The History of Hieroglyphics


Amy Holley

 Gulf Coast Community College

November 2000


When you think back to your history classes in which countries from around the world were discussed in great detail, you most likely cannot recall all the material covered.  But can you remember what you learned about ancient Egypt?    Many would probably answer with the Nile River, King Tutankhamen, the great pyramids and sphinxes.  While these are important part of Egyptian culture, there is yet another area of Egyptian history that aided in the development of civilization.  This contribution is the form of picture writing known as hieroglyphics.

The name hieroglyphic comes from the Greek word for “sacred carving or inscription.”  It is estimated that Egyptian hieroglyphics appeared about 5,000 years ago.  The most ancient hieroglyphics date from the end of the fourth millennium BC found on slabs of slate in chapels and/or tombs.  While these early writings cannot be read today, there is reason to believe that these forms are based on the same system of later hieroglyphics.  This system of writing used small pictures to represent different words, actions, or ideas.  As in other languages, Egyptian words were made up of sounds--both consonants and vowels.  But vowels were constantly omitted and ignored.  Hieroglyphics could be written in either lines or columns and could read from right to left or from left to right. This no doubt would make reading the text extremely difficult and writing a time consuming process.  The system was eventually simplified to an easier version known as hieratic.  [Click here to see examples of hieroglyphic writing].

The signs and/or pictures of Egyptian hieroglyphics can be divided into two classes, phonograms and ideograms.  Phonograms were used to represent the sounds of the language.  Ideograms represented an object or idea connected with the object.  While words could be written using either one form or the other, most used a combination of the two.

Now that we have a better understanding on the history of hieroglyphics, let’s explore how this system of writing was used for mathematical purposes.   Organized mathematics in Egypt has been dated to the third millennium BC.  It was dominated by arithmetic, with an emphasis on geometry.  Early Egyptian hieroglyphic mathematics included several methods used today such as decimal description and binary calculations.  Generally, Egyptians used the fraction 2/3 used with the sum of unit fractions (1/n) to express all other fractions.  This allowed them to solve all arithmetic problems involving fractions as well as some algebra problems.  Early Egyptian mathematics appeared more sophisticated than previously assumed.  Through their work with unit fractions, the early Egyptians showed an awareness of prime and composite numbers, the “Sieve of Eratosthenes,” and the “perfectness” of the number six. [Click here to learn more about Egyptian mathematics].

Egyptian mathematics consisted of a decimal system, which used seven different symbols.  These included:

Listed below are examples of how these numbers were written.

  = 1,246,323



As these examples show, working with hieroglyphics was a very tedious and exhausting procedure.  While it appears addition and subtraction was relatively easy, multiplication and division seems nearly impossible.  In researching material for this project, I gained a better understanding concerning the history and development of the Egyptian writing system known as hieroglyphics.  It is my hope that readers will also understand more clearly this unique style of writing that dates back over 5,000 years.  Perhaps in seeing the difficulty involved in simple multiplication and division problems, one will appreciate his writing and numbering system as well. [Click here to take a test on Egyptian math]. 



1.      Ancient Egypt Site: Language

2.      Babylonian and Egyptian

3.      Egyptian Hieroglyphs

4.      Egypt Math

5.      Egyptian mathematics

6.      Egyptian mathematics test

7.      Hieroglyphic Writing

8.      Hieroglyphics:  Egyptian, Mayan, and Chinese Characters

9.   Hieroglyphs - a




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Last updated: December 01, 2000.