manner of Hor-Apollo.

In the decipherment efforts in the early nineteenth century, it was noted that there was a difference between the hieroglyphic and the Egyptian Demotic writings found on the Rosetta stone.  It was Thomas Young who first noted a striking resemblance between some demotic symbols and the corresponding hieroglyphs, he noted that ‘none of these characters could be reconciled, without inconceivable violence, to the forms of any imaginable alphabet’.  Young put a step forward but came unstuck.  The influence of the early work of Hor-Apollo and Young’s experience and teachings, made Young unable to accept anything but that all hieroglyphs (apart from foreign names) were non-phonetic.

Even Jean-Francois Champollion, the final decipherer of the hieroglyphic script, at first continued to believe that the hieroglyphs were entirely non-phonetic.  Champollion was not only influenced by Hor-Apollo and other past historians and translators, but also by the scholars of his own time.  He was mostly influenced by Young’s work.  Unlike Young, Champollion had an originality and rigour, which was based on a knowledge of Egypt and its languages far superior to his predecessors.  This was a key component in translating hieroglyphs, as it allowed Champollion to look at a far bigger picture, yet he was still caught in the webs of disinformation from the past.  Robinson outlines that the early efforts of Champollion in 1822 were based on the premise that only non-Egyptian names and words in both demotic and hieroglyphic were spelt alphabetically. Champollion did not expect that this decipherment would apply to the entire hieroglyphic system.

Champollion, though for unknown reasons, later changed his mind about the phonetic issues with hieroglyphs, this was most likely due to yet another outside influence.  A contemporary French scholar of the Chinese language suggested that there were phonetic elements even in the indigenous spellings of the Chinese script with its thousands of characters.  This outside influence, though not directed at hieroglyphs, could have made Champollion wonder whether the same philosophy could be assumed for deciphering Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

Champollion also realized that among the one thousand four hundred and nineteen signs in hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone it contained only sixty-six different signs.   His experience told him that if the signs were truly and only semantic symbols, there would logically expected to be more than sixty six signs on the Rosetta stone, each one representing a different word as they would have been logograms.  It was only through Champollion’s change of mind that we today understand the true nature of hieroglyphics, that the writing system is a mixture of semantic symbols, phonetic signs, phonograms and determinatives.

Macquarie Ancient Language School

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For all my Australian and New Zealand readers: In January 2013, a number of academics including myself will be teaching at the Macquarie Ancient Language School. If anyone is interested please read the information below and I recommend my Beginner’s Koine Greek Class 😛

This is an excellent opportunity and is fun and educational. Before starting teaching at MALS (Macquarie Ancient Language School), I took six courses over the course of my undergraduate and loved everyone of them. Hope to see some of you there.

Information below is taken from the Macquarie University Page for MALS. 

Macquarie Ancient Languages School
(within the Ancient Cultures Research Centre)
Short intensive sessions are held in a variety of ancient languages in January and July each year.

The 2013 Summer School will be held from 7 to 18 January (excluding weekend)

About the Macquarie Ancient Languages School
The Macquarie Ancient Languages School, an initiative of the Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, has been running since 1981, offering courses in a wide variety of languages associated with Ancient History and Biblical Studies. Held over two weeks in January and one week in July, the School has branched out from its beginnings in Classical Greek to include classes in Koine Greek, Latin, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Classical Hebrew, Coptic, Akkadian, Sanskrit and a range of other ancient languages. Some are offered at each school, others on a rotational basis, for example, Aramaic, Hittite and Hieratic.

There are also opportunities to participate in hands-on courses, working with papyri, inscriptions and coins from the collections in the Museum of Ancient Cultures. New courses are incorporated into the programme on a regular basis. Recent additions include the Linear B Tablets, Latin Inscriptions, the Vindolanda Tablets, and Latin Psalms. There are also introductory courses on various topics – for example, Etruscan, Old Norse, Cuneiform and Celtic Languages.

Are you looking for a challenge in 2013?
Perhaps you are considering enrolling in a degree programme and would like to include an ancient language?
Taking part in a Macquarie Ancient Languages School is a great way to ‘test the water’, prior to enrolling in an accredited unit.
Classes in Classical Greek, Koine/New Testament Greek, Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Hebrew are offered at three levels, ranging from Beginners (requiring no prior knowledge) to Advanced level, reading from selected texts.

Classes in other ancient languages are conducted at the Beginners level in January, with follow-on classes in July, subject to student demand. Examples of languages offered in the past include Coptic, Akkadian, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Syriac, Hittite and Sumerian, and more recently, Demotic and Hieratic.

Classes are open to people of all ages (from 16 years) and are suitable for:

intending students of Greek and other ancient languages in tertiary institutions and theological colleges, and those interested in learning to read the New Testament in Greek
secondary teachers and students of Ancient History
those interested in learning more about their heritage, for example, those with Celtic, Greek or Italian ancestry
those with a general interest in language
those interested in English literature, in European civilisation, in drama, philosophy, theology, in the ancient world generally, and in the many fields in which ancient literature and thought have been for centuries a powerful influence.
Teaching is in small tutorial groups meeting either in the mornings or afternoons. The timetable is planned to allow students to enrol in more than one subject – for example, a morning class in Koine Greek might be followed by a practical session on Greek Papyri in the afternoon. The timing of both Summer and Winter Schools is designed around the Macquarie University calendar, making it possible for currently enrolled students to attend. For those considering an ancient language as part of their degree, such a course is an ideal introduction to the subject, prior to enrolling in an accredited unit. Similarly, both Schools take place in NSW school holidays, so that secondary school students and teachers may attend.

