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Hieroglyphs: Say What?

When you want to get a friend on the other side of the classroom to meet you for lunch (without disrupting class and getting in trouble) what do you do? Write her a note that says something like "meet me for lunch," right?

That sounds easy enough. But what if you and your friend don't speak the same language? How would you get your message across?

What about pictures? Before there was a written language, people used pictures to communicate. That's how ancient Egyptians recorded ideas. Their pictures were called hieroglyphs. The problem with pictures, though, is that not everybody agrees on what they mean. Take these hieroglyphs, for example:

Hmmm . . . some birds, a half moon, a feather, and an oval. Or maybe that half moon is a stone sticking out of the ground. And maybe the oval is really a hole in the ground. Maybe what it means is that two birds standing by a rock have a hole to jump in if trouble happens by. That might make sense, but it's not quite right. The pictures simply mean "water."

What? How could that possibly mean water, you ask? Good question. The secret lies in understanding what the symbols actually mean. Here are some very simple versions of hieroglyphs like those Egyptians used to communicate with others about everyday life. Many of the hieroglyphs found in pyramids are much more complex and would be scrunched closer together.

Look at these hieroglyphs for example. Would you like to try and crack the code?

There's a trick to making sense of these hieroglyphs. Before trying to decipher them, it might be a good idea to learn more about hieroglyphs.

Hieroglyphs are part of a system of picture writing called hieroglyphics. When picture writing first began, the pictures represented the actual object they depicted. These were called pictograms. For example, a picture of a sun within a family scene signified that the sun was part of that scene. Later, pictures came to represent ideas, so that if you saw a sun in a scene, it might symbolize not only the sun, but also daytime, warmth, or light. These were known as ideograms.

Finally, the pictures began to represent not only the appearance of an object and related ideas, but also the sound of a spoken word used to it describe it. Sun, then, might also mean son, or be part of the word Sunday. So each picture took on a unique sound that could be used to form thoughts and ideas. If you used everyday objects to do the same thing, you would write the word "hi there" as follows:

The simplified code below shows you what each sign sounds like using our alphabet. Actual Egyptian hieroglyphics has no vowels (pictures for them have been added here to help you with your translation). Also, unlike these simple hieroglyphs, each hieroglyph found in pyramids and tombs often symbolized more than one consonant. Not only that, but actual Egyptian hieroglyphs were a combination of sound-signs, pictograms, and ideograms. No wonder it was so hard to decode them!

Now look again at the hieroglyphs you are trying to decipher:

Use the code below to figure out what they mean? By the way, some pictures represent more than one letter. You will need to pick the one that works best.

Think you've gotten it yet? If so, send your answer to Bobby J. He's always on the outlook for a new Tomb Raider especially one good at deciphering codes.

If you can't decipher the code, don't feel bad; you're probably not alone. Lots of people can't do it. In fact, if you could see other people's guesses, you would probably discover that everyone had a different idea about what those pictures meant. That's the same problem researchers had when they first found the hieroglyphs. No one could agree on what each picture meant. But then someone dug up a stone tablet (known as the Rosetta stone) that contained the same passage in three different languages -- hieroglyphic, demotic Egyptian, and Greek. In 1799, a Frenchman named Jean Francois Champollion, who knew Greek, was able to match the Greek translation to the other two languages, and thus crack the code. In any event, if you would like to find out the answer to Bobby J's hieroglyphs, then write to Bobby J and he'll send it to you by e-mail.

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