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Write Like an Egyptian!

An informal annotated bibliography of books about


hieroglyphs

By Gayle Gibson

I. The Essentials
Sir Alan Gardiner’s Sign List: There are thousands of hieroglyphs, and hundreds of them are in common use.
To look words up in a dictionary, you need to know the sound of each glyph. To do this, you need a copy of Sir
Alan Gardiner’s sign list. Sir Alan divided the glyphs by type – men, women, gods, mammals, birds, reptiles,
boats, clothing, tools, weapons, etc. If you are not sure how to read a glyph, you can look it up and find out what
the picture represents, how it’s conventionally pronounced, and some of the common words that contain it. For
example, the sedge plant commonly seen in the title “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” is listed as sign M23.
It was pronounced sw, but can also be read just as s. In addition to grouping signs by their nature, Gardiner also
provided a list of signs grouped by shape – tall and narrow, low and broad, low and narrow. This can be very
helpful when faced with an unfamiliar sign.
The sign list can be found at the back of Sir Alan Gardiner’s Egyptian Grammar. This big heavy book, last
revised in 1969, is published by Oxford University Press. Many people have taught themselves to read
Egyptian hieroglyphs through use of this book, but it’s not easy and I don’t recommend it. All you need is the
sign list. Some smaller grammars will print some of it, and almost all will refer to it. Almost all English-
speaking Egyptologists refer to signs by the Gardiner designations.

Faulkner, R.O. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1981.
Faulkner’s hand-written dictionary was first published in the days before computer graphics made it
easy to print hieroglyphs. It may take a while to get used to this, but you can’t get far in reading
Egyptian hieroglyphs without Faulkner. Some Egyptologists have had to buy a second volume when
they’ve worn out their first copy; others treasure a raggedy book the way some people honour an old
teddy-bear. The dictionary is only Egyptian-to-English. The words are not organized according to the
English alphabet, but according to the International Phonetic Alphabet, starting with vowels and
ending with g, d and dj. You need to get used to this order. Once you get your dictionary you may
want to stick on tabs so you can easily get the right letter.

Fischer, Henry George. Ancient Egyptian Calligraphy: A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Hieroglyphs.
New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983. Many Egyptologists have a hieroglyphic hand
that no one else can read. Dr. Fischer attempted to standardize the drawing of the most common glyphs,
including the alphabetic letters. In addition to suggesting simple ways to draw these signs, Dr. Fischer
explained what each of them actually shows, i.e. N31 is a road bordered by shrubs, W17 is a set of jars in
a rack. Dr. Fischer distinguishes Old, Middle and New Kingdom variations. A very useful book.

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Hoch, James E. Sign List. Mississauga Ontario: Benben Publications, 1998. Hoch’s sign list is based on
Sir Alan Gardiner’s but is less detailed. It’s thin enough that you can bring it with you to Egypt.
You can buy it through the David Brown Book Company.

Shennum, David. English-Egyptian Index of Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.


Malibu: Unden Publication, 1977. This is an essential companion to Faulkner’s dictionary. For
each English word, Shennum suggests an Egyptian equivalent and gives the page in Faulkner where it
can be found.

II. Teach Yourself Books:


There are now many books to help people learn how to read hieroglyphs. I have tried here to mention those you are
most likely to encounter. The choice for someone who really wants to learn to read texts in a museum or in Egypt,
however, is between Collier and Manley, and Janice Kamrin.

Clayton, Peter. Chronicles of the Pharaohs. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994. 224 pages. Profusely
illustrated in colour and black and white. Though Clayton’s book is actually a history of Egypt, one of
its most useful aspects is the provision of cartouches for the names of the prominent kings. He also
offers the traditional ‘Greek’ and more contemporary ‘Egyptian’ spellings of various names. Many
people use this book to explore the names of kings, and practice reading signs. It is, on many grounds,
and despite some typos, an invaluable book for anyone interested in Ancient Egypt.

