Scribes, Hieroglyphs, and Papyri in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians used the distinctive script known today as hieroglyphs for almost 4,000 years.
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The ancient Egyptians invented of type of paper called papyrus, which was made from the river plant of the same name. Papyrus was a very strong and durable paper-like material that was used in Egypt for over 3000 years. It is the precursor to modern paper, the name of which is derived from the word “papyrus.” Documents written on papyrus were often sealed wtih a mud sealing embossed with a stamp from a scarab seal, much in the same way that wax seals were later used.
The ancient Egyptians used the distinctive script known today as hieroglyphs (Greek for “sacred words”) for almost 4,000 years. Hieroglyphs were written on papyrus, carved in stone on tomb and temple walls, and used to decorate many objects of cultic and daily life use. Altogether there are over 700 different hieroglyphs, some of which represent sounds or syllables; others that serve as determinatives to clarify the meaning of a word. The hieroglyphic script originated shortly before 3100 B.C., at the very onset of pharaonic civilization. The last hieroglyphic inscription in Egypt was written in the 5th century A.D., some 3500 years later.
For almost 1500 years after that, the language was unable to be read. In 1799, the Rosetta Stone was discovered in Egypt by Napoleon’s troops. The Rosetta Stone is a trilingual decree (written in hieroglyphs, Greek, and Demotic) dating to the time of Ptolemy V (205-180 B.C.). Its discovery proved to be a crucial link in unlocking the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphs and in 1822, enabling Jean-François Champollion to re-decipher the hieroglyphic signs, thereby allowing the modern study of Egyptian language to begin.
While hieroglyphs are quite beautiful, they must have been very time consuming for scribes to write. The Egyptians invented a cursive form of hieroglyphs known as hieratic, which was used primarily for writing with reed brushes, and later reed pens, on papyri and ostraca (fragments of pottery or stone used as writing surfaces). This system of writing was used alongside hieroglyphs for most of Egyptian history.
An even more cursive form of script was invented during the 26th Dynasty (664-525 B.C.). Known as Demotic, this form of writing was used at first primarily for administrative documents, letters, and tax records. Eventually it came to be used for literary and religious texts as well.
Late in Egyptian history, the language known as Coptic, the final phase of development of the ancient Egyptian language, came into being. Using grammar that was very similar to its Demotic predecessor, Coptic used the Greek alphabet plus a few signs derived from Demotic to form its alphabet. Like the earlier Egyptian scripts, Coptic did not show breaks between the words. Although it is no longer spoken, a dialect of Coptic is still used in services of the Coptic church much in the same way Latin was long used by the Roman Catholic Church.
The writing system for the Meroitic language of Nubia appeared around the 2nd century B.C. The alphabet consisted of a combination of hieroglyphic signs and cursive letters. Although the individual signs can be pronounced, the Meroitic language is still not fully understood and its texts are waiting to be deciphered and read.
Originally published by Penn Museum, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.