Hieroglyphics (Greek, "sacred sculptures"), the name given to the picture-writing in use amongst the ancient Egyptians. The objects depicted include human beings, birds, beasts, and fishes, the heavenly bodies, natural objects of all kinds, and articles of domestic use. There were various methods of hieroglyphic writing, but most frequently the signs were either cut out or carved in relief on stone or some other hard surface, or else drawn in outline on papyri with a reed pen. The hieroglyphs on monuments were often ornamented with colour. Those on papyri were written in black ink, a red mineral ink being employed for the rubrics and initial words. They were arranged either in horizontal or perpendicular rows, between which there were lines of black ink. The hieroglyphs were of two kinds - ideographs, which denoted the objects they portrayed or abstract notions which they would readily suggest, and phonetics, representing certain sounds. The phonetics were either alphabetic, ending in a vowel, or syllabic, ending in a consonant. A large collection of alphabetic signs is furnished by the earliest inscriptions which have been discovered, dating from 3800 B.C. An ideograph called a determinative is attached to the end of each word, generalising the conception, which is more precisely represented in the preceding phonetics. The language in which the hieroglyphs are written survived, with considerable modifications, in the form of Coptic, which was still spoken in Egypt in the 18th century. It belongs to the Hamitic group, but ei Semitic element appears to have been introduced about 1400 B.C. The ancient Egyptian literature is treated Under the heading Hermetic Books (q.v.).
The secret of hieroglyphic writing was jealously guarded by the priests, and the knowledge of Herodotus and other early writers concerning Egyptian mysteries was confined to such, facts as they chose to communicate. When Egypt became a part of the Macedonian Empire a summary of the historic events recorded in the inscriptions and MSS. was drawn up in writing, and during the reign of Augustus the Romans seem to have been furnished with the means of deciphering them for themselves, but the Egyptian monuments did not excite their curiosity to any great extent. The Stromata of Clemens Alexandrinus (211 A.D.) is the earliest work which gives any precise information as to the nature of hieroglyphic writing. He was followed by Porphyry in 304 A.D.,but from the 6th to the 17th century the study of hieroglyphics fell completely into neglect. It was revived in 1650 by Athanasius Kircher; but, as the symbols were supposed to be exclusively ideographic, no progress was made until 1787, when Zoega discovered that some of them had a phonetic value. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone (1799), with a trilingual inscription in hieroglyphics, in Semitic writing (the cursive or popular form of expressing the hieroglyphs), and in Greek, all recording the same fact, enabled scholars to pursue their investigations on more systematic lines. The phonetic theory was carried further by Young in 1818, and the subsequent researches of Champollion, Lepsius, Bunsen, Brugsch, and other students have resulted in the detailed knowledge of the subject which exists at the present time.
It is the opinion of some scholars that the Phoenician alphabet, which was passed on by them to the Greeks and other western nations, was derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphs, but this theory has not by any means been firmly established.
The Aztec mode of picture-writing differed from the Egyptian in being mainly pictorial, but a phonetic system had been to some extent developed before the Spanish conquest. The inhabitants of Central America also had a symbolic method of writing peculiar to themselves.