Colourful painted hieroglyphs on a white background.

How Egyptian hieroglyphs were decoded, a timeline to decipherment

Hieroglyphs is one of the oldest forms of writing in the world.

Depicting objects and living beings from the real world such as humans, animals or plants, this script was used across Egypt for thousands of years. But until 1799, when the chance discovery of an object in an Egyptian fort provided the key to their decipherment, the meaning of this pictorial language remained a mystery. 

Follow the story of how hieroglyphs influenced new languages, inspired cultures around the world and, after they were decoded, unlocked many secrets to the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Hieroglyphs timeline

Around 3250 BC

The invention of writing

Tall brown jar with inscription in black ink.
 Figure 1. Ceramic jar with inscription in black ink, Abydos, Egypt, around 3100 BC.
Writing in Egypt was 'invented' around 3250 BC to organise the distribution and storage of goods as society became more complex. The oldest Egyptian text at the British Museum is on a jar (figure 1) and mentions both accounts from Upper Egypt and the name Sekhen/Ka, who ruled there just before the unification of Egypt's regions into one state. 

This period in world history
Writing emerged independently in at least four different places: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica. Of these original writing systems, Egyptian and Sumerian are the oldest known (from 3300–3250 BC onwards).

3250–332 BC

Sacred carvings

Limestone relief with hieroglyphs of animals, bowls and more.
Lintel with an inscription naming King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 1855–1808 BC.
Hieroglyphs, meaning 'sacred carving', were largely carved into stone and commonly used in temples, tombs and on other monuments for nearly 3000 years. As the script evolved, it also came to be written with a brush or a reed pen and ink on papyrus. This led to the development of less pictorial, more abbreviated cursive handwritten scripts called 'hieratic' and 'demotic'. All three scripts recorded the ancient Egyptian language in writing.

This period in world history
Stonehenge's iconic sarsen stones, which give it its distinctive silhouette, were raised around 2500 BC.
Find out more on 'A timeline of Stonehenge'

332–30 BC

Greek rule in Egypt

Broken slab of stone with hieroglyphic, demotic and greek inscriptions.
The Rosetta Stone, Egypt, 196 BC.
After Alexander the Great, king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon, conquered Egypt in 332 BC, the use of Greek became widespread. This can be seen in the example of the Rosetta Stone, a fragment of an ancient stela with a decree written on it. Issued on 27 March 196 BC, influential priests of a temple in Memphis, Egypt, gave king Ptolemy V (r. 204–181 BC) divine honours in return for his good deeds towards the country. It was one of many stelae displaying the decree set up in all the important temples of Egypt. To be widely understood, the decree is in three scripts: hieroglyphs (suitable for a priestly decree), demotic (meaning 'language of the people') and Ancient Greek.

This period in world history
Egypt officially became part of the Roman empire in 30 BC after the death of queen Cleopatra VII, but Greek remained the official administrative language of Egypt until AD 706, when it was replaced by Arabic.

100 BC – AD 394

The rise of Coptic

Papyrus with 21 lines of Coptic script.
A Coptic text describing the miracles of the saint Shenoute, Egypt, AD 600-700.
Throughout the first millennium BC, Egypt experienced a cultural transformation as it was increasingly ruled by foreign powers, who brought with them their own scripts. Egyptian words were annotated with Greek letters to help with their pronunciation. To this, signs derived from demotic, the script used for daily purposes, were gradually added for sounds that did not exist in Greek. By AD 100, an effective system for writing Egyptian alphabetically was in place in different parts of Egypt, with local variants. What we now know as standard Coptic grew out of one of these systems, most likely the one used in northern Middle Egypt. The term Coptic comes from the Greek word for 'Egyptian', Αἰγύπτιος (pronounced 'ai-ku-pi-ti-os').

Greek and Coptic gradually replaced other forms of Egyptian writing, including hieroglyphs. The later spread of Christianity led to ancient religious practices being abandoned, and temples closed. The last known hieroglyphic inscription is a graffito by a priest at Philae temple dated to AD 394. The ability to read ancient Egyptian then vanished.

This period in world history
Following a series of crises from the later 2nd century AD, ancient Rome's decline began. The western empire fragmented rapidly before the final emperor was deposed in AD 476.  
Find out more on 'An introduction to ancient Rome'

AD 900s

Arab endeavours

Page of a book featuring Arabic translations of ancient script.
Book of 'The temple script, language of Enoch – peace be upon him', with hieroglyphs, 1776. © British Library Board, Add MS 23420/1.
Hieroglyphs captured the attention of medieval Arab travellers in their explorations of ancient temples and tombs. Arab scholars hoped to decipher hieroglyphs to uncover the secrets of ancient sciences and magic. Some used hieroglyphs as cryptic codes for the Arabic alphabet, while others consulted speakers of Coptic searching for a way to understand the ancient texts. Original manuscripts are rare but copies and European translations show that their work enjoyed widespread popularity. Greek and Latin manuscripts were translated into either Arabic or Syriac, and sometimes Aramaic and Persian as well.

