Every object tells a story – What do hieroglyphs mean?
Yesterday I spent the whole day at the Manchester Museum for a Museum Meets event titled Every object tells a story – What do hieroglyphs mean?.
This was an event where anyone could learn a little bit about hieroglyphs: how did they evolve, what do they mean and even to learn to read them a bit.
The event was meant for anyone, whether they know hieroglyphs or not. I have been trying to learn them for a few months now through various books and a few study days and I have to say I found yesterday’s event extremely useful. My best friend, who was kind enough to join me, has barely scratched the surface, but could also easily keep up. In that respect the day was a huge success.
In the morning Dr Campbell Price (Curator of Egypt and the Sudan at the Manchester Museum) gave a lecture on the origin and development of hieroglyphs. He also touched on the subject of the translation of them. As you may or may not know, Jean-Francois Champollion cracked the code in the early 19th century. He, like many others, at first believed hieroglyphs were pictures, symbols to be taken at face value. Eventually he found out this was not the case as hieroglyphs stand for sounds which you can use to create words. Not quite the same as our own alphabet, of course, but nevertheless a system we can relate to.
As in most cultures (if not all), at first only a very small percentage of the population could read. However, Campbell made a point I never even thought of: illiterate people may have understood the hieroglyphs a bit due to their pictural presentation. His example will very likely stay in my mind for the rest of my life.
We all know the signs and . Now compare those with and . I’d say: point made. (For the record: the point is not that ancient Egyptians had public toilets with the aforementioned hieroglyphs to distinguish between genders.)
After a brief explanation of royal names we got to translate some of them, which is not as easy as it may sound. The last thing we did before lunch was create our own ‘ancient Egyptian’ name – in a cartouche even!
After lunch we touched on the subject of the Offering Formula. This is a text which does have variations, but follows a particular framework and is therefore easily recognisable. It is also the text which is most easily found in museums.
What I found especially interesting is the fact that Campbell explained what the offering formula actually stands for, where it comes from. During all my hours of studying hieroglyphs I had learned to translate the offering formula, but not to actually read and understand it. And this is the reason this day was, in my opinion, so valuable to everyone regardless of their prior knowledge. Even if you can already read hieroglyphs you very likely got information on the background you may not have heard or read about before.
The last thing on the agenda was the handling session – always a favourite with the public, of course.
I was in the first group who went to the Ancient World Galleries to translate some of the hieroglyphs there. Even though you may be able to make sense of printed hieroglyphs, it’s not always that straightforward with actual objects. Due to their age and (in some cases) damage it is a lot harder to make out what sign you’re looking at. Some signs look remarkably similar, but mean something totally different. However, help was at hand, as Anna Garnett (Trainee Curator in Egypt and the Sudan at the British Museum/Manchester Museum) and Catherine Lumb (Lead Educator and Evaluations Officer at the Manchester Museum) were there to help us out and answer questions.
The handling session was in the lecture room and we all got to handle some very old items with sometimes tiny hieroglyphs on them. Once again the objective was to translate, but I think most of us were simply baffled by the fact we were holding items in our hands which are thousands of years old.
Unfortunately that was the end of a truly wonderful day and we were sent on our merry ways with advice on what books to pick up in order to extend our knowledge. The photos of this event can be seen, as always, in my (ever expanding) set on Flickr.