Where can I find an explanation of the variations in style of Egyptian hieroglyphs?

Where can I find an explanation of the variations in style of Egyptian hieroglyphs?

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I've seen that Egyptian hieroglyphs are not always written or drawn identically.

Long time ago I made a trip in Egypt and saw, in the Valley of the Kings, a tomb with hieroglyphs on the walls that were just drawn, in black I think, not engraved. The style of these hieroglyphs was very simple, and looked 'modern' to me. I didn't make a photo of them (it was not allowed), and I can't find a image on the web for these particular hieroglyphs…

Is there any reference online for the evolution of the shape of hieroglyphs?

From a bit of research, it seems that hieroglyphs can be drawn in several distinct forms:

  1. Pure hieroglyphs are complete images, usually in multiple colours.
  2. Umbratic hieroglyphs are carved into stone and intended to be filled with a coloured plaster or enamel.
  3. Profiles are likewise carved into stone, and filled with paint.
  4. Linear hieroglyphs are simply drawn, in a single colour, which I suspect is what you saw.
  5. Hieratic characters, which are no longer really pictures, but simply symbols.

The Demotic characters are simplified versions of the Hieratic characters.

Here's a picture of linear, pure and profile hieroglyphs, from an article comparing them to modern GUI standards:

I suspect that the linear style is what you saw.

Although hieroglyphs, and indeed the Egyptian language, did change over time, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings all date to the same period. The royal tombs there were all cut in the New Kingdom, and date from about 1540 BCE to about 1075 BCE.

The language spoken in Egypt at that time is what we now call Middle Egyptian. The written hieroglyphic language consisted of around 900 hieroglyphs, and there were no significant changes in the form of hieroglyphs over that period.

Ancient Egyptian Scripts

It is important to note that there were three distinct scripts used in Ancient Egypt.

  1. Hieroglyphs

  • Hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti I. Image source Wikimedia

These are the most recognisable of the scripts used in Ancient Egypt. They were used primarily in tombs, on offering stelae and on monumental inscriptions.

  • Stela of Pepi, chief of the potters. Image source Wikimedia

It was also one of the three scripts used to record the inscription on the Rosetta Stone (together with Ancient Greek and Egyptian demotic - see below). The number of symbols expanded significantly in the late period, and they continued to be used right up to the 4th century CE.

  1. Hieratic

  • Section of the Prisse Papyrus which contains the Precepts of Kakemna and Precepts of Ptah-hotep in hieratic script. Image source Wikimedia

This was the most commonly used form of the language, generally written on papyrus with reed pens.

  1. Demotic

  • Section of the Rosetta Stone with demotic inscription. Image source Wikimedia

This developed from the hieratic script and was used to write in what we now call Late Egyptian.

The Tombs of the Valley of the Kings

In the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, all the inscriptions used the hieroglyphic script.

As a result of records that we have recovered from the workers village at Deir el Medina (also, see my answer to the question 'Where can I find reliable primary sources written by Ancient Egyptian laborers?' for more)), we know a great deal about how tombs were built in the Valley of the Kings.

  • Teams of rock-cutters cut the tombs into the limestone.
  • Teams of plasterers then coated the walls with layers of a type of plaster called muna, made from clay, quartz, limestone & crushed straw.
  • The plaster was then covered with a thin layer of clay & limestone whitened with gypsum.
  • Teams of draughtsmen then drew the tomb decoration and inscriptions onto the finished plaster. This was done using red ochre.
  • The chief draughtsman would then inspect the work, and make corrections where necessary using black charcoal.
  • Then teams of sculptors carved the bas-relief and teams of artists applied the decoration using specific colours.

Of course, if the pharaoh died suddenly, the work had to be completed in a hurry (the pharaoh had to be mummified and buried according to a strict timetable). As a result, we have examples of all these stages where work had been interrupted.

Some of the best physical evidence we have for the various stages comes from the tomb of Horemheb (designated as KV57):

  • Detail of tomb decoration from the tomb of Horemheb. Image source Wikimedia

  • Tomb of Horemheb showing construction lines for laying our images and texts. Image source Wikimedia

There are more images of KV 57 available on Osirisnet, if you are interested.

For more information about the tomb of Horemheb, you might enjoy the recording of a lecture titled Haremhab, Pharaoh and Conqueror: New Investigations in His Royal Tomb in the Valley of the Kings on YouTube.

Based on your description, I'd say that what you saw was probably the version painted onto the walls by the draughtsmen, before they were carved and painted. However, without knowing which tomb you actually visited, it is impossible to say for certain.

Perhaps some of the images on Osirisnet (link above) will jog your memory.

Egyptian Art

Some of the most recognizable art in the entirety of human history was created by one of our most sophisticated ancient cultures. Including not only painting and sculpture, but the Egyptians also created artistically in every endeavor from architecture to burial methods.

Their works were symbolic, stylized, and use a myriad of media to vividly express their belief systems, wealth, power, and dedication to history and to life after death. Glory to their gods and the recording of national events and victories were paramount to the purpose of their art.

The 3000 years of Ancient Egyptian art is divided by scholars into dynasties, kingdoms, and eras.

Egyptian Art Origins and Historical Importance:

When what we picture as the golden age of Egypt was born, people had already been living in the Nile Delta for over 40,000 years. The Egyptians as we know them came into being when Upper and Lower Egypt became one during the dynasty of the first pharaoh, Narmer.

Temple at Luxor Egyptian Art

The Egyptians held on to their insular power until they were conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BC and the Ptolemaic Era began. When Cleopatra died in 30 BC, Egypt ceased to be an independent nation and became a province of Rome.

Art in the area prior to the creation of Egypt as a nation goes back nearly 15,000 years to stone carvings in the village of Qurta depicting bulls. It was quite a span of time before Egypt reached the height of civilization and created the works that are familiar to us today.

“The significance of King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza is not only demonstrated through its positioning inside the pyramid structure but also through its size.” ― Ibrahim Ibrahim

Certain artistic rules, so to speak, created a convention in Egyptian art. The Egyptians favored order, and as such, their images are confined to certain standard aspects. Standing figures have parted legs, most figures are seen in profile, and there are proportions that measure perfectly from figure to figure. Male statues are sometimes darker in color than female statues. Statues share some of these conventions and they are most prevalent in reliefs and in fresco.

Symbolism was very important in Egyptian artwork and the variations on the Pharoah as a god are common. When Pharaohs were represented in the form of a particular god, the statue was much larger than if the god were represented on its own. Other symbolism, such as what was expressed in color or in the use of animals, imparted more meaning to a piece.

For instance, the color of a figure’s skin indicated whether he or she worked indoors or out, the color of their clothing might indicate divinity or royalty, and stereotypical elements noted if the figure was from a different land. The size of a figure indicated the person’s or being’s importance.

Guardian sphinx Egyptian Art

Some of the most notable examples of Egyptian art are in its architecture and complementing colossal sculpture. The pyramids at Giza are a triumph of design and would be difficult to complete by our own modern-day builders. The city of Luxor with its columns of sculpted figures and alleyways of sphinxes is a grand and awe-inspiring testament to the artistic achievements of the Egyptian people.

“There are various eyes. Even the Sphinx has eyes: and as a result, there are various truths, and as a result there is no truth”. – Friedrich Nietzsche

Egyptian sculpture is well recognizable in its monuments, but sculpture was done on a smaller scale as well.

