For centuries, the mystery surrounding Egyptian hieroglyphs had intrigued archaeologists and armchair historians alike. Many believed each hieroglyph to represent some idea relevant to the symbol it represented. Yet others believed that hieroglyphs followed no pattern and won’t be ever deciphered. But all that changed when the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799. Scientists decoded the glyphs and we could finally hear the voices of ancient Egypt.

Over the next couple of centuries, much has been revealed about the ancient Egyptian formal writing system that combined alphabetic and logographic elements. We compile here some amazing facts about Egyptian hieroglyphs.

1. Rock Art Inspiration

Egyptian hieroglyphs
Hieroglyphs carved in stone

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Many archaeologists argue that ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are linked to pictures found in the western deserts and produced by early hunters and cattle herders around 5000BC. These communities had to remember information about their land—grazing areas, sources of water, and routes across the desert — that were key to their survival. Images found on some pottery produced by the later Egyptian cultures, closely resemble rock art motifs, the idea being to convey information via visual imagery. Such influences are hard to ignore in Egyptian Hieroglyphs, especially during the 3500-3000BC period.

2. The Rosetta Stone

Egyptian hieroglyphs
The Rosetta Stone

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Perhaps the most famous of all hieroglyphs ever discovered. It was found near Rosetta, near the Nile Delta. Hence the name. It dates back to 196BC. Translation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics began with this stone. Even though it was discovered in 1799, it wasn’t until 1814, when British linguist Thomas Young deciphered the three languages written on the stone and thus opened the world’s interest in glyphs. The Egyptian hieroglyphics translator would be used much later for decoding the symbols.

3. Earliest Writings in Egypt

Egyptian hieroglyphs
Common hieroglyphic inscriptions

Image Credit: Ancient History Encyclopedia

Around 3100BC, an unidentified wealthy man died somewhere near Abydos in Upper Egypt. His body was buried along with various other funerary objects in a tomb marked “J”. But most of these objects were robbed from the grave. About 150 “labels” are all that remains. Maybe thieves didn’t find them worthy of stealing. These labels have the earliest recognizable writing in Egypt and contain more than 50 identifiable signs. Information conveyed through these labels is diverse.

4. Mesopotamian Influence

Egyptian hieroglyphs
Hieroglyphic inscriptions at Yazilikay, Hattusa, present day Turkey

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The Sumerians of Mesopotamia—somewhere in present day Iraq — developed a system of writing earlier than the Egyptians. Evidences of trade contacts between Egypt and Mesopotamia, before hieroglyphs were developed, have been found by archaeologists. Both the Sumerians and the Egyptians used the pictorial form of writing. But the easier Cuneiform script soon replaced the traditional form of writing in Mesopotamia. It’s widely believed that that Mesopotamians introduced the idea of writing to the Egyptians. Archaeologists expect to unearth more examples of Egyptian writings as more studies are carried out and the Egyptian hieroglyphics translator is put to use.

5. Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Egyptian hieroglyphs
The sarcophagus of King Tut

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English archaeologist Howard Carter entered the sealed burial chamber of child pharaoh Tutankhamun at Thebes on 16 February 1923 and the world’s interest in ancient Egypt took a quantum leap. Besides the jewellery, gold shrines, statues, weapons, and a chariot, the walls of the tomb had hieroglyphs carved all over. Each wall, in fact, had a different theme. While the east wall showed a funeral procession, the north face depicted the pharaoh’s arrival at the Underworld. The south wall depicted Tutankhamun’s entry into afterlife. These hieroglyphs revealed much of ancient Egypt.