What Are Hieroglyphs?

Hieroglyphs were used by many ancient civilizations

Photo of Hieroglyphs on Cleopatra's Needle
Photo of Hieroglyphs on Cleopatra's Needle. © Michael P. San Filippo

The words hieroglyph, pictograph, and glyph all refer to ancient picture writing. The word hieroglyph is formed from two ancient Greek words: hieros (holy) + glyphe (carving) which described the ancient holy writing of the Egyptians. Egyptians, however, were not the only people to use hieroglyphs; they were incorporated into carvings in North, Central, and South America and the area now known as Turkey.

What Do Egyptian Hieroglyphs Look Like?

Hieroglyphs are pictures of animals or objects that are used to represent sounds or meanings. They are similar to letters, but a single hieroglyph may signify a syllable or concept. Examples of Egyptian hieroglyphs include:

  • A picture of a bird which represents the sound of the letter "a"
  • A picture of rippling water which represents the sound of the letter "n"
  • A picture of a bee which represents the syllable "bat"
  • A picture of a rectangle with a single perpendicular line underneath meant "house"

Hieroglyphs are written in rows or columns. They can be read from right to left or left to right; to determine which direction to read, you must look at the human or animal figures. They are always facing toward the beginning of the line.

The first use of hieroglyphics may date from as long ago as the Early Bronze Age (around 3200 BCE). By the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the system included about 900 signs.

How Do We Know What Egyptian Hieroglyphics Mean?

Hieroglyphics were used for many years, but it was very difficult to carve them quickly. To write faster, scribes developed a script called Demotic which was much simpler. Over many years, Demotic script became the standard form of writing; hieroglyphics fell into disuse.

Finally, from the 5th century on, there was no one alive who could interpret the ancient Egyptian writings.

During the 1820's, archaeologist Jean-François Champollion discovered a stone on which the same information was repeated in Greek, hieroglyphs, and Demotic writing. This stone, called the Rosetta Stone, became the key to translating hieroglyphics.

Hieroglyphics Around the World

While Egyptian hieroglyphics are famous, many other ancient cultures used picture writing. Some carved their hieroglyphs into stone; others pressed writing into clay or wrote on hides or paperlike materials. 

  • The Maya of Mesoamerica also wrote using hieroglyphs which they inscribed on bark.
  • The Aztecs used a pictographic system derived from the Zapotec. Unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics, Aztec glyphs did not represent sounds. Instead, they represented syllables, concepts, and words. The Aztecs created codices (dictionaries); some were destroyed, but others written on deer hide and plant-based paper survived.
  • First discovered by archaeologists in Hama, Syria, Anatolian hieroglyphs are a form of writing that contained about 500 signs. They were used to write in a language called Luwian.
  • Hieroglyphics from ancient Crete include over 800 signs. Most were written on clay and seal stones (stones used to seal private writing).
  • The Ojibwe people of North America wrote hieroglyphs on rocks and animal hides. Because there are many Ojibwe tribes with different languages, it is difficult to interpret the hieroglyphics.