Small wooden statuettes known as Ka (ka was one of the five parts of the soul, the one that held the essence of life) were buried with the dead, leaving us an impression of what non-royal Egyptians may have been like. Also included in burials were “reserve heads” which were near perfect representations of the head of the deceased.

These must-have very closely resembled the departed because archaeologists have found features spanning a family line that is perfectly rendered each time showing the family resemblance. Tombs also sometimes include small sculptures of things the deceased may have owned or been partial to such as animals, buildings, slaves, and the boat that is meant to carry them to the afterlife.

Painting conventions in Egypt required the use of only six colors, and any representations of a god were strictly done with its standard personal attribute, such as in the case of Horus who was always seen with a falcon’s head. The six pigments used were black, white, blue, yellow, red, and green. Each color symbolized something.

Green was growth life and fertility red symbolized anger, fire, and victory blue was for creation and rebirth yellow was for gold and for eternity and was also symbolic of Ra and the pharaohs white symbolized purity and the sacred. Gold, therefore, was used in funeral masks of the pharaohs to note that they were now gods, and white was used in the creation or representation of religious objects.

It would seem that the Egyptians focused most of their artistic talent on glorifying the dead, and while that does seem to be the case, this misconception has to do with most of what has been found in tombs.

That said, one of Egypt’s most distinctive arts was that of the mummification of bodies and the sarcophagi in which they were placed. Crafted from precious metals, these burial caskets were recreations of the person in life. Besides the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids, one of the most famous examples of Egyptian art was that of the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen.

Sarcophagus of Tutankhamen Egyptian Art

In later years, during the Ptolemaic era, Grecian influence came into Egyptian art and more naturalistic paintings came into vogue. Artists were able to break free from the order and convention of previous eras and create softened and lifelike portraits of their subjects.

“…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.” ― Howard Carter

Egyptian Art Key Highlights:

  • One type of relief, sunk relief, is common in Egypt because handles the harsh sun and climate conditions well.
  • Palaces included frescoes that depicted natural scenes on walls, floors, and ceilings. Popular subjects were animals, reeds, and water.
  • The lines on scenes in hieroglyphs are known as registers. Where a person or object is in the register indicates its importance.

Egyptian Art Top Works:

  • Great Pyramids at Giza
  • The Great Sphinx
  • Temple at Luxor
  • Bust of Nefertiti
  • Fayum Mummy Portrait

Art History Movements (Order by the period of origin)

Dawn of Man – BC 10

Paleolithic Art (Dawn of Man – 10,000 BC), Neolithic Art (8000 BC – 500 AD), Egyptian Art (3000 BC - 100 AD), Ancient Near Eastern Art (Neolithic era – 651 BC), Bronze and Iron Age Art (3000 BC – Debated), Aegean Art (2800-100 BC), Archaic Greek Art (660-480 BC), Classical Greek Art (480-323 BC ), Hellenistic Art (323 BC – 27 BC), Etruscan Art (700 - 90 BC)

1st Century to 10th Century

Roman Art (500 BC – 500 AD), Celtic Art. Parthian and Sassanian Art (247 BC – 600 AD), Steppe Art (9000BC – 100 AD), Indian Art (3000 BC - current), Southeast Asian Art (2200 BC - Present), Chinese and Korean Art, Japanese Art (11000 BC – Present), Early Christian Art (260-525 AD, Byzantine Art (330 – 1453 AD), Irish Art (3300 BC - Present), Anglo Saxon Art (450 – 1066 AD), Viking Art (780 AD-1100AD), Islamic Art (600 AD-Present)

Common Ancient Egyptian symbols:

Eye of Horus

Eye of Horus

The Eye of Horus (also called ‘wadjet’) is the symbol of power, protection and good health. Horus was a sky god who offered his left eye to his father, Osiris, in an attempt to bring him back to life. Due to its association with protection, many Ancient Egyptians wore the Eye of Horus as an amulet, and also placed them on the dead to protect them in the afterlife.

Eye of Ra

Eye of Ra

Not to be confused with the Eye of Horus, the Eye of Ra is distinguishable in that it is the right eye, rather than the left. Ra was an Egyptian sun god, and his eye is considered an extension of his power. While the Eye of Ra reflects many of the same concepts as the Eye of Horus, it also comes with an aspect of danger and violence, as it represents the heat and wrath of the sun.



The ankh is one of the most common ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, used in art, writing and decorations. It represents the word “life” and life itself, as well as heaven, male & female, the morning sun, and the earth. It was often used to express the desire for someone to live – e.g. “may you live and be well”, and was held as a key to eternal life. Its beautiful shape was emulated by neighbouring cultures, who adapted it in many different ways, such as by using it as a variation of the Christian cross. Nowadays it is often associated with the Goth subculture.



Representing transformation, immortality and resurrection, the iconic scarab is actually a type of dung beetle associated with the gods. Why? The beetle lays its eggs in a ball of dung, which provides its newborns with nourishment once they hatch. The story of the dung beetle was thought to symbolise the way life comes from death. The story of the god Khepri is inspired by the dung beetle, as he was known for rolling the sun across the sky – keeping it safe in the underworld at night, and helping it rise as dawn the following day.

Crook & flail

Crook and flail

One of the most well-known and oldest ancient Egyptian symbols is the crook & flail, which represents the majesty and power of the king, Osiris. The crook was a tool used by shepherds, and the flail a tool used to herd goats. Osiris was known as a deity of agriculture, and hence this symbol served as a reminder of the importance of tradition, work and the legitimacy of the king.



This symbol consists of a column made up of a wide base which narrows at the top, crossed by parallel lines (usually four). Known as ‘the god’s backbone’, it represents stability, fertility, resurrection and eternal life (harking back to the god Osiris). It was often painted on sarcophagi to help the dead pass onto the afterlife.



Sesen is the beautiful lotus flower often depicted in Egyptian artworks. It symbolises creation, life, and rebirth, and dates back to the Early Dynastic Period. The flower closes up at night, sinking below the water as it rests, and then reappears at daybreak. Because of this, it has been associated with the sun, rebirth and life itself. It was often painted on canopic jars along with the Four Sons of Horus, as well as temples, amulets and shrines. It is also known as Upper Egypt’s symbol, whereas the papyrus plant is associated with Lower Egypt.



Also referred to as the ‘knot’ or ‘blood’ of Isis, the tjet looks like an ankh with arms. It is associated with Isis, the goddess of fertility, motherhood, healing and rebirth. Because it was considered a symbol of protection, it was often coupled with the ankh – providing the security of both Osiris and Isis.



Another knotted symbol, the shen consists of a circle of rope which symbolises infinity, completeness and protection. Translating to ‘encircle’, this symbol was often worn as a protective amulet – gods such as Isis and Nekhbet are often seen with one in artworks. It was also used on tombs, temples and sarcophagi. It is believed this symbol was popular due to its attractive symmetry, which was valued at the time.



This symbol depicts a ceremonial staff with a forked end and an animal-like head, and is often placed along with the ankh, or in the hands of a god (often Set or Anubis). It represents dominion and power, and is also considered responsible for taking care of the deceased it was often used as tomb equipment. Real was sceptres made of wood or faience have also been found.

Egyptian numerals

Of course the same symbols might mean something different in a different context, so "an eye" might mean "see" while "an ear" might signify "sound".

