Symbolically Speaking

A Q&A with hieroglyphs expert Janice Kamrin

Janice Kamrin holds her PhD in Egyptian Archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania and has lectured about ancient Egypt at a number of universities, including the American University in Cairo. Kamrin's books include The Cosmos of Khnumhotep II and Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide. She currently serves as a consultant to the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. 

How did you first get involved with the study of Egyptology?

I was always interested in archaeology because my parents were and they used to travel and take us to Native American sites and things like that. When I was in college I didn't really know what I wanted to study, but I liked lots of things. I took some time off, and I volunteered at the University Museum, of the University of Pennsylvania, and I got put to work gluing together pots from an excavation in Syria Palestine. The other thing that happened during that period was I met Zahi Hawass [world-famous Egyptologist and Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities] of all people and got to be good friends with him. He taught me my first hieroglyph and, you know, I just met other archaeologists and thought, "you know, people do make a living doing this." [laughs] And then I transferred to Bryn Mawr College, which has one of the best undergraduate archaeology departments in the country, and had a wonderful time there. And that was it.

What is known about the origin of hieroglyphs?

Writing appears in Mesopotamia and Egypt at about the same time. In both countries, it appears to have started for administrative reasons. As you get agriculture, you get a more complex hierarchal society, and then you have surpluses you have to keep track of and things like that. That's what tends to, in both cultures, often be the impetus for some sort of writing system to start. In Egypt, labels on jars are the first things we have in terms of writing. So, it's the idea of keeping records, keeping track.

You say in the introduction of your book Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide that hieroglyphs are elegant. How so?

Well just because they're so pretty! They're pictures of fish and birds and people. Soon, in the history of Egyptian writing, they moved to papyrus and hieratic, which is also quite nice-looking, but they're much more cursive. But the hieroglyphs themselves remain in use for monuments and religious texts, and they're just gorgeous. They color them in and really make them look like what they are supposed to be. At the same time, you have a beautiful owl and it's just an "m" sound, but it still looks absolutely wonderful.

Were they mainly a means of communication or a form of art?

Hieroglyphs are very beautiful, but they are definitely a means of communication. In fact, you could take a step further and say that Egyptian art itself is really, although it's quite beautiful, it's a means of communication. If you look at Egyptian art, reliefs on walls, even statues, they are themselves elaborate hieroglyphs. They have specific, very clearly thought-out messages. For example, in Western art we use perspective and realism and try to make things look like what they are. In Egyptian art, it was much more important to convey information. You'll have a box and instead of showing the box as how it looks, you draw necklaces on top of it to communicate what is actually inside the box. That's why they had this strange combination with profile and frontal with drawings of people. It was about conveying as much information as possible, not depicting pictures realistically. So, the primary purpose was communication, even though beauty is figured in.

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