To the modern peoples of advanced civilization, writing denotes everything in our lives, for it is such an indistinguishable part of society that it’s hard to imagine life without it. Every aspect of a modern-er’s life is faced with the truth of the written word. For example, the law states that children must attend school for a certain number of years to take certain classes, and later on they use that knowledge to apply oneself to other fields, especially ones needed for the workplace. In addition to schools and the workplace, people have found it natural to use writing at home and in their private lives. If the modern society is made up of such methods, will we be able to fully understand the culture of ancient Egypt, a society in which only 1-5% was literate? It is important that, when studying ancient Egyptian writing, to remember that it was reserve only to a small percentage of society, as stated before. Thus, for the most part the records left mostly describe the stories, challenges, and lives of the upper class, and this means there is a distortion when it comes to these records, for the upper class was the only people who were able to build decorated tombs to store objects (written evidence), and they were also the only ones who could read and write (written). Even this has risks, though: kings and nobles often exaggerated themselves in their records and writing. They often manipulated their history for political purposes–to place themselves above their subjects–or as a religious function–so they can associate themselves with the gods and achieve eternal life. Through all of this discrepancy, though, the writing the ancient Egyptians have left provides a fundamental gateway into their beliefs, ideas, and thought processes.

Writing before the Old Kingdom

In June of 2017, archaeologists from Yale University discovered a Protodynastic (c. 3200-3000 BCE) inscription of an early form of hieroglyphs in El-Kab. This is the earliest and largest example of monumental hieroglyphs in Egypt, and they provide evidence to the development and evolution of hieroglyphs. According to Yale University, “The newly discovered panel of signs features images of a bull’s head on a short pole followed by two back-to-back saddlebill storks with a bald ibis bird above and between them. This arrangement of symbols is common in later Egyptian representations of the solar cycle and with the concept of luminosity”. They represent the increasing need in the ancient Egyptian government for writing and propaganda because of its massive form. Right now though, Yale archaeologists are still trying to figure out what exactly they mean.

Newly discovered hieroglyphic inscription dating to the Protodynastic Period

An example of the use of propaganda around this time period is the Narmer Palette. In fact the purpose of the Narmer Palette, a stela that describes the unification of Egypt (c. 3100 BCE) by King Narmer (or Menes), is a way of justifying this unification. The directed audience of the stela, the literate, would have had to have read that and know of the importance of Narmer. Thus, it is an example of the developing and changing of writing and of the bureaucracy taking place at that time.

Public Domain

Once the First Dynasty was established, the pharaohs developed an eminent and increased
focus on the development of an effective bureaucracy, one that could easily collect taxes and
manage agricultural and temple administration. The elites and officials who emerged were
closely related to the pharaohs–usually a son or brother. Egypt was divided into forty-two
nomes, sort of functioning like modern-day states, with each nome being headed by a
nomarch, who answered to the king. The elitists of the bureaucracy used the hieroglyphic
script to record their day-to-day duties, and this group of people was greatly prized by
ancient Egyptian society. In fact, writing was so coveted that through all of ancient Egyptian
history the goddess Seshat was believed to be responsible for inventing writing, and the god
Thoth was responsible for teaching it to the people of Egypt.

Thoth and Seshat

The innovations of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2134 BCE)

Three fundamental innovations took place by the Third Dynasty, the beginning of the Old Kingdom: pyramids, hieratic writing, and the new post of vizier. The pyramid is regarded as the greatest invention of Egypt, for without the increase of funerary attention and a need to organize it, a vizier would’ve have been chosen and hieratic writing may not have been in such great demand. The building of the pyramids represented a cultural and religious identity; fieldworkers (not slaves) somehow came together to help the pharaoh achieve immortal life after death, as was the purpose of the pyramids.

The pyramids represented Egypt’s cultural and religious identity

By the beginning of the Third Dynasty and the beginning of the funerary increase, the post of vizier was created to serve as the head of all administration. Second to the king, a large part of the motives of the post was to relieve the king of some of his many duties. The vizier served in all three departments of Egypt’s government: central, army, and provincial. He represented the pharaoh and was the supreme judge, scribe, and overseer of works of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt)

The vizier acted as supreme judge and advisor to the pharaoh

Perhaps the most significant of viziers was Imhotep, the accredited inventor of the pyramid form, who worked under King Djoser of the Third Dynasty. Because of his responsibilities, Imhotep was to create a funeral structure for the pharaoh, and he chose the site of Saqqara, near Memphis. He started out by building a mastaba on the site, but then because he had much time and ambition, Imhotep decided to increase the size of the mastaba. He transformed the mastaba to a four-stepped structure and later a six-stepped one, and because of its shape, it is known as the Step Pyramid. Even though he is traditionally known to have invented the pyramid, nowhere is he actually named the creator of the pyramid by royal and official accounts dating to the reign of Djoser. Nevertheless, he had a large impact in the court of King Djoser. He is credited to be the inventor of ancient Egyptian medicine and is known to the author of part of the original copy of the Edwin Smith medical papyrus, the latter version dating to the Second Intermediate Period. Imhotep’s legacy cannot be underestimated, especially because of the fact he was later worshipped as a god.

Statue of Imhotep, vizier, architect, inventor, scientist, and god

At around the same time a third important innovation came about in Egypt. Hieratic writing emerged because of its necessity, because for even the most senior of scribes it took a long time to copiously write out the complicated hieroglyphic signs, especially in an active court session. Hieratic is the cursive and easier-to-write version of hieroglyphs, and one can find the original shapes and traces of the first script in the second. Hieratic became the day-to-day writing of the Egyptian government, while the hieroglyphs were reserved to monuments and stelae. There were some differences, though, in the structure. For example, while hieroglyphs can either be read from left to right or vice versa, hieratic is always written from right to left. In Egyptian writing, space and orientation was important. Papyrus sheets were expensive and laborious to produce, so the scribes saved room by starting new sections by using red ink, then changing back to blank ink for the remainder of the section. This is shown in a lot of popular literature, as well as temple administration and government administration documents. Hieratic was used throughout the Old, Middle, and New Kingdom, to later be replaced by demotic (a simplified form of hieratic) and then by Greek for use in the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

One can recognize the original shapes of hieroglyphs in hieratic writing

From left to right: hieroglyphs, hieratic, and demotic

Guest Writer: By Grace Leber