The Egyptians had a bases 10 system of hieroglyphs for numerals. By this we mean that they has separate symbols for one unit, one ten, one hundred, one thousand, one ten thousand, one hundred thousand, and one million.

Here are the numeral hieroglyphs.

To make up the number 276 , for example, fifteen symbols were required: two "hundred" symbols, seven "ten" symbols, and six "unit" symbols. The numbers appeared thus:

276 in hieroglyphs.

4622 in hieroglyphs.

Note that the examples of 276 and 4622 in hieroglyphs are seen on a stone carving from Karnak, dating from around 1500 BC, and now displayed in the Louvre in Paris.

As can easily be seen, adding numeral hieroglyphs is easy. One just adds the individual symbols, but replacing ten copies of a symbol by a single symbol of the next higher value. Fractions to the ancient Egyptians were limited to unit fractions ( with the exception of the frequently used 2 3 largefrac<2><3> ormalsize 3 2 ​ and less frequently used 3 4 largefrac<3><4> ormalsize 4 3 ​ ) . A unit fraction is of the form 1 n largefrac<1> ormalsize n 1 ​ where n n n is an integer and these were represented in numeral hieroglyphs by placing the symbol representing a "mouth", which meant "part", above the number. Here are some examples:

We should point out that the hieroglyphs did not remain the same throughout the two thousand or so years of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. This civilisation is often broken down into three distinct periods:

Old Kingdom - around 2700 BC to 2200 BC
Middle Kingdom - around 2100 BC to 1700 BC
New Kingdom - around 1600 BC to 1000 BC

Numeral hieroglyphs were somewhat different in these different periods, yet retained a broadly similar style.

Another number system, which the Egyptians used after the invention of writing on papyrus, was composed of hieratic numerals. These numerals allowed numbers to be written in a far more compact form yet using the system required many more symbols to be memorised. There were separate symbols for

Here are versions of the hieratic numerals

With this system numbers could be formed of a few symbols. The number 9999 had just 4 hieratic symbols instead of 36 hieroglyphs. One major difference between the hieratic numerals and our own number system was the hieratic numerals did not form a positional system so the particular numerals could be written in any order.

Here is one way the Egyptians wrote 2765 in hieratic numerals

Here is a second way of writing 2765 in hieratic numerals with the order reversed

Like the hieroglyphs, the hieratic symbols changed over time but they underwent more changes with six distinct periods. Initially the symbols that were used were quite close to the corresponding hieroglyph but their form diverged over time. The versions we give of the hieratic numerals date from around 1800 BC. The two systems ran in parallel for around 2000 years with the hieratic symbols being used in writing on papyrus, as for example in the Rhind papyrus and the Moscow papyrus, while the hieroglyphs continued to be used when carved on stone.

Coloring the Cartouche

O nce the cartouche and hieroglyphs are drawn, you are ready to apply color.

In contrast to the weathered look we created for our Egyptian Art Lesson, the painting technique that we have used here gives a fresher look to your images - the sharp clean look that Ancient Egyptian paintings would have had when they were first painted.

These images were colored using designer's gouache, an opaque watercolor paint which is ideal for applying flat areas of color. The black line work was done afterwards with a felt pen.


Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

hieroglyph, a character used in a system of pictorial writing, particularly that form used on ancient Egyptian monuments. Hieroglyphic symbols may represent the objects that they depict but usually stand for particular sounds or groups of sounds. Hieroglyph, meaning “sacred carving,” is a Greek translation of the Egyptian phrase “the god’s words,” which was used at the time of the early Greek contacts with Egypt to distinguish the older hieroglyphs from the handwriting of the day (demotic). Modern usage has extended the term to other writing systems, such as Hieroglyphic Hittite, Mayan hieroglyphs, and early Cretan. There is no connection between Egyptian hieroglyphs and these other scripts, the only certain derivative from the Egyptian writing being that used for Meroitic.

A brief treatment of hieroglyphs follows. For full treatment, see hieroglyphic writing.

Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was composed entirely of pictures, though the object depicted cannot be identified in every instance. The earliest examples that can be read show the hieroglyphs used as actual writing, that is, with phonetic values, and not as picture writing such as that of the Eskimos or American Indians. The origins of the script are not known. It apparently arose in the late predynastic period (just before 2925 bce ). There were contacts between Egypt and Mesopotamia at this time, and it has been thought that the concept of writing was borrowed from the Sumerians. This is certainly possible, but, even if this was the case, the two systems were so different in their use of signs that it is clear that they developed independently.

Except for names and a few titles, the oldest inscriptions cannot be read. In many cases individual hieroglyphs were used that are familiar from later periods, but the meaning of the inscription as a whole is obscure. It is apparent that this writing did not represent the sounds as completely as was the case later.

In the period of the 3rd dynasty (c. 2650–c. 2575 bce ), many of the principles of hieroglyphic writing were regularized. From that time on, until the script was supplanted by an early version of Coptic (about the 3rd and 4th centuries ce ), the system remained virtually unchanged. Even the number of signs used remained constant at about 700 for more than 2,000 years. With the rise of Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries ce came the decline and ultimate demise not only of the ancient Egyptian religion but of its hieroglyphics as well. The use, by the Egyptian Christians, of an adapted form of the Greek alphabet, caused a correspondingly widespread disuse of the native Egyptian script. The last known use of hieroglyphics is on an inscription dated 394 ce .

Hieroglyphic writing followed four basic principles. First, a hieroglyph could be used in an almost purely pictorial way. The sign of a man with his hand to his mouth might stand for the word “eat.” Similarly, the word “sun” would be represented by a large circle with a smaller circle in its centre. Second, a hieroglyph might represent or imply another word suggested by the picture. The sign for “sun” could as easily serve as the sign for “day” or as the name of the sun god Re. The sign for “eat” could also represent the more conceptual word “silent” by suggesting the covering of the mouth. Third, the signs also served as representatives of words that shared consonants in the same order. Thus the Egyptian words for “man” and “be bright,” both spelled with the same consonants, hg, could be rendered by the same hieroglyph. Fourth, the hieroglyphs stood for individual or combinations of consonants.

It is arguable whether the ancient Greeks or Romans understood hieroglyphics. The Greeks almost certainly did not, since, from their viewpoint, hieroglyphics were not phonetic signs but symbols of a more abstruse and allegorical nature. The humanist revival of the European Middle Ages, although it produced a set of Italian-designed hieroglyphics, gave no further insight into the original Egyptian ones.

The first attempt to decipher hieroglyphics, based on the assumption that they were indeed phonetic symbols, was made by the German scholar Athanasius Kircher in the mid-1600s. Despite his initial correct hypothesis, he correctly identified only one symbol.

Egyptian Art (3100 BCE - 395 CE)

Hypostyle Hall, Karnak temple,
Luxor. (Begun 16th century BCE)
The photo clearly illustrates the
massive scale of monumental
Egyptian architecture, which
dwarfs anything erected at the
time in Europe.

