[Gr.,=priestly carving], type of writing used in
ancient Egypt. Similar pictographic styles of Crete,
Asia Minor, and Central America and Mexico are also
called hieroglyphics. Interpretation of Egyptian
hieroglyphics, begun by J.F. CHAMPOLLION, is
virtually complete; the other hieroglyphics are
still imperfectly understood. Hieroglyphics are
conventionalized pictures used chiefly to represent
meanings that seem arbitrary and are seldom obvious.
Egyptian hieroglyphics were already perfected in the
first dynasty (3110-2884 B.C.), but they began to go
out of use in the Middle Kingdom and after 500 B.C.
were virtually unused. There were basically 604
symbols that might be put to three uses (although
few were used for all three purposes): as an
ideogram, as when a sign resembling a tree meant
"tree"; as a phonogram, as when an owl
represented the sign m, because the word for owl had
m as its principal consonant; or as a determinative,
an unpronounced symbol placed after an ambiguous
sign to indicate its classification (e.g., an eye to
indicate that the preceding word has to do with
looking or seeing). The phonograms provided a basis
for the development of the alphabet.
In 1822, a copy of the
inscription from an obelisk at Philae, excavated seven years
earlier, was made available to Champollion. He was stunned
to see confirmed in its hieroglyphics a name he had
reconstructed many times from a demotic papyrus: the
cartouche of Cleopatra.
The Rosetta Stone (below)
resides at the British Museum in London.
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the first chapter and overview of
The Powerful Stirring of the Black Man