Hieroglyphs are part of a system of picture writing called
hieroglyphics. When picture writing first began, the pictures represented the
actual object they depicted. These were called pictograms. For example,
a picture of a sun within a family scene signified that the sun was part of
that scene. Later, pictures came to represent ideas, so that if you saw a sun
in a scene, it might symbolize not only the sun, but also daytime, warmth, or
light. These were known as ideograms.
Finally, the pictures began to represent not only the appearance of an object
and related ideas, but also the sound of a spoken word used to it
describe it. Sun, then, might also mean son, or be part of the word Sunday.
So each picture took on a unique sound that could be used to form thoughts
and ideas. If you used everyday objects to do the same thing, you would
write the word "hi there" as follows:
The simplified code below shows you what each sign sounds like using our
alphabet. Actual Egyptian hieroglyphics has no vowels (pictures for them have
been added here to help you with your translation). Also, unlike these simple
hieroglyphs, each hieroglyph found in pyramids and tombs often symbolized more
than one consonant. Not only that, but actual Egyptian hieroglyphs were a
combination of sound-signs, pictograms, and ideograms. No wonder it was
so hard to decode them!
Now look again at the hieroglyphs you are trying to decipher:
Can you use the code below to figure out what they mean? (Note that some pictures represent
more than one letter. You need to pick the one that works best.)
Think you've gotten it yet? Take a peek at the answer and see.
Pyramids Home | Pyramids | Excavation
Contents | Mail
NOVA Home | WGBH Home | PBS Home
Search | Feedback | Shop
© 1997 WGBH and PBS
Support provided by
For new content
visit the redesigned