Scene from the Book of the Dead
(Thebes Dynasty c.1000 BCE)

A major contributor to late Neolithic art, Egyptian culture is probably the best known form of ancient art in the Mediterranean basin, before the advent of Greek civilization (c.600 BCE). Ancient Egyptian architecture, for example, is world famous for the extraordinary Egyptian Pyramids, while other features unique to the art of Ancient Egypt include its writing script based on pictures and symbols (hieroglyphics), and its meticulous hieratic style of painting and stone carving. Egyptian civilization was shaped by the geography of the country as well as the political, social and religious customs of the period. Protected by its desert borders and sustained by the waters of the Nile, Egyptian arts and crafts developed largely unhindered (by external invasion or internal strife) over many centuries. The Pharaoh (originally meaning 'palace') was worshipped as a divine ruler (supposedly the incarnation of the god Horus), but typically maintained firm control through a strict bureaucratic hierarchy, whose members were often appointed on merit.

For a contemporary comparison, see: Mesopotamian Art (c.4500-539 BCE) and Mesopotamian Sculpture (c.3000-500 BCE). For oriental painting, pottery and sculpture, see: Chinese Art. See also: Neolithic Art in China (7500 on) and also: Traditional Chinese Art.

The function of Egyptian art was twofold. First, to glorify the gods - including the Pharaoh - and facilitate human passage into the after-life. Second, to assert, propagandize and preserve the values of the day. Due to the general stability of Egyptian life and culture, all arts - including architecture and sculpture, as well as painting, metalwork and goldsmithing - were characterized by a highly conservative adherence to traditional rules, which favoured order and form over creativity and artistic expression. Decorative arts included the first examples of Nail Art.

Fayum Mummy Portrait (Louvre)
From c.100-200 CE, after the Rules
of Painting were relaxed under the
influence of Greek art.

For a brief review of Muslim arts
see: Islamic Art.

Ancient Egypt Timeline

1st Dynasty (2920-2770 BCE)

Horus Aha
Djer (Itit)
Djet (Wadj)
Den (Udimu)

2nd Dynasty (2770-2650 BCE)


3rd Dynasty (2650-2575 BCE)

Netjerykhet (Djoser)
Sekhemkhet (Djoser Teti)

Timeline of Ancient Egypt

Egyptian culture evolved over three thousand years, a period usually divided as follows:

The Early Dynastic Period The Old Kingdom (2680­2258 BCE) The Middle Kingdom (2134-1786 BCE) The New Kingdom (1570­1075 BCE), including the controversial Amarna Period of King Amenhotep (Akhenaton) (1350­1320 BCE). After this, came an Intermediate Period until the Ptolemaic Era (323-30 BCE) and the period of Roman rule (30 BCE - 395 CE).

Ancient Egyptian civilization is symbolized by the Pyramids, most of which were constructed during the Old and Middle Kingdom periods, when the Pharaoh's power was absolute. Even today, the full significance of these funerary monuments and tombs is imperfectly understood by archeologists and Egyptologists. Testifying to the social organization and architectural ingenuity of Ancient Egyptian culture, the Great Pyramid of Giza (c.2565 BCE) remains the sole surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as compiled by the Greek poet Antipater of Sidon.

Egyptian Artists and Craftsmen

Egyptian sculptors and painters were not artists in the modern sense of being a creative individual. Ancient Egyptian art was rather the work of paid artisans who were trained and who then worked as part of a team. The leading master craftsman might be very versatile, and capable of working in many branches of art, but his part in the production of a statue or the decoration of a tomb was anonymous. He would guide his assistants as they worked, and help to train novices, but his personal contribution cannot be assessed. Artists at all stages of their craft worked together. The initial outline sketch or drawing would be executed by one or more, who would then be followed by others carving the intermediate and final stages. Painters would follow in the same manner. Where scenes have been left unfinished it is possible to see the corrections made to the work of less-skilled hands by more practised craftsmen. Many master craftsmen reached positions of influence and social importance, as we know from their own funerary monuments. Imhotep, the architect who built the Step Pyramid complex for King Zoser, 2660-2590 BC, was so highly revered in later times that he was deified. The credit for any work of art, however, was believed to belong to the patron who had commissioned it.

4th Dynasty (2575-2467 BCE)

Khufu (Cheops)

5th Dynasty (2465-2323 BCE)

Neferirkare Kakai
Shepseskare Ini
Niuserre Izi
Djedkare Izezi

6th Dynasty (2323-2152 BCE)

Pepy I
Merenre Nemtyemzaf
Pepy II

(7th-11th Dynasties)
(2150-1986 BCE)

Neferkare II
Neferkare III
Djedkare II
Neferkare IV
Menkamin I
Neferkare V
Neferkare VI
Neferkamin II
Ibi I
Neferirkare II

11th Dynasty (1986-1937 BCE)

Inyotef I
Inyotef II
Inyotef III
Mentuhotep I
Mentuhotep II
Mentuhotep III
Mentuhotep IV

12th Dynasty (1937-1759 BCE)

Amenemhet I
Senusret I
Amenemhet II
Senusret II
Senusret III
Amenemhet III
Amenemhet IV

(13th-17th Dynasties)
(1759-1539 BCE)

Amenemhat V
Sehetepibre I
Amenemhat VI
Sehetepibre II
Sobekhotep I
Hor I
Amenemhat VII
Sobekhotep II
Antef IV
Sobekhotep III
Neferhotep I
Sobekhotep IV
Sobekhotep V
Ini I
Sobekhotep VI
Dedumes I
Ibi II
Hor II
Sekhanre I

Egyptian civilization was highly religious. Thus most Egyptian artworks involve the depiction of many gods and goddesses - of whom the Pharaoh was one. In addition, the Egyptian respect for order and conservative values led to the establishment of complex rules for how both Gods and humans could be represented by artists. For example, in figure painting, the sizes of figures were calculated purely by reference to the person's social status, rather than by the normal artistic rules of linear perspective. The same formula for painting the human figure was used over hundreds if not thousands of years. Head and legs always in profile eyes and upper body viewed from the front. For Egyptian sculpture and statues, the rules stated that male statues should be darker than female ones when seated, the subject's hands should be on knees. Gods too were depicted according to their position in the hierarchy of deities, and always in the same guise. For instance, Horus (the sky god) was always represented with a falcon's head, Anubis (the god of funeral rites) was always depicted with a jackal's head.

The use of colour in Egyptian paintings was also regulated and used symbolically. Egyptian artists used six colours in their paintings red, green, blue, yellow, white and black. Red, being the colour of power, symbolized life and victory, as well as anger and fire. Green symbolized new life, growth, and fertility, while blue symbolized creation and rebirth, and yellow symbolized the eternal, such as the qualities of the sun and gold. Yellow was the colour of Ra and of all the pharaohs, which is why the sarcophagi and funeral masks were made of gold to symbolize the everlasting and eternal pharaoh who was now a god. White was the colour of purity, symbolizing all things sacred, and was typically used used in religious objects and tools used by the priests. Black was the colour of death and represented the underworld and the night.

For details of the colour pigments used by painters in Ancient Egypt, see: Egyptian Colour Palette.

Egyptian Arts And The Afterlife

Nearly all of Ancient Egypt's surviving paintings were discovered in tombs of the pharaohs or high governmental officials, and portrays scenes of the afterlife. Known as funerary art, these pictures depicted the narrative of life after death as well as things like servants, boats and food to help the deceased in their trip through the after life. These paintings would be executed on papyrus, on panels, (using encaustic paint) or on walls in the form of fresco murals (using tempera). In addition, models (eg. of boats, granaries, butcher shops, and kitchens) were included in the tomb in order to guarantee the future well-being of the dead person.

