So, you’ve read the riddle on our Facebook page, what do you think the mystery factfinder is? Read on to find out…


Hieroglyphs comes from the Greek word for ’sacred carving’. The Greeks gave them this name when they first came to Egypt and saw the pictures carved on the temples. Today the word means ‘picture writing’ and is mostly used to describe ancient Egyptian writing.

Different Scripts

The ancient Egyptians had 3 types of writing: Hieroglyphs, used on stone and on objects placed in tombs; Hieratic, written on papyrus for important documents and Demotic, the everyday written language.

Who deciphered them?

For many years’ people tried to translate the pictures into words, but failed.

The Rosetta Stone was the key, because it was written in 3 scripts, Greek, Hieroglyphs and Demotic. We knew what the Greek said and that gave us a starting point.

Thomas Young, a scientist and linguist from Milverton in Somerset began the work. He succeeded in translating the Demotic text, identifying 86 different words. But when he tried to use this to translate the Hieroglyphs it didn’t work.

Jean-François Champollion was working on the hieroglyphs text and succeeded in deciphering it beginning with the name of the pharaoh or king at the time Ptolemy V Epiphanes. He realised important names were written in a cartouche – an oval with a straight bar at one end.

How do you read them?

The pictures can mean exactly what they are or may be part of a word. Hieroglyphs are more like a code than a language, you have to decipher them rather than translate them. For example a picture of an owl may mean ‘owl’ or it could be the letter m, a picture of a feather may mean ‘feather’ or it could be the letter e and if there are 2 feathers, the letter y.

Where do you start?

They can be read left to right, right to left and top to bottom. Top to bottom is written in columns with lines between. The pictures of animals, birds and people always face the start of the line, so that’s where you start reading. If there is a cartouche in the line it helps, because names always start at the rounded end and finish at the straight line is.

Unlocking this script was important as it meant we could read what was written on temples, tombs and on objects in the tombs allowing us to learn about the history and the people of ancient Egypt.

(Written by Sue Green, Volunteer)

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