Collier, Mark and Bill Manley. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-step Guide to Teach
Yourself. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. This surprise best-seller is now in a
second paperback edition, and has been translated into many languages. Working with actual texts
from the British Museum’s collection, Collier and Manley quickly introduce the reader to the
history of hieroglyphic writing or the decipherment of Ancient Egyptian, then get to work. Chapter
One begins with the image of a man roasting a goose from a tomb at Meir. A text above his head
functions like a cartoon caption. The book proceeds to explain the kinds of glyphs in this image, and how
the hieroglyphic system worked to make meaning. Eventually not only what the man was saying, but
how he was saying it, is clear. Grammar is kept to a minimum at the beginning, with more sophisticated
concepts introduced in later chapters. There are exercises with a key at the back, all the texts in the book
are translated, and there’s a good short Egyptian-English dictionary. Though Collier and Manley
followed Gardiner’s basic organization of the glyphs, they use their own numbering system, which can
be confusing and/or annoying when a student begins to use any more sophisticated grammar. This is an
inexpensive and very useful book. Highly recommended.

Hock, James. Middle Egyptian Grammar, Second Edition. Mississauga Ontario: Benben Books, 1997.
Hoch’s grammar can be used to teach yourself hieroglyphs, or as a text for a study group. A great
advantage is that Hock quickly moves into using texts like The Shipwrecked Sailor and The Dialogue
of a Man and His Ba. This is a much more academic book than the others listed, but can be very
helpful as second book, and a fine preparation for actually reading longer texts.

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Kamrin, Janice. Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide. New York: Harry N. Abrams,
Inc. 2004. 256 pages. Wonderfully and usefully illustrated in black and white and colour. This is
probably the best book for a serious student to use. Kamrin’s book is logically and helpfully organized,
with vocabulary taught as it is used. Each chapter contains practice sentences to work on, with answers
in the back of the book. There’s a sign list based on Gardiner, and a good dictionary. Grammar is kept
to a minimum as Kamrin attempts to teach the reader to work his or her way through texts on coffins,
false doors, and monuments. Throughout the book, actual texts are photographically reproduced.
Sometimes one area or another of the inscription is high-lighted in colour to help the reader know where
to begin and how to proceed. Oddly, though the book is a well-bound in hardcover, the exercises are set
out as though the reader were to use it as workbook. This can be a little annoying, but it hardly detracts
from the excellence of this text.

Malek, Jaromir. ABC of Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Oxford: Ashmoleon Museum, 1998. 48 pages. Well
illustrated with line drawings. This book has a useful list of most commonly used signs and uses the
writing on artifacts to teach you how to read common types of inscriptions, such as false doors. It can be
a little frustrating, as each section teaches one or two points, and sometimes leaves much of the artifact
untranslated. If you like puzzles, it’s a fine book to work through. Not recommended as a first book,
but good for practice once you’ve got the basics.

Mudloff, Thomas F. and Ronald E. Fellows. Hieroglyphs for Travelers: What do those little pictures mean?
Lemon Grove California: R. E. Fellows Publishing, (2014 Siegle Drive, Lemon Grove, CA
91945) 1999. Coil bound with many useful illustrations. 113 pages. Part grammar, part guide, this is a
wonderfully helpful little book. It’s filled with useful information, lists of titles, and names. It’s light
and easily fits into a backpack or camera bag. You can carry it with you to Egypt and find help for
reading some of the most important sites. Even if you never get closer to Egypt than the next National
Geographic Special, this book will add to your understanding of the land and monuments. It can be
helpful as a review for people who have been working in hieroglyphs for a while and would like some new
challenges.

Scott, Joseph and Lenore. Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Everyone: An instruction to the Writings of Ancient
Egypt. New York; Funk and Wagnalls, 1968. 95 pages. Well illustrated with black and white
photos and line drawings. This older book was the first book on Egyptian hieroglyphs I ever saw or
used.
It is organized rather like an old grammar book, with chapters of information about Egyptian culture,
lists of vocabulary and sample sentences. Nevertheless, it is still a valuable tool for beginning the study
of hieroglyphs. It has recently been republished in paperback.

Wilson, Hilary. Understanding Hieroglyphs: A Complete Introductory Guide. Lincolnwood Illinois:


Passport Books, 1993. Many black and white illustrations, maps and charts. This is a terrifically
useful volume, though not exactly a ‘how-to’ book. Wilson includes lists of common titles, maps with the
names of the Egyptian nomes and foreign nations in hieroglyphs, numbers, the names of gods, and
useful words for reading stele. Much of the information in these lists is very difficult to find in other
sources. The hieroglyphs, unfortunately, are hand-drawn and occasionally rather sloppy. Not only are

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the glyphs sometimes written rather poorly, sometimes there are mistakes in the glyphs or in their
translations, e.g. on page 63, Nefertari’s name was written Nefer-itti – in the glyphs, and on page 155,
a scribe’s name is clearly Penbwy in the hieroglyphic text, yet is transcribed as “Nebwy.” Perhaps
newer editions of this book have cleared up these small errors in an otherwise fine book.