As the spirit inhabited the body, the preservation of the latter against decay was also critical. The use of tightly wrapped bandages to mummify the corpse, and the removal and packaging of internal organs within ceramic canopic jars and other opulent sarcophagi became widespread among the ruling elite. All these arrangements helped to support a nationwide industry of Egyptian artists and craftsmen who laboured to produce the artworks (paintings, scultures, pottery, ceramics, jewellery and metalwork) required.

Egyptian sculpture was highly symbolic and for most of Egyptian history was not intended to be naturalistic or realistic. Sculptures and statues were made from clay, wood, metal, ivory, and stone - of which stone was the most permanent and plentiful. Many Egyptian sculptures were painted in vivid colours.

NOTE: In addition to pyramid architecture, stone sculpture, goldsmithing and the Fayum Mummy portraits, Egyptian craftsmen are also noted for their ancient pottery, especially Egyptian faience, a non-clay-based ceramic art developed in Egypt from 1500 BCE, although it began in Mesopotamia. The oldest surviving faience workshop, complete with advanced lined brick kilns, was found at Abydos in the mid-Nile area. Egyptian faience is a non-clay based ceramic composed of powdered quartz or sand, covered with a vitreous coating, often made with copper pigments to give a transparent blue or blue-green sheen. See Pottery Timeline.

The Rule of King Amenhotep (Akhenaton) (1350­1320 BCE)

Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (husband of Queen Nefertiti) triggered a sort of cultural revolution in Egypt. Born into the cult of Amon (Amen), a line that worshipped a wide range of gods, he changed his name to Akhenaton and, strengthened by his control of the army, instituted the worship only of Aten, a sun god. The Egyptian capital and royal court was moved to Amarna in Middle Egypt. All this led to a radical break with tradition, especially in the arts, such as painting and sculpture. They became more naturalistic and more dynamic than the static rule-bound art of previous eras. In particular, the Amarna style of art was characterized by a sense of movement and activity. Portraits of Egyptian nobles ceased to be idealized, and some were even caricatured. The presence of Aten in many pictures was represented by a golden disc shining down from above.

After the death of Akhenaton, the next Pharaoh - the child Tutankhaten - was persuaded to move back to Memphis and change his name to Tutankhamen, thus reverting to Amon. As a result, Egyptian painters and sculptors largely returned to the old traditions which continued until the Hellenistic era from 323 BCE onwards.

NOTE: To compare earlier Middle Eastern works of Sumerian art (c.3,000 BCE), please see the Ram in a Thicket (c.2500 BCE, British Museum, London), Kneeling Bull with Vessel (3,000 BCE, Metropolitan Museum, New York) and The Guennol Lioness (3000 BCE, Private Collection). For contemporaneous sculpture, see for instance the Human-headed Winged Bull and Lion (859 BCE) from Ashurnasirpal's palace at Nimrud, and the alabaster reliefs of lion-hunts featuring Ashurnasirpal II and Ashurbanipal, both characteristic examples of Assyrian art (c.1500-612 BCE).

Hellenistic Era (c.323-27 BCE)

The influence of Greek Hellenistic art on Egyptian artists, a process accelerated during the Ptolemaic Era, encouraged the naturalistic representation of individuals in paintings and sculpture, not unlike the process initiated by Akhenaton. Portraits became realistic and the rules of colour were relaxed. This trend was further encouraged by the practical Roman style of art.

The most famous example of Hellenistic-Egyptian painting during the era of classical antiquity, is the series of Fayum Mummy Portraits, discovered mainly around the Faiyum basin, west of the Nile, near Cairo. A type of naturalistic portraiture, strongly influenced by Greek art, notably Hellenistic Greek painting (323-27 BCE), Fayum portraits were attached to the burial cloth of the deceased person. Preserved by the exceptionally dry conditions, these paintings represent the largest single body of original art which has survived from Antiquity.

Collections of Egyptian artworks can be seen in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo the British Museum, London the Louvre Museum, Paris the Agyptisches Museum, Berlin the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Apachnan (Khian)
Apophis (Auserre Apepi)

Pepi III
Nikare II

Antef V
Sobekemzaf I
Mentuhotep VII
Nebirau I
Nebirau II
Sobekemzaf II
Antef VI
Antef VII
Tao I
Tao II

18th Dynasty (1539-1295 BCE)

Amenhotep I
Thutmose I
Thutmose II
Thutmose III
Amenhotep II
Thutmose IV
Amenhotep III
Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten
Ay (Kheperkheperure)

Note: The rulers of Egypt were not
called Pharaohs by their own people.
This word was only used by the
Greeks and Hebrews. However,
today it is the accepted term for
for all the ancient Kings of Egypt.

19th Dynasty (1295-1186 BCE)

Ramesses I
Seti I
Ramesses II
Seti II

20th Dynasty (1186-1069 BCE)

Ramesses III
Ramesses IV
Ramesses V
Ramesses VI
Ramesses VII
Ramesses VIII
Ramesses IX
Ramesses X
Ramesses XI

Egyptian Painting & Sculpture: A Brief Survey

The earliest incised figures and scenes in relief date from prehistoric times when slate cosmetic panels and combs of wood, bone, and ivory were buried in the graves of their owners. These were carved in the simple, effective outlines of species familiar to the people of the Nile Valley - antelopes, ibex, fish, and birds. More elaborate ivory combs and the ivory handles of flint knives which probably had some ceremonial purpose were carved in relief, the scene standing out from its background.

By the end of the prehistoric period Egyptian sculpture was unmistakable, although up to this point there had been no great architectural monuments on which the skill of the sculptors could be displayed. From the meagre evidence of a few carvings on fragments of bone and ivory we know that the gods were worshipped in shrines constructed of bundles of reeds. The chieftains of prehistoric Egypt probably lived in similar structures, very like the ones still found in the marshes of South Arabia.

The work of sculptors was displayed in the production of ceremonial mace-heads and palettes, carved to commemorate victories and other important events and dedicated to the gods. They show that the distinctive sculptural style, echoed in all later periods of Egyptian history, had already emerged, and the convention of showing the human figure partly in profile and partly in frontal view was well-established. The significance of many details cannot yet be fully explained, but representations of the king as a powerful lion or a strong bull are often repeated in Dynastic times.

Early royal reliefs, showing the king smiting his enemies or striding forward in ritual pose, are somewhat stilted, but by the 3rd Dynasty techniques were already very advanced. Most surviving examples are in stone, but the wooden panels found in the tomb of Hesire at Saqqara, 2660-2590 BCE, show the excellence achieved by master craftsmen (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). These figures, standing and seated, carved according to the conventions of Egyptian ideals of manhood, emphasized in different ways the different elements of the human form. The head, chest, and legs are shown in profile, but the visible eye and the shoulders are depicted as if seen from the front, while the waist and hips are in three-quarter view. However, this artificial pose does not look awkward because of the preservation of natural proportion. The excellence of the technique, shown in the fine modelling of the muscles of face and body, bestows a grace upon what might otherwise seem rigid and severe. Hesire, carrying the staff and sceptre of his rank together with the palette and pen case symbolizing his office of royal scribe, gazes proudly and confidently into eternity. The care of the craftsman does not stop with the figure of his patron, for the hieroglyphs making up the inscription giving the name and titles of the deceased are also carved with delicacy and assurance, and are fine representations in miniature of the animals, birds, and objects used in ancient Egyptian writing. The animals and birds used as hieroglyphs are shown in true profile.

