Symbolically Speaking

A Q&A with hieroglyphs expert Janice Kamrin

Gustavo Camps

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.

What is the significance of the Rosetta stone?

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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