Symbolically Speaking- page 2 | History | Smithsonian

Symbolically Speaking

A Q&A with hieroglyphs expert Janice Kamrin

(Continued from page 1)

Well, the field of Egyptology didn't really exist before it. The Rosetta stone is considered the real key, because even though there were other bilingual inscriptions being looked at during this time, it had two languages [Greek and Egyptian] and three scripts [hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek]. Because the Greek could already be read, that helped them figure out what the hieroglyphs said. And also the demotic helped because the demotic also has a lot of Greek characters in it. But, before the stone, there were all these bizarre guesses as to what was going on with hieroglyphs. They didn't even know it was a syllabic script. They thought it was pictograms like Chinese or mystical symbols or things like that. It's actually just a very straightforward sound system.

How long did it take for you to learn them?

In graduate school you take a series of classes. You start with Middle Egyptian, which is the classic form of the language. So in about a year you have a basic grasp of the most common signs in the grammar. And then you go on and you learn different phases of the language. And that took about three years of language. But I'm not a linguist, so it took me longer than it would take somebody who is studying language.

How were different colors made?

Different kinds of minerals usually. Whatever pigments they needed. For oranges and reds, they would use ochre; for green, they would use malachite. They were, in general, minerals that they had handy that they could find in the desert. Then they would mix them with other materials to be able to paint with them.

Can you think of a surprising fact about or related to hieroglyphs?

This isn't so much surprising, but one of my favorite things. There are a couple of really wonderful statues that have seated scribes. The scribe statue goes back to the Old Kingdom. You have these people sitting cross-legged and they've got papyrus unrolled on their lap. Well, my favorite version of those comes from the New Kingdom. Thoth was the patron god of writing, and he can be represented as an ibis or as a baboon. There's this one statue in particular, there's this scribe that has a baboon perched on his head. For me, this kind of sums up whole hieroglyphic nature of sculpture, because you don't really have somebody sitting around with a baboon on his head, but it shows that he's being protected by Thoth. That's what I mean by Egyptian art is just an elaborate hieroglyph—it always means something.

I read that kings and queens did not know how to read and write, but would have scribes do it for them. Why didn't they want to learn this skill?

I don't personally believe that; I've heard that also. My personal opinion is they probably were trained to read and write. In fact, King Tutankhamun actually had a bunch of his own personal writing stuff buried with him, which is pretty thoroughly in favor that they did know how to write. And, one of the palettes has a name of his wife on it and one of his other princesses. I think the royal children learned to read and write for sure. A penholder and a palette and a papyrus burnisher, used to smooth out the papyrus, and all this scribal equipment was buried with him. He's got a lot of it. He has child-size and adult-size, so why would he have that stuff if he didn't learn how to read and write? And, the first scribal statue known is of a prince. So I don't buy it.


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