The great cemeteries of Gizeh and Saqqara in which the nobles and court officials were buried near their kings, provide many examples of the skill of the craftsmen of the 4th, 5th, and 6th Dynasties, a skill rarely equaled in later periods. The focus of these early tombs was a slab of stone carved with a representation of the deceased sitting in front of a table of offerings. The latter were usually placed above the false door, through which the spirit of the dead person, called the ka, might continue to enter and leave the tomb. The idea behind this was that the magical representation of offerings on the stelae, activated by the correct religious formulas, would exist for the rest of eternity, together with the ka of the person to whom they were made.

In single scenes, or in works filling a wall from ceiling to floor, every figure had its proper place and was not permitted to overflow its allotted space. One of the most notable achievements of Egyptian craftsmen was the way they filled the space available in a natural, balanced way, so that scenes full of life never seem to be cramped or overcrowded.

The horizontal sequences or registers of scenes arranged on either side of the funerary stelae and false doors in 5th-Dynasty and 6th-Dynasty tombs are full of lively and natural detail. Here the daily life of peasant and noble was caught for eternity by the craftsman - the action of herdsman and fisherman frozen in mid-step, so that the owner of the tomb would always be surrounded by the daily bustle of his estate. The subjects were intended to be typical of normal events, familiar scenes rather than special occasions.

Egyptian craftsmen did not employ perspective to suggest depth and distance, but they did establish a convention whereby several registers, each with its own base line, could be used to depict a crowd of people. Those in the lowest register were understood to be nearest to the viewer, those in the highest furthest away. A number of these scenes occur in the Old Kingdom: many offering-bearers bring the produce of their estates to a deceased noble at his funerary table, for instance, or troops of men are shown hauling a great statue. Statues represented in reliefs, like the hieroglyphs, are shown in true
profile, in contrast to the figures of the men hauling them. Perhaps the best-known scenes showing nearness and distance, however, are the painted banqueting scenes of the New Kingdom, where the numerous guests, dressed in their finest clothes, sit in serried ranks in front of their hosts.

The registers could also be used to present various stages in a developing sequence of action, rather like the frames of a strip cartoon. In the Old Kingdom, the important events of the agricultural year follow each other across the walls of many tombs: ploughing, sowing, harvesting, and threshing the grain are all faithfully represented. The herdsmen are shown at work in the pastures caring for the cattle so prized by the ancient Egyptians, while other scenes depict the trapping of waterfowl in the Nile marshes and fishing in the river itself. Other domestic activities, such as baking and brewing, also vital to the eternal existence of the dead noble are represented other scenes show carpenters, potters, and jewellers at work.

It was in these scenes of everyday life that the sculptor was able to use his initiative, and free himself to some extent from the ties of convention. The dead man and his family had to be presented in ritual poses as described - larger than life, strictly proportioned, and always calm and somewhat aloof.

The rural workers on the estates, however, could be shown at their daily asks in a more relaxed manner, capturing something of the liveliness and energy that must have characterized the ancient Egyptians. While the offering-bearers, symbolizing the funerary gifts from the estates to their lord, are depicted moving towards him in formal and stately procession, the peasants at work in the fields seem both sturdy and vigorous. They lean to the plough and beat the asses, tend the cattle and carry small calves on their shoulders clear of the danger of crocodiles lurking in the marshes.

The natural details used to fill odd corners in these tomb scenes show how much pleasure the ancient Egyptian craftsmen took in observing their environment. Birds, insects, and clumps of plants were all used to balance and complete the picture. The results of sharp-eyed observation can be seen in the details that distinguish the species of birds and fish thronging the reeds and shallow water of the marshes.

21st Dynasty (1070-945 BCE)

Psusennes I
Pinedjem I
Smendes II
Psusennes II
Pinedjem II
Psusennes III

22nd Dynasty (945-712 BCE)

Shoshenq I
Osorkon I
Shoshenq II
Osorkon II
Takelot II
Shoshenq III
Shoshenq IV
Osorkon IV

23rd Dynasty (828-725 BCE)

Pedubaste I
Osorkon IV

24th Dynasty (725-715 BCE)

Shepsesre Tefnakht I
Wahkare Bakenranef

25th Dynasty (712-657 BCE)


26th Dynasty (664-525 BCE)

Psammetichus I
Nekau II
Psammetichus II
Psammetichus III

27th Dynasty (525-404 BCE)

Cambyses 525-522
Darius I 521-486
Xerxes I 486-466
Artaxerxes I 465-424
Darius II 424-404

28th Dynasty (404-399 BCE)

29th Dynasty (399-380 BCE)

Nepherites I
Nepherites II

30th Dynasty (380-343 BCE)
The last Egyptian-born rulers

Nectanebo I
Nectanebo II

31st Dynasty (343-332 BCE)

Ochus (Artaxerxes III)
Darius III Codomannus

Little survives of the reliefs that decorated the royal temples of the early 5th Dynasty, but from the funerary temple of the first king, Userkaf, c.2,460 BCE, comes a fragment from a scene of hunting in the marshes (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). The air above the graceful heads of the papyrus reeds is alive with birds, and the delicate carving makes them easily distinguishable even without the addition of colour. A hoopoe, ibis, kingfisher, and heron are unmistakable, and a large butterfly hovering above provides the final touch.

The tradition of finely detailed decoration in low relief, the figures standing out slightly above the background, continued through the 6th-Dynasty and into the Middle Kingdom, when it was particularly used for royal monuments. Few fragments of these remain, but the hieroglyphs carved on the little chapel of Sesostris I, now reconstructed at Karnak, show the sure and delicate touch of master craftsmen. During the late Old Kingdom, low relief was combined with other techniques such as incision, in which lines were simply cut into the stone, especially in non-royal monuments, and the result is often artistically very pleasing. The limestone funerary stela of Neankhteti, c.2,250 BCE, is a fine example (Merseyside County Museums, Liverpool). The major part of the stela, the figure and the horizontal inscription above it, is in low relief, but an incised vertical panel of hieroglyphs repeats his name with another title, and the symbol for scribe, the palette and pen, needed for the beginning of both lines, is used only once, at the point at which the lines intersect. The result is a perfectly balanced design, and a welcome variation in the types of stelae carved during the Old Kingdom.

A further development is shown in the stela of Hotep, carved during the Middle Kingdom, 2000-1800 BCE (Merseyside County Museums, Liverpool). The figures of three standing officials and the hieroglyphic signs have been crisply incised into the hard red granite. Originally the signs and figures would have been filled with blue pigment, to contrast sharply with the polished red surface of the stone.

During the Middle Kingdom the use of sunk relief came into fashion, and in the 18th and early 19th Dynasties it was employed to great effect. The background was not cut away as in low relief to leave the figures standing above the level of the rest of the surface. Instead the relief design was cut down into the smoothed surface of the stone. In the strong Egyptian sunlight the carved detail would stand out well, but the sunk relief was better protected from the weather and was therefore more durable.

