In Picture Theory, W.J.T. Mitchell defines the imagetext as a mutually antagonistic struggle between the word and image to convey meaning. In writing, words function as a “visible language” that can convey meaning both discursively and pictorially. For example, words can operate as arbitrary signs that require the reader to assign meaning. Words can also operate as artistic aesthetic images themselves. Hieroglyphics is an ancient Egyptian script and a premier example of a medium that combines word and image to convey meaning. Hieroglyphic script constantly switches between icon and symbol to complicate the word/image relationship. At times, characters function as icons that represent the objects they depict. At other times, characters function as arbitrary signs, requiring the reader to assign phonetic value. The amalgamation of word and image not only makes the translation of hieroglyphics difficult, but also raises interesting questions about the characteristics of this medium. It can function archeologically, providing records of ancient Egyptian life. It can function phonetically to help linguists assemble conjectured patterns of speech. Or, its ancient symbols can simply represent esoteric art that resists translation in order to preserve the mystery of the medium.
Hieroglyphic script may be divided into three categories – logograms, phonograms and determinatives (Davies, p. 102 – 105). The simplest form of hieroglyphic writing is the logogram, which is an iconic sign of the object it represents. Examples of Egyptian logograms:
Logograms can represent not only the exact object they depict, but also extensions of that image. For example, the logogram of a sun may represent the actual object of the sun, or the concept of day. The drawbacks of a pictorial writing system quickly become apparent as iconic signs fail to represent complex concepts. Logograms are sometimes used as arbitrary characters with no correlation to the object they depict. Called phonograms, these arbitrary signs convey meaning phonetically. For example, you can convert the visual images of “bee” and “leaf” into their phonetic value to create a final visual image of the word “belief.” Hieroglyphics combine phonograms and logograms to complicate the word/image relationship. In addition, hieroglyphic script uses determinatives to assist in translation. Located at the end of words, determinatives help to clarify remnants of ambiguity. For example, an icon of a male or female may be used to disambiguate names. Hieroglyphic script is a collage of logograms, phonograms and determinatives that operate under complex grammatical principles. Its unique combination of word and image has deterred translation for over a thousand years and has contributed to a mysterious veil that continues to cover this medium.
Writing systems assist in communication by transcending space and time. Writing is simply a “way of making speech permanent,” (Cottrell, p. 8). To understand the medium of hieroglyphics, I must address the element of time and the effect of time on this five-thousand-year-old medium. Developed around 3000 BC, hieroglyphics was used as a live language to tally food supplies, write poems and send letters (Cottrell, p.8). It was inscribed on papyrus and ostraca, or ancient pottery shards, and circulated throughout the land. Over time, the medium of hieroglyphics altered as it increasingly became defined by an outside world that struggled to comprehend the ancient script. The very word, hieroglyphics, comes from the Greek term ta hieroglyphica meaning the sacred carved (hiero=sacred, glyph=carved) (Davies, p. 82). This term was most likely chosen because the Greeks found most evidence of hieroglyphic writing on the walls of religious monuments (Davies, p. 82). By the time it was named, hieroglyphics assumed a unique, though not entirely accurate, identity as a mysterious, sacred writing that contained secrets of the afterlife. Yet, for three thousand years, hieroglyphics did not function primarily as a sacred writing. As Plato predicted in Phraedrus , the element of time within writing – and impact of writing on [memory, (2)] – has contributed to the transformation and contortion of this medium.
