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Hieroglyphics: The Writings of Ancient Egypt

Hieroglyphics: The Writings of Ancient Egypt

by Maria C Betro

Hardcover(1 ED)

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Both literal and highly lyrical, hieroglyphics bring alive a distant world, with descriptions of the natural environment, the art, the society, the religious beliefs, and even the philosophical basis of a culture that flourished 5,000 years ago. Presenting and explaining almost 600 of the figures used in the classic phase of Egypt's "sacred writing," this fascinating volume traces the origins and the meaning of each sign, as well as its graphic stylization. An opening essay reveals the secrets of the hieroglyphic system, including its development and its structural characteristics, and emphasizes the sacred, evocative, even magical power of the form, which — unlike our own abstract alphabet — is immediate and expressive. Concluding the book are a complete glossary, a bibliography, and an index, designed to make this book invaluable to the casual reader as well as the student and specialist.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780789202321
Publisher: Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/28/1996
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 252
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 9.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Maria Carmelo Betrò, Egyptologist and Professor at the University of Pisa, Italy, is the author of many works on hieroglyphic and demotic texts.

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A Microcosm in Stone

The hundreds of signs of which the hieroglyphic system is composed (the most commonly used number about 700) were drawn from the reality which surrounded the Egyptian graphic code's anonymous inventors. Though they are stylized, the colorful sequences on the walls of monuments surviving from that ancient civilization recreate a world that has been lost or greatly modified in the thousands of intervening years. Birds strut or fly, though they have either become extinct or migrated to distant lands; objects familiar to those who lovingly inscribed and painted them keep the secrets of their use; men, women, and children dressed in exotic costume offer us their immobile profiles, or hurry towards unknown goals. A microcosm frozen in stone, these moments from thousands of years of history have been extracted from the ephemera of existence and fixed for us, like the footprints of a dinosaur in rock. Hieroglyphics offer a two-fold key to deciphering the distant world which this book proposes to illustrate. First, they are the graphic expression of the ancient Egyptian language. Since they were decoded they have provided access to Egypt's textual heritage, a many-sided mirror through which we can observe and try to understand that antique civilization. Second, they function as photographs of the environment and society of five thousand years ago. They are cultural fossils, charming traces of a world and culture that is little by little being recomposed by Egyptology.

The Origins

Many millennia passed between the first appearance of wall paintings (c. 30,000 B.C.) and the first known instances of writing (c. 3,300 B.C., in the southern Mesopotamian civilization of Sumeria). Both express a similar need for communication, but the nature of the methods are fundamentally different. Drawings and signs describe objects, states of mind, and events; writing expresses the word and defines the spoke language. It was certainly a long and laborious process to reach that extreme form of abstraction in which the object or the action was no longer represented by a sign but instead was evoked by pure sound. The first Sumerian written evidence is still fundamentally pictographic. Only around 3,000 B.C. does the passage to phonetics become complete.

Writing appears in Egypt around this time (c. 3,150 B.C.), contemporary with the series of kings—Scorpion, Ka, and Narmer—who reigned over a united Egypt before the First Dynasty. These sovereigns are confused in the lists of kings under the general label of the original semi-divine kings, who presence has been confirmed by archaeology. Although it is archaic and rudimentary, the Egyptian writing of this time differs from the Sumeric tablet in that it has all the characteristics of the mature hieroglyphic system. The already fixed code recapitulates a nearly complete panoply of alphabetic and multiconsonantal signs, as well as the other categories of graphemes: ideograms, and determinatives (classifying signs which have no phonetic value).

The Sumerian texts let us follow the first stuttering steps of a graphic system searching for its own identity. We can note the perfection and development of an idea originally conceived to satisfy the practical demands of arithmetic and commerce. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, however, seems to break into history as a divine gift, ready for use. Perhaps the Egyptian sands still hide the texts that will one day allow us to trace the obscure evolution of this fascinating graphic code; or perhaps in those remote times perishable papyrus was already in use for the early experiments, intact rolls of papyrus were in fact found in a First Dynasty tomb at Saqqara. Archaeologists have uncovered much information about those formerly little-known epochs in the last few decades. Today's most credited theories about the birth of writing in Egypt will soon have to be re-examined.

Based on current research, though, the precedence of Sumerian writing (however slight) and the fact that the first Egyptian written texts appear in a period rife with objects, styles, and motifs borrowed from the Mesopotamian and proto-Elamitic cultures suggests that the idea of the writing came from the same source. (The Elamites flourished in what is now Khuzistan.) This is no more than an assumption, however. From the outset, hieroglyphic writing seems to be deeply rooted in the Egyptian culture and reality and is substantially different in its structural principles from Sumerian writing.

The repertoire of hieroglyphic signs, the majority of which can already be found in archaic inscriptions, is itself derived from an indigenous tradition. The study of the oldest hieroglyphs are a gold mine of anthropological information about the more remote phases of the formation of Egyptian civilization, and frequently paleography and archaeology are mutually illuminating. It is possible that the anonymous scribes who defined the hieroglyphic code drew from the predynastic stylistic tradition, which had perfected elaborate canons of representation in the preceding centuries.

The American scholar Arnett (1982) has hypothesized that the stylized signs and ornamental motifs which decorate the predynastic ceramics constitute the elements of a rudimentary script—but enticing as it may be, this theory can not yet be proven.

But why would the Egyptians have decided to adopt a Mesopotamian invention? Many answers to this query have been offered, some of which are not fully satisfactory, while others are to be rejected out of hand. Earlier speculations included an invasion of Egypt from the east, which would have brought this new technique of writing along with real civilization. A more credible theory is that trade relations brought restless Sumerian entrepreneurs to the ports and countries of the ancient Orient, distributing their art, culture, and perhaps the concept or technique of writing along with their merchandise.

In either case, the growing new Egyptian state (formed in the second half of the fourth millennium B.C.) began to need a means of recording the complex activities of its public administration. Among the oldest examples of hieroglyphic inscriptions are names of royal properties, engraved in the bodies of large amphoras that contained the foodstuffs produced on these estates. On other vessels, the name of sovereign and the contents of the vase are written.

Table of Contents

Key to the Notes 6
Preface 7
A Microcosm in Stone 9
Map of Egypt 10
Chronological Table 32
Mankind 33
Gods 67
Animals 91
Trees and Plants 133
Sky, Earth, and Water 149
The House 167
The City, Palace, and Temples 189
Arts and Trades 217
Glossary 243
Bibliography 246
Index 247

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