Examining the Book of Abraham
Chapter 2


The Field of Egyptology

Before we move on, we must take a step back, and look briefly at the history Egyptology.

Egyptian writing began around 3100 B.C.E. with hieroglyphs. From the very beginning, the writing was logographic — i.e. symbols that represented consonants and syllables, and, occasionally, entire words.1

As time went on, and the practice of writing became relatively common among Egyptians, more practical methods for physically writing things down had to develop — hence, the development of papyrus. Also, a shorter, cursive form of writing developed that we now call "hieratics". Gradually, by c.650 B.C.E., the writing and language evolved into "demotic". Demotic writing was used for the common everyday demotic language, but not in religious or other important texts. Those types of documents still used the traditional hieratic and hieroglyphic writing. Finally, as Egypt turned Christian, the Egyptian language evolved into Coptic and was written mainly with Greek letters.2

As the old way of writing fell into disuse, and Greek lettering became the norm, all knowledge of the meanings behind the over 6000 symbols in the ancient Egyptian writing system was lost. For the majority of the next 1500 or so years, no one on earth had a clue what to make of these strange ancient Egyptian symbols. As time went by, a certain mystery and fascination became associated with the writing, and men throughout the centuries tried to unravel their meanings with some very interesting and unique results.

By the 15th century, it was generally thought that ancient Egyptian writing was completely ideographic (each symbol stood for an entire concept, or even had multiple levels of meanings used simultaneously in the message) and also held that the writing contained knowledge of a profound, and hidden nature. Numerous scholars speculated on the meaning of these mysterious symbols.

In an age when literally everything — dreams, the landscape, comets — was analyzed for symbols that could be interpreted, hieroglyphs were seen as the key to true knowledge: ancient Egyptian religion was believed to contain prophecies about Christianity and hieroglyphs to be the symbols expressing the sacred truths that could not be revealed in mere words, but had to be hidden from the uninitiated.

Over the next three centuries, the idea that hieroglyphs held symbolic meanings rather than information conveyed by writing in the form of words set in train a series of misguided attempts to decipher hieroglyphs, compounded by the ancient Greek writers who implied that the Egyptians had used both a sacred allegorical script and an ordinary script - for which the Greek historian Herotodus used the terms sacred (hiera) and common (demotika). (The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs, by Lesley and Roy Adkins, publ. Harper Collins, pp. 57, 58)

To give an example of how scholars of the day perceived the amount of information a single hieroglyphic symbol contained, a look at Athanasius Kircher (1602 - 1680) is instructive. Kircher was a German Jesuit priest who was the polymath of his day, commanding the respect of royalty. He was a true Renaissance man, writing on almost every subject possible.

Kircher taught mathematics and Hebrew in Rome, where popes like Sixtus V had "obelisk fever". Obelisks which had been removed by the ancient Romans from Egypt dotted the city.

Kircher claimed to be able to read the hieroglyphs which were written on the obelisks, and devoted a great deal of energy to their study, reading Greek sources carefully. Here is his "reading" of a royal cartouche on the Minervan Obelisk, now known to contain merely the name and titles of Psamtjik, a Saite pharaoh of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty:

"The protection of Osiris against the violence of Typho must be elicited according to the proper rites and ceremonies by sacrifices and by appeal to the tutelary Genii of the triple world in order to ensure the enjoyment of the prosperity customarily given by the nile against the violence of the enemy Typho." (Breaking the Maya Code, by Michael D. Coe, p. 17)

It wasn't until 1799 when the first real breakthrough in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs occurred. Soldiers in Napoleon's army discovered the Rosetta Stone, which was unique in that it had a single message written in three different languages: Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and another, as yet unknown, language which turned out to be Demotic (the precursor to Coptic). At last, there was a known language (Greek) with which to compare the Egyptian hieroglyphs. There was, finally, a spark of hope that the ancient Egyptian language could someday be deciphered.3 "Egypt Mania" gripped Europe, and of course, America.

It took a great deal of time before this ancient Egyptian language was cracked, however. And it was hampered greatly by the long-standing assumptions regarding hieroglyphs as an allegorical/ideographical writing system. Finally, in the 1820's Champollion had his first real breakthrough (of which he published a little), but it wasn't until several years after his death in 1832 that his work was published in full. In fact, the world never knew the true extent of Champollion's success until after the first volume was published posthumously by his brother on what would have been Champollion's forty-fifth birthday — 23 December, 1835. The rest of his work was published over the course of five years, starting from 1836.

The field of Egyptology then exploded. Once scholars became educated in the groundwork laid by Champollion, success built upon success time and time again, until now it is virtually as easy for an Egyptologist to read ancient hieroglyphs, hieratic, and demotic as it is for Greek scholars to read ancient Greek, or Latin scholars to read ancient Latin. There is nothing today which cannot be read by the Egyptologist. Sure, there are quibbles about details among ancient-Egyptian experts as there are in any field, but the ancient Egyptian languages have been broken, and with it, the accompanying knowledge that comes from reading the documents archeologists find — knowledge of these ancients' religion, their trade, their history, their lives — whatever was important enough for them to write about. Egyptologists today know a tremendous amount about the lives of the ancient Egyptians.




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**** Footnotes ****

1. Breaking The Maya Code, by Michael D. Coe, publ. Thames & Hudson, p.35 - Go back to article

2. The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs, by Lesley and Roy Adkins, publ. Harper Collins, pp. 58, 59 - Go back to article

3. The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs, by Lesley and Roy Adkins, publ. Harper Collins, pp. 34, 35 - Go back to article




Back
A Brief History
Table of Contents Next
The Difficulties Begin