The way in which hieroglyphics transformed from a thriving, functional language into a mysterious, sacred script may best be understood by analyzing the Philosophical Writings of Peirce . In his writings, Peirce develops a theory of signs, detailing a doctrine of signs in relation to the external world they represent. Peirce describes a universal triad that exists for the dissemination of information through language: a representamen, an object and an interpretant. The representamen is, “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity,” (Peirce, p. 99). The object is what the representamen stands for. The third, and perhaps the most vulnerable to change, is the interpretant which is what appears in the mind of the person decoding the representamen. Representamens, objects and interpretants exist in a complex, dynamic relationship that becomes even more complex when applied to the ancient script of hieroglyphics. When applying Peirce’s terms to hieroglyphics, it becomes clear why translation is difficult and why the medium has changed over time. Even the most basic unit of Peirce’s triad, objects, may have changed over a five-thousand year span so that hieroglyphics are describing objects that do not exist anymore. Peirce’s concept of representamen poses a particular challenge to media theorists and linguists within hieroglyphics because of the complex amalgamation of word and image, icon and sign. And therein lies the crux of this medium – with no firm translation of hieroglyphic representamens, we are incapable of developing accurate interpretants from hieroglyphics. The medium preserves a mystery as our imaginations run wild with exaggerated interpretants. Even though linguists are making progress at decoding hieroglyphic representamen, the fact that the script was considered indecipherable for over fourteen centuries contributes to the overall mystery of this medium (Cottrell, p. 14).
To understand what distinguishes Egyptian hieroglyphic script from other ancient systems of writing, it would be helpful to compare hieroglyphics with Greek and Latin. Although Egyptian civilization flourished for five times as long as ancient Greece or Rome, the language became indecipherable for over fourteen hundred years. Conversely, Greek and Latin continued throughout history to be used and understood by the academic community. Greek and Latin can be found in numerous places, especially ancient and modern texts. Most ancient hieratic script (hieroglyphic’s everyday, cursive form) became lost because of its transcription on papyrus and ostraca. The hieroglyphic script that did survive the test of time are those signs inscribed on pyramid walls, towering obelisks and elaborate statues. These sublime, religious sites are media in themselves that inspire awe and intrigue. Using Mitchell’s idea of nesting, or mediums existing within other mediums regardless of linear relation, we begin to see how the medium of hieroglyphics nests within a larger medium of our history’s greatest religious monuments. Hieroglyphic’s location on religious monuments contributes to the aesthetic nature of the medium and detracts from its previous usage as an everyday language. While 6,000 hieroglyphics have been documented thus far, Egyptologists surmise that fewer than 1,000 of these were used with regularity. Most of the hieroglyphics that we study today were probably reserved for formal religious ceremonies and not frequently used in ancient Egyptian writing. (Davies, p. 83). If hieroglyphics were discovered in the same type of media as Greek and Latin, namely academic textual sources, hieroglyphics may have developed a much different course throughout history as a multi-faceted language – not just a “sacred writing.”
In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan describes his hallmark concept, “The medium is the message.” A great example of McLuhan’s trademark phrase, hieroglyphics is a dead language that no longer communicates meaning through its signs. The signs become the message, as each indecipherable symbol becomes a piece of art that represents mystery, magic and ancient Egypt itself. Today, the uses of the term hieroglyphics have expanded beyond its traditional usage to define ancient Egyptian script. It’s used as an adjective to describe writing that is hard to decipher. It’s also used as a noun to describe a symbol with a secret meaning (in the form hieroglyph) OED. As the word assumes these expanded definitions its frequent usage will perpetuate a shroud of mystery around hieroglyphic script. Even if the ancient script were deciphered word-for-word with complete accuracy, the medium is likely to retain an association with mystery, a mystical afterlife, and magical powers. Books and movies use ancient Egyptian settings, especially tombs, as trademark backdrops for mummies and mysteries, and adventures in history. Museums develop elaborate exhibitions on ancient Egypt, using special effects that contribute to an esoteric, ancient culture. Legends have developed describing ancient curses that protect Egyptian tombs. With the advanced skills of today’s linguists, ancient hieroglyphic script does not have to stay quite so mysterious. It stays that way because we want it to. Perhaps we resist a thorough translation for fear of finding less than history has claimed to be there in this medium that supposedly contains the secrets of human history.
Cottrell, Leonard, Reading the Past – The Story of Deciphering Ancient Languages. New York: Crowell-Collier Press. 1971.
Davies, W.V., Reading the Past – Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet (chapter on Egyptian Hieroglyphics). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002.
Mitchell, W.J.T., Picture Theory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1994.
Peirce, Charles S., Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1955.
Plato. The Dialogues of Plato. New York: Random House, Inc. 1937.