Writing & Art

Find out about the Egyptian hieroglyphic script, its development and use in writing and art.

Stone with hieroglyphics

The Egyptian hieroglyphic script was developed during the final stages of the unification of the country between 3300 and 3000 BC. It was used for inscriptions and sacred manuscripts until the conversion of Egypt to Christianity in the fourth century AD. Although awkward for writing other languages, it is an extremely efficient vehicle for Egyptian, a dead language containing many groups of similar sounding words. It operates on the principle that signs represent either objects, ideas or sounds. Signs can represent one, two or three consonants or depict an object directly.

Series of hieroglyphics with the relevant letters underneath

Many words end with one of about fifty common and easily recognisable signs for categories of words e.g., a pair of legs is used to end verbs of motion such as ‘to go’. As there was no need for vowels in this script it is difficult now to reconstruct the exact sound of Egyptian from the skeleton of consonants given by the script.

Hieroglyphic forms follow the same rules as formal art. Subjects are shown from their most characteristic angle in order to capture their essence. In complex subjects such as the human body each segment was depicted from its most attractive side - shoulders and eyes from the front, face and lower body in profile- and then the whole assembled as a still recognisable figure. Special training was necessary to achieve the correct proportions and most fine works of art were created at periods when royal or temple workshops flourished.