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Hieroglyphs without Mystery

Hieroglyphs without Mystery
An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Writing
Translated and adapted for English-speaking readers by Ann Macy Roth

Written for ordinary people with no special language skills, this book quickly demonstrates that hieroglyphic writing can be read, once a few simple principles are understood.

Sales restrictions: Not for sale in British Commonwealth (except Canada), Europe, or Egypt
January 1992
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
136 pages | 6 x 9 | 8 color and 6 b&w illus. |

Marveling over the tomb treasures of Ramses II and Tutankhamen that have toured U.S. and European museums in recent years, visitors inevitably wonder what the mysterious hieroglyphs that cover their surfaces mean. Indeed, everyone who is fascinated by ancient Egypt sooner or later wishes for a Rosetta stone to unlock the secrets of hieroglyphic writing.

Hieroglyphs without Mystery provides the needed key. Written for ordinary people with no special language skills, the book quickly demonstrates that hieroglyphic writing can be read, once a few simple principles are understood. Zauzich explains the basic rules of the writing system and the grammar and then applies them to thirteen actual inscriptions taken from objects in European and Egyptian museums. By following his explanations and learning the most commonly used glyphs, readers can begin to decode hieroglyphs themselves and increase their enjoyment of both museum objects and ancient Egyptian sites.

Even for the armchair traveler, learning about hieroglyphs opens a sealed door into ancient Egyptian culture. In examining these inscriptions, readers will gain a better understanding of Egyptian art, politics, and religion, as well as language.

  • Foreword
  • Translator's Preface
  • 1. Generalities
    • 1.1. Not for Geniuses Only
    • 1.2. Beauty as a Rule for Spelling
    • 1.3. Pictures but Not Picture Writing
    • 1.4. How Egyptologists Speak Egyptian
    • 1.5. What Is Transliteration?
  • 2. The Writing System
    • 2.1. The Egyptian Alphabet
    • 2.2. Biliteral Signs
    • 2.3. The Phonetic Complement
    • 2.4. Triliteral Signs
    • 2.5. Ideograms (Sense-Signs)
    • 2.6. Determinatives
    • 2.7. Graphic Peculiarities and Abbreviations
    • 2.8. Complication and Simplification
    • 2.9. A Little Grammar
      • 2.9.1. Grammatical Gender
      • 2.9.2. The Plural and the Dual
      • 2.9.3. Genitive Constructions
      • 2.9.4. Suffix Pronouns
      • 2.9.5. Adjectives
  • 3. Examples
    • 3.1. An Architrave of Sahure
    • 3.2. A Glazed Tile from the Palace of Ramesses II at Qantir
    • 3.3. Lintel from a Temple or Palace of Ramesses II
    • 3.4. Fragment of a Tomb Wall
    • 3.5. A Wooden Box from the Treasures of Tutankhamun
    • 3.6. Tutankhamun's Alabaster Chest
    • 3.7. The Alabaster Cup of Tutankhamun
    • 3.8. A Canopic Coffin of Tutankhamun
    • 3.9. The Canopic Chest of Tutankhamun
    • 3.10. Vignette from a Book of the Dead
    • 3.11. The False Door of Khut-en-Ptah
    • 3.12. The Tomb Stela of Tashep-Khonsu
    • 3.13. The Hieroglyphs on the Cover: A Temple Inscription
  • 4. Conclusion
    • 4.1. Selected Royal Names
    • 4.2. Names of Gods
    • 4.3. Further Study of Hieroglyphs
  • 5. Appendixes
    • 5.1. Solutions to the Problems
    • 5.2. Books on Egyptian Vocabulary and Grammar
    • 5.3. Hieroglyphic Sign List
    • 5.4. Museum Numbers and Photo Credits for the Objects Discussed

This popular book was originally published in Germany in 1980 as Hieroglyphen ohne Geheimnis. Its author, Karl-Theodor Zanzich, is a professor at the Institute for Egyptology of the University of Wurzburg. Translator Ann Macy Roth holds a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago.


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What do all those hieroglyphs say? This question, which almost everyone who is interested in Egyptian art asks at one time or another, will be answered in this book. The basic principles of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing are probably much simpler than you imagine. In a few hours, you can learn these principles and then go on to read and understand simple inscriptions like the ones illustrated in the following pages. In the process, you will gain a new understanding of one of the oldest human civilizations—one that is in many ways related to our own. Since Jean François Champollion deciphered them in 1822, hieroglyphs have not been a mystery to scholars; now you too can penetrate their secrets.