Many of our students come back year after year, not only to enjoy the contact with other like-minded students, but also to brush up on their Greek or other ancient languages, and to continue their fascination with the worlds opened up by the language and literature of these ancient cultures. Their continued attendance is testimony to the enthusiasm generated by the Macquarie Ancient Languages School over the past three decades.

For the 2013 Summer School programme, click here.

For an application form, click here.

For enquiries please contact:
Jon Dalrymple
Ancient Cultures Research Centre
Department of Ancient History
Macquarie University NSW 2109
Telephone: (02) 9850 9962
Fax: (02) 9850 9001
Email: mals@mq.edu.au

Cuneiform: An Introduction to One of the Earliest Scripts

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Cuneiform has always interested me. It is difficult and subject to a huge amount of interpretation and choice. So let me set it out for you so that you can understand better the complexity of Cuneiform.

One of the first mistakes that people make when thinking about Cuneiform is that it is a language and writing systems in itself. More accurately, cuneiform is one of the earliest known expressions of writing, made up of a number of writing systems used for a number of languages throughout Mesopotamia. These several types of writing inscriptions include logosyllabic, syllabic and alphabetic scripts.

Clay Tokens used prior to establishment of writing systems

It dates to as far back as 3000 BC but precursors of Cuneiform reach far further into the 80th Century BC when clay tokens were used for record keeping. These tokens require an article in themselves but for the moment I direct you to the analysis of Denise Schmandt-Besserat. More direct precursors were being used in the Uruk IV period around the 4000 BC before more recognisable forms appear in Sumer. Precursors began as pictograms like many other early scripts. But these pictographs evolved through time becoming simplified and abstract with the number of symbols becoming smaller. Cuneiform simplified in a way similar to the Egyptian scripts become less pictographic and more phonetic. However, the Cuneiform scripts became extinct by the 2nd Century AD. It was gradually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

So cuneiform itself was not a language but a writing system being adapted to many languages and evolving in form to suit such languages and period. It was particularly adapted for writing Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian. And the alphabet was used in both Ugaritic and Old Persian. The majority of examples that survive were written on clay tablets with blunt reed styluses which produced the wedge-shaped signs that give cuneiform its name. Wedge-shaped signs inspired the name cuneiform from the Latin cueus meaning ‘wedge’. While precursors were often written vertically, cuneiform eventually changed to being written horizontally from left to right.

We can split the forms into several periods which help us track the evolution:

Development of Cuneiform

The Proto-literate period from around 3500 to 3100 sees the first documents in cuneiform which survive, which were found at Jemdet Nasr in the Sumerian language. These early forms are on clay tablets in vertical columns which have survived because of baking in fires which occurred in the period. Particular to the earliest forms we see the use of pictographs to indicate important concepts and things such as gods, countries, objects, cities and peoples. These were used as determinants; signs depicting the concept at the end of a word or as the word itself similar in use to those found in Egyptian hieroglyphs. These pictographs began to lose their original function and in some cases disappeared around 2900 BC. Other pictographs started to exhibit phonetic elements as the range of signs decreased in number during a constant flux of forms.

Archaic Cuneiform saw the change of direction from left to right in horizontal rows around the middle of the third millennium BC. Additionally the signs rotated by 90 degrees counter clockwise to accommodate for the writing styles and implements. This made the writing quicker and easier for the scribe. The majority of examples from the Archaic period show cuneiform being used on commemorative stelae and carved reliefs in an official capacity to record the achievements of the rulers involved. While the number of signs continued to decrease, their use and complexity increased as signs were used to portray several concepts and/or phonetic meanings. This increased complexity makes it very difficult to transliterate the script because of the vagueness in distinctions between pictograms and syllabograms.

Akkadian cuneiform started to appear between 2500 and 2000 BC and would later evolve into Old Assyrian cuneiform with additional modification to Sumerian orthography and new phonetic values being added to older signs. This led to a higher level of abstraction in the form of the signs being used. Typical signs from this period tend to hand between five and ten wedges making up one symbol. The script remained logophonetic though with its use of both logograms and determinatives in addition to phonetic signs. By this time, Akkadian cuneiform was made up of around 300-400 signs plus determinatives which made a total of about 800 signs being used.

Assyrian Cuneiform

Assyrian cuneiform was a mixed method of writing from the end of the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires. It was made up of a mixture of logographic and phonemic writing which eventually was adapted to form Hittite cuneiform in around 1800 BC. This Hittite cuneiform adapted Old Assyrian cuneiform to the Hittite language with a layer of Akkadian logographic spellings added. Between 1000 and 600 BC the Assyrian cuneiform continued in use but was further simplified.

So you see, the cuneiform scripts are difficult to transliterate and were very difficult to originally decipher. Decipherment attempts date to the Arabic and Persian historians of the medieval Islamic world and it is only recently that some of these scripts have been fully interpreted and deciphered. The difficultly in transliteration means that one is required to make choices during analysis because of the many meanings that can be ascribed to a sign.

One thing that has stayed the same in cuneiform scripts is their numerical system, which funnily enough we still use in part today. It was based on the numbers, 1, 10 and 60. Look familiar? Our concept of reflecting time still encompasses this numerical system. So no one can say the Sumerians didn’t do anything for us!

Akkadian Syllabary - just a few of the thousands of symbols involved in cuneiform scripts