Zauzich, Karl-Theodore. Hieroglyphs without Mystery: An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Writing.


Translated and Adapted for English-speaking readers by Ann Macy Roth. Austin: University
of Texas Press, 1992. 102 pages. Well-illustrated, with some colour photos. This little book is still a
fine place to start studying hieroglyphs. Zauzich and Roth manage to be entertaining and
enlightening, explaining all the things that need to be explained, and leaving the careful reader with the
ability to understand some basic styles of inscription.

III. Thinking about Hieroglyphs:


Betro, Maria Carmela. Hieroglyphs: the Writings of Ancient Egypt. New York: Abbeville Press
Publishers, 2006 (English version). 251 pages. Well illustrated in black and white. Professor
Betro’s book shows the hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic forms of over three hundred glyphs, arranged
according to Gardiner’s Sign List, with an additional fifteen glyphs from other sources. She explains
the root meaning of each and some of the uses of the signs, as well as the cultural background. There is
also a brief but excellent introduction to the history and development of hieroglyphic writing.

Jacq, Christian. Fascinating Hieroglyphics: Discovering, Decoding and Understanding the Ancient Art.
New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 1998. This book contains Dr. Jacq’s meditations upon
the nature and meaning of hieroglyphs, and contains much that is useful and many interesting ideas.
However, it seems to have been translated from French to English by someone who did not really know
Egyptian. It is disjointed, rambling, and very odd in places. A better book for someone who has been
studying for years and has some experience of the language than for the true beginner. Caveat emptor.

Kemp, Barry. One Hundred Hieroglyphs: Think Like an Egyptian. London: Granta Books, 2005. 256
pages. Barry Kemp has excavated at Amarna for many years. He’s the author of Ancient Egypt:
Anatomy of a Civilization. Kemp meditates on some of the more important glyphs in order to share his
insights into aspects of Egyptian civilization. Each glyph has two or three pages of comments. For
example the glyph for ‘people’ is an image of a man and woman sitting down next to one another. Kemp
used this image as an opportunity to discuss the status of women in Ancient Egyptian society. The
book is very well written and easy to read.

McDermott, Bridget. Decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs: How to Read the Secret Language of the
Pharaohs. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001.176 pages. Splendid colour illustrations. This is
another book which introduces the reader to aspects of Egyptian culture by looking at particular glyphs.
It’s a beautifully designed book with much useful information.

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Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting
and Sculpture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992. 234 pages. Over 450 black and white illustrations.
Writing was the primary art in Ancient Egypt. The shapes and postures of people in glyphs are also
the shapes in wall paintings and statues. Wilkinson, again following Gardiner’s Sign List, examines
the uses of these basic images in Egyptian art. The bee, Gardiner’s L.2 is a good example. A bee is a
creature who makes honey, but it is also the sign used to write ‘King of Lower Egypt.’ [Napoleon
used this image quite consciously instead of the ‘old regime’ royal image of a fleur de lys.] This is a book
you may find yourself going back to, again and again.

IV. History of the Decipherment

Adkins, Lesley and Roy. The Keys of Egypt: the Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. New
York: HarperCollins, 2000. 335 pages, 28 black and white plates, some line drawings. This well-
written, detailed history of the decipherment focuses on the life and struggles of Jean-Francois
Champollion. Despite the emphasis on Champollion, the book does not neglect Thomas Young, and
others who added to our understanding of the ancient language.

Giblin, James Cross. The Riddle of the Rosetta Stone, Key to Ancient Egypt. New York:
HarperCollins, 1990. 85 pages, well illustrated in black and white. This is a brief and well-written
account of the Rosetta stone and its effect on the decipherment of Ancient Egyptian. Giblin tells the
essentials of the story of Champollion with sympathy and respect. The book ends with a translation of
the text on the Rosetta stone.

Iverson, Erik. The Myth of Egypt and its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition. Princeton, New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1993. 178 pages. Black and white illustrations. Iverson traces
hieroglyphs from their last days under the Romans, through the European Medieval and
Renaissance periods to the Enlightenment, and finally to the rebirth of understanding in the past two
hundred years. Iverson’s graceful style and thoughtful manner make this book a treat to read.

March 2007