6. Hieroglyphic writing gradually died out.
Ptolemies, who were of Macedonian descent, began to rule Egypt in the 300s B.C., Greek replaced Egyptian as the official court language. About 600 years later, in 384 A.D., the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius approved a decree that banned pagan religion from being practiced in Egypt, which was the beginning of the end for the use of hieroglyphics, according to author Stephane Rossini.
By the time that the last known hieroglyphic writing was carved into the Philae Temple in 394 A.D. there probably were few Egyptian sculptors left who even could understand what they were being asked to carve into the walls, as Hilary Wilson writes in
. Understanding Hieroglyphs: A Compete Introductory Guide 7. The Rosetta Stone led to a breakthrough.
The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 and featured writing in three different scripts: hieroglyphic, demotic and ancient Greek.
In 1799, French soldiers serving under
Napoleon in Egypt, who were repairing a fort in the town of Rashid (also known as Rosetta), discovered a stone slab that became known as the Rosetta Stone. It was covered with writing in three different scripts—hieroglyphic writing, demotic and ancient Greek. The three languages engraved upon a single stone enabled researchers to decipher the hieroglyphic writing. British scientist Thomas Young, who
began studying the stone in 1814, first deduced that some of the symbols were phonetic spellings of royal names. Then, between 1822 and 1822, French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion was able to show that hieroglyphics were a combination of phonetic and ideographic symbols. He was able to decipher the text, which was a message from Egyptian priests to Ptolemy V written in 196 B.C.
“Ultimately Champollion had the upper hand, thanks to his deep study of Coptic, which is the latest phase of the Egyptian language,” Dorman explains. That knowledge “allowed him to recognize grammatical features that had escaped Young.”
8. Deciphering hieroglyphic writing remains a challenge.
Figuring out the meaning of texts written in hieroglyphic writing remains a big challenge for scholars, and requires a certain amount of subjective interpretation. Even reading them aloud isn’t easy.
“It’s not so much the usage of phonetic signs that makes translations challenging, but rather the fact that the full vocalization of ancient Egyptian is not written out,” Dorman says. “So the pronunciation of words and especially the intricacies of the Egyptian verbal system remain topics of conjecture.”