Most people who are interested in the history, art, and society of ancient Egypt are curious about the hieroglyphs that have been sprinkled so liberally over its buildings, artwork, and artifacts. They suspect, quite correctly, that these little pictures would enrich their understanding and appreciation, if they could only read them. Unfortunately, the level of general knowledge about hieroglyphs that would be useful to an interested tourist or museum visitor is not easy to acquire.

The most popular books on Egyptian writing are simple explanations of the alphabet and signs for children. More sophisticated books describe the language and offer a daunting array of information on the decipherment of hieroglyphs, the development of other Egyptian scripts, and grammatical principles, but they devote little, if any, space to reading actual texts. Some ambitious amateurs will attempt to teach themselves to read hieroglyphs with the standard textbook, Sir Alan Gardiner's Egyptian Grammar. This is hard work and often yields only meager rewards. Most of Gardiner's examples and exercises are taken from stories and narratives, so that serious students can study the intricacies of Egyptian sentence structure. Few monumental texts are discussed. As a result, quite simple texts on monuments sometimes baffle students with a year or more of study behind them because their patterns and conventions are unfamiliar.

None of these books stresses the most intriguing feature of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which is that they are pictures. Hieroglyphs should not be separated from the scenes and buildings they label or the plants, animals, and objects they depict. The ancient Egyptians were just as fascinated by the pictorial character of hieroglyphic signs as we are today. Great lovers of puns and double meanings, the ancient scribes delighted in reinforcing and even extending the meaning of their words by the placement and details of the pictures they used to write their sounds. Properly understood, these ingenious plays on words and pictures illuminate Egyptian art and offer fascinating glimpses into the religious beliefs and cultural values of one of our earliest civilizations.

Professor Zauzich's Hieroglyphen ohne Geheimnis aims to inspire an appreciation of such nuances. It teaches the basic grammar and vocabulary needed to read most short inscriptions on monuments and artifacts, but it also stresses the relationships between the hieroglyphic signs and the subtle meanings these relationships convey. Moreover, the book gives abundant examples of the kinds of texts that tourists or museum visitors will encounter most frequently. Each text is fully explained, so that the reader will learn the general patterns and how to apply them to similar texts. The vocabulary is limited to the most frequently used words. Occasional questions, answered in the back of the book, allow the reader to work out some of the problems independently.

Most of the examples are taken from German museums and the Tutankhamun exhibition, but they all represent types of texts found in most Egyptian collections. The cover text alone (analyzed on p. 88) offers a prototype that will explain thousands of texts in temples all over Egypt. The readers who work their way through the examples given here may not be able to translate every inscription they encounter, but they will recognize the most common phrases and many of the names of kings and gods. More important, however, they will appreciate the rich religious symbolism and sophistication hidden in the seemingly nave columns of birds, bees, and baskets that embellish Egyptian monuments.

One principal drawback to the book, that it has until now been available only in German and Dutch, will, I hope, be remedied by the present translation. In addition to more basic explanations of the grammatical forms that do not occur in English, this edition contains added linguistic and cultural references of special interest to English speakers; I hope that they are not so American as to be incomprehensible to speakers of other dialects. I have completely rewritten Section 4.3, "Further Study of Hieroglyphs" and Section 5.2, "Books on Egyptian Vocabulary and Grammar," for English-speaking readers. If I have not always been able to resist the translator's temptation to make the text "better than it was before" (to quote an ancient Egyptian copyist), I hope at least not to have made it worse.

I am immeasurably indebted to my own teachers, Professors Edward F. Wente, Janet H. Johnson, and the late Klaus Baer, for introducing me to the twists and turns of ancient Egyptian grammar. I would also like to thank Robert Ritner and Everett Rowson for their comments on earlier drafts and to express my gratitude to the students in my courses in hieroglyphs at the American Research Center in Egypt and Tufts University's Experimental College for helping to point out the sticky places. Finally, I am grateful to Professor Zauzich for writing the book and for allowing me the pleasure of translating it. I hope that his English-speaking readers find this version as satisfying and enlightening as his German-speaking readers found the original.