Decipherment of ancient Egyptian scripts

Jean-François Champollion in 1823, holding his list of phonetic hieroglyphic signs

The writing systems used in ancient Egypt were deciphered in the early 19th century by the work of several European scholars, especially Jean-François Champollion and Thomas Young. Egyptian writing, which included the hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic scripts, ceased to be understood in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Later generations' knowledge of these scripts was based on the work of Greek and Roman authors whose understanding was faulty. It was thus widely believed that Egyptian scripts were exclusively ideographic, representing ideas rather than sounds, and even that hieroglyphs were an esoteric, mystical script rather than a means of recording a spoken language. Despite some attempts at decipherment by Islamic and European scholars that acknowledged the script might have a phonetic component, perception of hieroglyphs as ideographic hampered efforts to understand them up through the 18th century.

The Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799 by members of Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign in Egypt, bore a parallel text in hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. It was hoped that the Egyptian text could be deciphered through its Greek translation, especially in combination with the evidence from Coptic, the last stage of the Egyptian language. Doing so proved difficult, despite some halting progress made by Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy and Johan David Åkerblad. Young, building on their work, observed that demotic characters were derived from hieroglyphs and identified many of the phonetic signs in demotic. He also identified the meaning of many hieroglyphs, including phonetic glyphs in a cartouche containing the name of an Egyptian king of foreign origin, Ptolemy. He was convinced, however, that phonetic signs were used only in writing non-Egyptian words. In the early 1820s Champollion compared Ptolemy's cartouche with others and ultimately realised that hieroglyphs were both phonetic and ideographic, although his claims were initially met with scepticism and with accusations that he had taken ideas from Young without giving credit. Champollion went on to roughly identify the meanings of most phonetic hieroglyphs and to establish much of the grammar and vocabulary of Egyptian. Young, meanwhile, largely deciphered demotic using the Rosetta Stone in combination with other Greek and demotic parallel texts.

Decipherment efforts languished after Young's death in 1829 and Champollion's in 1831, but in 1837 Karl Richard Lepsius pointed out that many hieroglyphs represented combinations of two or three sounds rather than one, thus correcting one of the most fundamental faults in Champollion's work. Other scholars, such as Emmanuel de Rougé, refined the understanding of Egyptian enough that by the 1850s it was possible to fully translate ancient Egyptian texts. Combined with the decipherment of Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform at approximately the same time, their work opened up the once-inaccessible texts from the earliest stages of human history.

Egyptian scripts and their extinction

Table showing the evolution of hieroglyphic signs (left) through several stages of hieratic into demotic (right)

For most of its history ancient Egypt had two major writing systems. Hieroglyphs, a system of pictorial signs used mainly for formal texts, originated sometime before 3000 BC. Hieratic, a cursive system derived from hieroglyphs that was used mainly for writing on papyrus, was nearly as old. Beginning in the seventh century BC, a third script derived from hieratic, known today as demotic, emerged and became the most common system for writing the Egyptian language.[Note 1] Demotic differed so greatly from its hieroglyphic ancestor that the relationship between the signs is difficult to recognise. Hieroglyphic and hieratic were thereafter mostly restricted to religious uses. In the fourth century BC, Egypt came to be ruled by the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, and Greek and demotic were used side-by-side in Egypt under Ptolemaic rule and then that of the Roman Empire. Hieroglyphs became increasingly obscure, used mainly by Egyptian priests.[2]

These scripts contained a mix of phonetic signs, representing sounds in the spoken language, and ideographic signs, representing ideas. Phonetic signs included uniliteral, biliteral and triliteral signs, standing respectively for one, two or three sounds. Ideographic signs included logograms, representing whole words, and determinatives, which were used to specify the meaning of a word written with phonetic signs.[3]

Although many Greek and Roman authors wrote about these scripts, and many were aware that the Egyptians had two or three writing systems, none fully understood how they worked. Diodorus Siculus, in the 1st century BC, explicitly described hieroglyphs as an ideographic script, and most classical authors shared this assumption. Plutarch, in the 1st century AD, referred to 25 Egyptian letters, suggesting he might have been aware of the phonetic aspect of hieroglyphic or demotic, but his meaning is unclear.[4] Around AD 200 Clement of Alexandria hinted that some signs were phonetic but concentrated on the signs' metaphorical meanings. Plotinus, in the third century AD, claimed hieroglyphs did not represent words but a divinely inspired, fundamental insight into the nature of the objects they depicted.[5] Ammianus Marcellinus in the 4th century AD copied another author's translation of a hieroglyphic text on an obelisk, but the translation was too loose to be useful in understanding the principles of the writing system.[6] The only extensive discussion of hieroglyphs to survive into modern times was the Hieroglyphica, a work probably written in the fourth century AD and attributed to a man named Horapollo. It discusses the meanings of individual hieroglyphs, though not how those signs were used to form phrases or sentences. Some of the meanings it describes are correct, but more are wrong, and all are misleadingly explained as allegories. For instance, Horapollo says an image of a goose means "son" because geese are said to love their children more than other animals. In fact the goose hieroglyph was used because the Egyptian words for "goose" and "son" incorporated the same consonants.[7]

Both hieroglyphic and demotic died out during the third through fifth centuries AD, when Egypt was gradually converted to Christianity. The temple-based priesthoods died out, and because Egyptian Christians wrote in the Greek-derived Coptic alphabet, it came to supplant demotic. The last hieroglyphic text was written by priests at the Temple of Isis at Philae in AD 394, and the last demotic text was inscribed there in AD 452.[8] Most of history before the first millennium BC was recorded in Egyptian scripts or in cuneiform, the writing system of Mesopotamia. With the loss of knowledge of both these scripts, the only records of the distant past were in limited and distorted sources.[9] The major Egyptian example of such a source was the history of Egypt written by Manetho in the third century BC. The original text was lost, and it survived only in summaries and quotations by Roman authors.[10]

The Coptic language, the last form of the Egyptian language, continued to be spoken by most Egyptians well after the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 642, but it gradually lost ground to Arabic. Coptic began to die out in the 12th century, and thereafter it survived mainly as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church.[11]