Painting in ancient Egypt followed a similar pattern to the development of scenes in carved relief, and the two techniques were often combined. The first examples of painting occur in the prehistoric period, in the patterns and scenes on pottery. We depend very much for our evidence on what has survived, and fragments are necessarily few because of the fragile nature of the medium. Parts of two scenes depicting figures and boats are known, one on linen and one on a tomb wall. Panels of brightly coloured patterns survive on the walls of royal tombs of the 1st Dynasty, the patterns representing the mats and woven hangings that decorated the walls of large houses. These patterns occur again and again throughout Egyptian history in many different ways. Some of the finest may be seen on the sides of the rectangular wooden coffins found in the tombs of Middle Kingdom nobles at Beni Hasan and elsewhere, c.2,000-1800 BCE.

Egyptian Tomb Painting

The earliest representational paintings in the unmistakable traditional Egyptian style date from the 3rd and 4th Dynasties. The most famous are probably the fragments from the tomb of Itet at Medum, c.2,725 BCE, showing groups of geese which formed part of a large scene of fowling in the marshes (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). The geese, of several different species, stand rather stiffly among clumps of stylized vegetation, but the markings are carefully picked out, and the colours are natural and subtle.

Throughout the Old Kingdom, paint was used to decorate and finish limestone reliefs, but during the 6th Dynasty painted scenes began to supersede relief in private tombs for economic reasons. It was less expensive to commission scenes painted directly on walls of tombs, although their magic was just as effective.

During the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom, the rectangular wooden coffins of nobles were often painted with elaborate care, turning them into real houses for the spirits of the dead. Their exteriors bore inscriptions giving the names and titles of their owners, and invoking the pro-tection of various gods. The remaining surface areas were covered with brightly painted panels imitating the walls of houses hung with woven mats, and incorporating windows and doors in complicated geometric patterns. Great attention was paid to the "false door" situated at the head end of the coffin through which the ka would be able to enter and leave as it pleased. This panel always included the two sacred eyes of the falcon sky-god Horus, which would enable the dead to look out into the living world.

The interior surfaces of the coffins were sometimes painted with the offerings made to the dead, ensuring that these would continue in the afterlife. An offering table piled with bread, meat, and vegetables was the central feature. A list of ritual offerings was also important, and personal possessions such as weapons, staffs of office, pottery and stone vessels, and items of clothing were all shown in detail. Headcloths were painted at the head end, and spare pairs of sandals at the feet.

These coffins were placed in the small rock-cut chambers of Upper Egyptian tombs, where the stone is often too rough or crumbly to provide a good surface for painting. Fragments of painted murals do survive, however, and some tombs have lively scenes of hunting in the desert or of agricultural work. Acute observation also produced unusual subjects such as men wrestling or boys playing games, shown in sequence like a series of stills from a moving film. Others are painted with outstanding skill. Part of a marsh scene in a tomb at Beni Hasan, c.1,800 BCE, shows a group of birds in an acacia tree. The frond-like leaves of the tree are delicately painted, and the birds, three shrikes, a hoopoe, and a redstart, are easily identifiable.

Tomb painting really came into its own, however, during the New Kingdom, particularly in the tombs of the great necropolis at Thebes. Here the limestone was generally too poor and flaky for relief carving, but the surface could be plastered to provide a ground for the painter. As always, the traditional conventions were observed, particularly in the formal scenes depicting the dead man where he appears larger than his family and companions. Like the men who carved the Old Kingdom reliefs, however, the painters could use their imaginations for the minor details that filled in the larger scenes. Birds and animals in the marshes, usually depicted in profile, have their markings carefully hatched in, giving an impression of real fur and feathers and their actions are sometimes very realistic. In the tomb of Nebamun, c.1,400 BCE, a hunting cat, already grasping birds in its claws, leaps to seize a duck in its mouth.

Fragments illustrating a banquet from the same tomb give the impression that the painter not only had outstanding skill but a particular delight in experimenting with unusual detail. The noble guests sit in formal rows, but the servants and entertainers were not so important and did not have to conform in the same way. Groups of female musicians kneel gracefully on the floor, the soles of their feet turned towards the viewer, while two in one group are shown almost full-face, which is very rare. The lightness and gaiety of the music is conveyed by their inclined heads and the apparent movement of the tiny braids of their elaborately plaited hair. Lively movement continues with the pair of young dancers, shown in profile, whose clapping hands and flying feet are depicted with great sensitivity. A further unusual feature is the shading of the soles of the musicians' feet and pleated robes.

Painting not only decorated the walls of New Kingdom tombs, but gave great beauty to the houses and palaces of the living. Frescoes of reeds, water, birds, and animals enhanced the walls, ceilings, and floors of the palaces of Amarna and elsewhere but after the 19th Dynasty there was a steady decline in the quality of such painting. On a smaller scale, painting on papyrus, furniture, and wooden coffins continued to be skillful until the latest periods of Egyptian history, though there was also much poor-quality mass-produced work.

C. Artistic Techniques of Relief Carvings and Painting

Before any carving in relief or painting could be done, the ground - whether stone or wood - had to be prepared. If the surface was good, smoothing was often enough, but any flaws had to be masked with plaster. During the New Kingdom, whole walls were plastered, and sometimes reliefs of exquisite detail were carved in the plaster itself. Usually mud plaster was used, coated with a thin layer of fine gypsum.

The next stage was the drafting, and the scenes were sketched in, often in red, using a brush or a scribe's reed pen. This phase was important, particularly when a complicated scene with many figures was planned, or when a whole wall was to be covered with scenes arranged in horizontal registers. Some craftsmen were confident enough to be able to use freehand, but more often intersecting horizontal and vertical lines were used as a guide. These could be ruled, or made by tightly holding the ends of a string dipped in pigment, and twanging it across the surface. Quite early in Egyptian history the proportions of the grid were fixed to ensure that human figures were drawn according to the fixed canon. Since the decoration in some tombs was never finished, the grid lines and sketches can be clearly seen, together with corrections made by master craftsmen.

The next stage in producing a relief was to chisel round the correct outlines and reduce the surrounding level, until the scene consisted of a series of flat shapes standing against the background in low relief. Then the final details could be carved and the surface smoothed ready for painting. Any corrections and alterations made to the carving could be hidden beneath a coat of plaster before the paint was applied.

The painter worked directly to a draft on a flat surface, and began with the background. This was filled in with one colour, grey, white, or yellow, using a brush made of a straight twig or reed with the fibres teased out. The larger areas of human figures were painted next, the skin colour applied, and the linen garments painted. Precise details, such as the markings of animals and birds or the petalled tiers of an ornamental collar, were finished with a finer brush or a pen. The pigments were prepared from natural substances such as red and yellow ochre, powdered malachite, carbon black, and gypsum. From about six basic colours it was possible to mix many intermediate shades.

The medium was water to which gum was sometimes added, and the paint was applied in areas of flat colour. During the New Kingdom delicate effects were achieved by using tiny strokes of the brush or pen to pick out animal fur or the fluffy heads of papyrus reeds. Shading was rarely used until the mid-18th Dynasty, when it was employed, particularly in crowd scenes, to suggest the fine pleating of linen garments.

Architecture: Pyramid Tombs and Temples

Egyptian architecture is world famous for its unique underground tomb design, exemplified by the Egyptian Pyramids at Giza, along with its tomb artworks (mummy paintings, sculptures, ceramics and precious metalwork) and Sphinx. All the great monumental pyramids were erected during the era of Early Egyptian Architecture, with only a handful of smaller ones being constructed in the era of in Egyptian Middle Kingdom Architecture. After this came the golden age of Egyptian New Kingdom Architecture, with its huge temple precincts at Karnak and Luxor, after which the extended period of Late Egyptian Architecture was a distinct anti-climax.

