Classic Court

Reading Hieroglyphs

Dynasty 18, 1550–1307 BCE, Lion Hunt Scarab of King Amenhotep III (underside), glazed steatite, 1380 BCE. Toledo Museum of Art, Gift of Henry W. Wilhelm, 1927.73

Ancient Egyptians had believed their god of wisdom and learning, Thoth, to be the first to utilize writing to convey the thoughts and sounds of speech; therefore writing was considered a gift of the gods. The Egyptian language was first written using hieroglyphs, a term which comes from the combination of two Greek words: hiero, meaning “sacred,” and glyphika, meaning “carvings.”

There are several thousand hieroglyphs known, but less than a thousand were commonly used. In the menu above you will find five popular symbols that appear on Egyptian works of art displayed in the Classic Court.

Getting Started: Which Direction?

When the Egyptians wrote with hieroglyphs, there was virtually no word division or punctuation, and the hieroglyphs could be written in any direction (up, down, left to right, right to left, etc.). One trick you can use to figure out which way you are supposed to read hieroglyphs carved on objects in the Museum’s Classic Court is to notice which way the animal or human symbols face. They will face the beginning of the line, telling you where to start.