A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
"Put writing in your heart, that you may protect yourself from hard labor of any kind and be a magistrate of high repute." There you have it, advice from a 19th Dynasty (1298-1187 B.C.) inscription: Learn your hieroglyphs and you'll be on easy street. But just how easy is it? Perhaps the ancient Egyptian texts that warn young scribes not to yield to the temptations of beer or women--or even, indeed, "working in the field"--give a clue.
Over the years I have tried loading Latin, German, and French into my brain, more or less unsuccessfully, and with some effort have picked up enough Spanish and Greek to find a bathroom or avoid the squid-and-tripe casserole. Nonetheless, I took on the task of trying to learn hieroglyphs using Janice Kamrin's Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide (New York: Abrams, 2004; $35) and How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs (Berkeley: University of California, 2003; $24.95), by Mark Collier and Bill Manley. The authors are all Egyptologists.
The difference between the two books is largely in their presentation and from where they draw their hieroglyphic examples. Kamrin's guide is part textbook, part workbook, with exercises based on inscriptions found on artifacts in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and on monuments like the mortuary temple of Rameses and a chapel of Hatshepsut at Karnak. After an encouraging, confidence-building first chapter in which I learned the Egyptian "alphabet" of 24 core signs, the bomb dropped in chapter two: there are 750 signs regularly used. Kamrin makes things less daunting by showing a hieroglyph, breaking it into its components, and giving its transliteration; for example, a circle with dots inside it represents a threshing floor with grain, and is equivalent to the sound "sp." Other aids include frequently used phrases and specialized vocabulary lists.
Collier and Manley's How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs is hailed by its publisher as an "international bestseller." That's no joke: the first edition sold more than 100,000 copies and was translated into Spanish and German. The authors draw on inscriptions in the British Museum and on the list of pharaohs at Abydos for their examples. The overlap with Kamrin's book is extensive, but the presentation here is nicer, both in explanation and in layout. That's important if you're slogging through some hieroglyphs after a long day's work. With enough dedication, either book will help, but I was happier with Collier and Manley's.
So how much progress have I made? Well, let's just say it's slow going. Learning hieroglyphs requires a real commitment of time and brain power. It's no wonder prospective scribes were easily distracted. Two cautionary notes, if you try this challenge for yourself. First, neither book gives much background about Egyptian civilization, so read a basic overview before you begin. Studying the language of a culture you know nothing about is a pretty abstract and potentially unsatisfying undertaking. Otherwise your triumphs, such as correctly translating "He of the curtain, judge, overseer of scribes, one who is over the secrets" may not mean much. Second, learning the alphabet at the outset is critical. Do what I didn't do: make flash cards. It will be a no-fun exercise of rote learning, but you can make use of spare moments that might otherwise be wasted (such as committee meetings or visits with the in-laws). Kamrin recommends this, and it really will pay off later on.
Mark Rose is executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.
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