• For more about art and design in early civilizations, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

Pharaoh Akhenaten embraced a monotheistic religion centered on the worship of the sun disk, known as the Aten. Artwork from the time of his rule, known as the Amarna period, always includes the Aten in images of the pharaoh. This image is a circular disk with rays terminating in hands reaching down toward the royal family. Sometimes, although not always, the hands clutch ankhs.

Again, the meaning is clear: eternal life is a gift of the gods meant most specifically for the pharaoh and perhaps his family. (Akhenaten emphasized the role of his family much more than other pharaohs. More often, pharaohs are depicted alone or with the gods.)

Characteristics of hieroglyphic writing

The hieroglyphic writing system consists of signals that represent real objects and these can grouped into three classes. Brunner has described following characteristic of hieroglyphic .

Logogram: In this class, a single word represents its meaning and sound. Ideogram can be read as the object they symbolize such as /, “wood, stick,” or can have extended meanings, such as the sun disk, ☉, which can be interpreted as “sun’.(116-121)

Phonogram: This class signifies a sound or series of sound in the language. This group includes simple phonemes that are derived from logograms of the objects they portray and it includes biliterals and trilliteral signs (signs that represent two or three sounds.(121-125)

Determinative: This class contains determinatives that are not phonetic signs instead they are used to state meaning and help in word distribution. For example, the phonetic writing p + r + t can signify the infinitive of the verb “to go,” the name of the winter season, or the word for “fruit, seed.” The meaning of the word is signaled by a terminal determinative that also acts as a word marker: the walking legs ( ), the sun disk (☉), or the pellet sign (°), respectively Generic Determinatives are those that denotes action and movement like walking, running, eating. Egyptians scripts are a combination of all these signs and it can be modified. Egyptian writing is deprived of vowels thus its pronunciation is poorly reflected in the hieroglyphic writing system.(126-138)

Number of symbols: In the Egyptian writing total number of hieroglyphs are approximately 700, their number increased with the invention of new signs and forms. This shows that the Egyptian writing system was flexible.(139-143)

Direction of writing: Hieroglyphic inscriptions were written from right to left and this was indicated by the orientation of the signs. The right to left orientation was followed in writing the hieratic script and the reverse of this orientation was used for a decorative or religious purpose. However, Egyptian monuments were adorned according to the strict rule of symmetry, tombs and temples are usually decorated with scripts that face in the both ways, to give an illustration of axial balance. Inscriptions were written either in a vertical column or in horizontal rows considered as an ideal way of decorating the doorways, walls, and lintels. In two-dimensional scenes containing human or divine figures, the hieroglyphic scripts were written with the images to which they pertained, so images and texts were orientated in the same direction.(145-160)

Tools: The tools used for writing hieroglyphics were chisels, hammers for stone carving and brushes for colouring and painting, leather and papyrus were the writing surfaces .

Brushes were made by cutting the stems diagonally then it was chewed to shape the fibres into a brush like tip after that it was used for writing. In 3 century, BCE Greek introduced the technique of using a spilt Calamus reed for writing implements. (121-129)

Hieratic Script : Hieratic is cursive (joint writing) script writing system that was used in the origin of the Pharaohs in Egypt and Nubia. This script writing was closely associated with the hieroglyphic writing because it was developed with the hieroglyphic system and it’s written from right to left orientation .Hieratic script was easy to write about because it was mainly written in ink with a reed brush on papyrus, wood, stone or potter . In the 2 nd century, Saint Clement of Alexandria first time used the term derived from Greek phrase γράμματα ἱερατικά (grammata hieratika literally “priestly writing) because it was used for writing religious scripts (“Hieratic”), .The Edwin Smith papyrus is the world’s oldest surgical document that is written in hieratic script and it describes the explanation, examination, treatment and prognosis of forty-eight types of medical problems in fine detail.

This script contained methods and techniques for healing wounds with sutures, curing infection with bread mold and honey, stop bleeding with raw material and immobilization of head and spinal cord injuries. This document revealed that ancient Egyptian were expert in medicine and surgery. The hieratic was used for writing legal documents, governmental documents, legal texts and letter, mathematical, surgery, literary and texts. Moreover, hieratic script was written on stone, papyrus, ceramic debris and woods, leather rolls, linen.(Hieratic, 16-31)

Demotic script: Demotic is derived from the Greek work means “popular”, Egyptian called it Demotic script but Clement of Alexandria called it (epistolographikē) “letter writing” and western scholars Thomas Young called it ‘Enchorial Egyptian’.

During the reign of Amasis, it became the official administrative and legal script. During this period, Demotic was used only for administrative, legal, and commercial texts, while hieroglyphs and hieratic were reserved for other texts.( Demotic, 1-8)

The Rosetta stone (EA 24)

Date: Ptolemaic Periods -196 BC

The Rosetta stone is named after the city where it was found .It is a granite slab of 1114.4 centimeters high, 72.3 centimeters wide, and 27.9 centimeters thick. It weighs estimate 1676 pounds. In 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte was leading his French republican army into Egypt to capture it, accidentally a lieutenant Bouchard discovered a black slab of stone that had been built into the wall. He informed the archaeologists and it became one of the greatest discoveries of 18 century. The Rosetta stone had three horizontal lines with the inscriptions carved in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, with three diverse scripts on each band they were hieroglyphics, demotic script, and koine Greek. The Greek part was already known so it indicated that rest of three inscriptions contained the same message.

Figure 5 Rosetta Stone

The inscriptions on the stones were written by saint Memphis summarizing the benefactions given to Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205-180 BC) and were written in the ninth year of his reign in commemoration of his accession to the throne. In 1822 Thomas Young was the first person to explain that hieroglyphs written on the Rosetta stone were the sounds of royal name Ptolemy. In 1822 at 16 years old, Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered all the hieroglyphs. He became expert in six oriental languages as well as in Greek, Coptic, and Latin. He explained that the hieroglyphs on the stone were phonetic and had a sound that represents spoken alphabetic signs and syllables he compared the 1,419 hieroglyphics with Greek text that was less than in 500 words.

He also demonstrated that 66 words out of 1419 hieroglyphs were original while the rest were repeated. He assembled an Egyptian Grammar and dictionary for ancient prehistoric middle kingdom Egyptian hieroglyphics. In 1801 British troops defeated the French in Egypt and the original stone became British property under the Alexandria. The stone then transferred to the British Museum and it has been on public display since 1802. (Deciphering Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt)

Egyptian hieroglyphic Tables

1. Brunner, et al “hieroglyphic writing”, (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc , 2013,). (Web)

5. Goldwasser Oldy , “How the alphabet was born from hieroglyphs”,( Biblical Archaeology Review ,2010).


Allen, James P. “The Egyptian concept of the world.” Mysterious lands (2003): 23-30.

Baines, John. Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. Ed. Byron E. Shafer. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Hart, George. A dictionary of Egyptian gods and goddesses. Routledge, 2006.

Pinch, Geraldine. Handbook of Egyptian mythology. Abc-Clio, 2002.

Redford, Donald B. The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wilkinson, Richard H. The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

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