This period in world history
The Islamic world, which stretched across North Africa and into Central Asia, experienced a golden age of cultural, economic and scientific florescence from the 700s to the 1300s. In AD 970 Al-Azhar University, the oldest surviving university in the world, was founded in Cairo.


Interest in Egypt from Europe

Rectangular plaster cast with hieroglyphs, featuring birds, snakes and bowls, engraved.
Plaster cast of part of an obelisk, Rome, before 1789. Photo © Ole Haupt / Thorvaldsens Museum.
Scholars of the Renaissance period began to study the inscriptions and old manuscripts that slowly reached Europe from travellers to Egypt. Egyptian antiquities, such as mummy wrapping, mummy labels and papyri, became popular collector's items purchased by wealthy merchants and travellers. Renaissance artists and scholars in Rome intensively studied the ancient Egyptian obelisks that had been brought to the city by Roman emperors, such as the obelisk in the Piazza di Montecitorio, to celebrate their conquest over Egypt. Rome became the bustling centre for Egyptian studies, but European scholars still believed that hieroglyphs represented concepts as symbols, rather than a written language.

This period in world history
About 1400, the Inca Empire emerged in the highlands of the Central Andes. They built the citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru around 1450.
Find out more on 'A timeline of the Central Andes'


The key to decipherment

A group of people wearing robes in front of a river, with sailing boats and rowing boats.
Thomas Milton (1743–1827), City of Rosetta (Views in Egypt, Palestine and other parts of the Ottoman Empire). Hand-coloured etching on paper, 1801–1803.
French political and military leader Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, bringing with him 40,000 troops to cut off Britain's profitable trade route to India via the Red Sea. He unusually also brought a large team of scholars and scientists who surveyed and mapped the country. In July 1799, French soldiers who were repairing a fort in the port city of Rashid pulled a large broken stone from the rubble of its foundations. On the stone were carved three distinct scripts: hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. The stone's significance was immediately recognised – could this finally be the key to decipherment?

This period in history
The 19th century saw a wave of inventions towards the end of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, Europe and the United States, including the steam locomotive and the photograph.


'Look, I've got it!'

Table in French showing alphabet and hieroglyphs.
Letter to M Dacier concerning the alphabet of the phonetic hieroglyphs, Paris, 1822.
Prints and casts of the Rosetta Stone were distributed across Europe drawing the attention of French scholar Jean-François Champollion and, later, England's Thomas Young. Their work overlapped in significant ways as they came to realise that at least some of the hieroglyphs represented spoken words.

On 14 September 1822, Champollion excitedly visited his brother. Waving his notes in the air, he gasped, 'Je tiens l'affaire, vois!' (Look, I've got it!) before promptly collapsing. The notes formed the basis of a historic letter in which Champollion outlined his findings on the translation of the hieroglyphs in royal names. The public reading of this letter on 27 September 1822 is considered the moment of decipherment.

This period in world history
The final defeat of Napoleon in 1815 restored order to Europe. The progressive (if often ruthless) rule of Ottoman Viceroy Muhammed Ali from 1805–48 led to growing stability in Egypt. Many Europeans began to travel to Egypt from the 1820s onwards.


A chronicle of kings

Broken sections of a limestone temple relief with rows of hieroglyphs.
The Abydos King List, Abydos, Egypt, around 1250 BC.
On a research trip to Turin, Italy, Champollion discovered a papyrus now known as the 'Royal Canon', an extensive list showing the names of pharaohs in chronological order of their reigns. He compared this with the Abydos King List from the temple of Ramesses II, which recorded thirty-four royal names. Using both lists, Champollion was able to travel back in time and uncover thousands more years of Egyptian history with pharaohs ruling in Egypt much earlier than first thought. Until this moment, it had not been widely understood in Europe that Egypt's civilisation was much older than that of classical Greece or Rome. 


Unlocking Egypt

Inside a book with hieroglyph symbols and accompanying French text.
Champollion's Egyptian Grammar, Paris, 1836.
Champollion was the first to grasp the structural logic of the ancient Egyptian language in its varied forms. His work, the product of a long journey towards decipherment, was published four years after his death in 'Egyptian Grammar' in 1836. Through it, he provided the tools for further exploration and brought significant changes to the appreciation of Egypt's heritage. The first Arabic-Hieroglyph dictionary was started by Ahmed Kamal in the early 1900s, and Alan Gardiner's seminal 'Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs' has been used by many English-speaking Egyptology students since it was first published in 1927. Today, hundreds of books and articles continue to refine our understanding of ancient Egyptian language and culture.