Hieroglyphs refer to a system of writing that uses pictures to represent objects and ideas. Egyptian hieroglyphs are often considered to be the earliest form of writing. Hieroglyphs were invented by Egyptians around 3100 B.C., according to the National Museum of African Art. The ancient civilization used hieroglyphic writing for religious and civil purposes.

How Hieroglyphic Writing Works

The hieroglyphic writing used by ancient Egyptians included 700 to 800 pictures. These pictures consist of ideograms, or symbols that represent an idea or object, as well as phonograms, symbols that represent a sound. Hieroglyphic writing does not use punctuation or vowels and can be written horizontally or vertically. Over time, hieroglyphic writing led to the development of an abbreviated script called hieratic and then an even more shortened script called demotic. Although these scripts were more efficient than traditional hieroglyphs, hieroglyphic writing was still used for religious and decorative purposes.

Religious Uses

The word “hieroglyph” means “sacred inscribed sign,” according to the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. Hieroglyphic writing was often used for religious purposes; for example, autobiographies of the dead and information about the afterlife were carved into coffins and walls of tombs. Priests also used hieroglyphic writing to record prayers and other religious texts.

Civil and Artistic Uses

Ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics for civil purposes, such as the documentation of historical events. They also used hieroglyphs to decorate amulets, jewelry, furniture and other items. Learning to read and write hieroglyphs was difficult, so scribes were highly trained and well-respected.

Hieroglyphs in Other Civilizations

Other ancient civilizations, including ancient China and Mesopotamia, also used hieroglyphic writing. In many cases, however, these systems of writing slowly evolved into scripts that no longer used pictures. Two civilizations that retained hieroglyphic writing include the Maya and the Olmec, who lived in present-day Central and North America.

Deciphering Hieroglyphs

Although many artifacts containing hieroglyphic writing survived the fall of ancient Egypt, the meaning of the hieroglyphs remained a mystery for about 1,800 years. In 1799, a soldier found a large black stone in an Egyptian town called Rosetta. The stone contained the same text in three languages: hieroglyphs, demotic script and ancient Greek. Of these languages, only ancient Greek could be read at the time. In 1822, a French scholar named Jean François Champollion determined how to read the hieroglyphics by comparing the three languages.