Monday, April 05, 2010

Art & Culture: Hieroglyph Detective by Nigel Strudwick

Picture this: you wake up deep inside a pyramid with only a single clue as to how you got there: there are hieroglyphs plainly visible on the wall but -- alas! -- you have no way to read them. What an Earth do you do?

Well, if you’re lucky and had a bit of foresight before heading out on your locked-in-pyramid adventure, you will have packed a copy of Egyptologist Nigel Strudwick’s handy field guide Hieroglyph Detective: How to Decode the Sacred Language of the Ancient Egyptians (Chronicle Books). With an extra bit of luck, you’ll have had time to study it on the plane during your journey. Or the barge, as the case may be.

And yes, of course: while most of us are quite unlikely to find ourselves awakening in a tomb, there is still a place in the world for this innovative and expertly creative little book. From the introduction:
The aim of this book is to provide a practical, easy-to-follow guide to Egyptian hieroglyphics, giving readers sufficient grounding in the pictorial script to enable them to decipher for themselves some of the many inscriptions they will encounter while pursuing their interest in this fascinating civilization.
One of the things I found really interesting about Hieroglyph Detective is the way it made me think about written language. At a time when many people are in a panic about the state of the book, it is informative to read about one of the most ancient forms of written communication and realize that, as up-in-the-air as things might seem right now, the literacy our culture enjoys has likely never been higher. That is to say that looking at the long-ago can help put things in perspective:
Literacy was restricted to a learned elite, which would have included the king and his officials, particularly scribes. It is thought that as little as one percent of the ancient Egyptian population was literate.
Hieroglyph Detective is a fascinating and informative book. Those with an interest in Egyptology and language will be entranced.

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Anonymous Rhonda Ganz said...

In the seventies, a friend of mine assigned a letter/sound to each of more than a dozen hieroglyphics and sent me the key. We corresponded for several months using just hieroglyphics. I've kept those letters somewhere, they are works of art. At the time she was making silver cartouche necklaces using the phonetic glyphs to spell out people’s names.

Sunday, April 11, 2010 at 9:21:00 AM PDT  

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