How hieroglyphics were deciphered
of reading - words
We have already seen how the "Age of the Consuls" attracted the attention of Europagracias to the treasures that flowed into museums and private collections. Curiosity about Egypt was constantly fed back, as the more people talked about the land of the Pharaohs, the more interest developed. Even the "simple" travellers, who collected information on the places visited with their descriptions and drawings, contributed their grain of sand. A help that was more than welcomed by the nascent Egyptological science because there was much to know. The Egyptian civilization had existed for more than three thousand years and possessed a great number of peculiarities, but the more than one thousand years of silence weighed against it. Therefore it is fair to recognize that people like Caillaud, Forbin, Linan de Bellefonds, Gau, Huyot, Bankes, Barry, Hay, Burton, Hoskins, David Roberts, Lane, Finati or Cronstrand, names in great number forgotten by historiography, helped Egyptology to reach so far.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that the pieces and news do not complete the flow necessary for research. Sculptures, temples, paintings and mummies were valuable in themselves, especially when their archaeological context was studied, but they had to be "made to speak". Or put another way: there was the problem of textual sources. Since the writings on Egypt and its customs were from Greeks and Romans, the information they provided was partial and very late. What did the inhabitants of the Nile mean when they embodied their writing in statues, steles and temples? And why weren't epigraphs always placed in visible places?was it just one type of writing or were there variants? All these questions and a few more had already been answered in the centuries of the so-called Middle Ages, but without much progress. The hieroglyphics were too complex and there were no recognizable patterns, so it was thought to be a kind of symbolic and magical graphics.
The first step for the knowledge of the different types of writing of Ancient Egypt had to overcome some important pitfalls. The best known and most interesting to scholars for centuries was a document called by some as "Corpus Hermeticum" or "Hermetic". Its author, a mythical character, was called Hermes Trimegistus or what is the same, Hermes "the three times great". The god Hermes, in Hellenic mythology, was among other things the patron of writing and therefore the key to knowledge, assimilated with the Egyptian Tot. In his texts this character, whose identification is still ignored, proposed a series of foundations and keys to be able to read the Egyptian texts.
The problem was the difficulty of the manual, which, being cryptic, was enormous. It was explained as a filter that had to be saved in order to reach wisdom, summed up in the principle that such knowledge was not within reach of everything and only the most worthy could reach the necessary "state of grace". Trismegistus, moreover, held that hieroglyphics were symbolic and did not transmit precise information or represented sounds, a fact that was taken very seriously by scholars for centuries and that led them astray from the right path. The magic of this Hermes was false and his wisdom, more than illuminating, cast new shadows. Curiously some of these beliefs have fossilized in time. Even the very name by which we identify them alludes to something sacred. "Hieroglyphic" comes from an evolution of the Hellenistic terms "hierós" -which could be approached as "sacred or relative to the divine plane"-, and "glyfein" -or "grabar"-.
In the 17th century, when many European countries were disenchanted with Renaissance values, a new figure appeared that blurred things even more. Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit and one of the great scholars of his time, was interested, among other things, in the world of Ancient Egypt and the supposed transcendental and magical wisdom it contained. But the material at his disposal was not very good, and following the studies of Fabri de Peiresc, he advocated the interpretation of hieroglyphics as mystical symbols that contained primitive knowledge that men had forgotten.
In his "Oedipus Aegyptiacus" (1653-54) he held up these ideas with examples he found in the few epigraphic samples in Europe at the time. His "translation" of signs and reliefs was so complex that he made his analysis tremendously subjective and with a high index of divergences. But what can be advocated in its favour was the enormous contribution it made to the Coptic language, an evolution of the Egyptian language that already in the third century of Our Era had its own entity. His writing used the Hellenistic spelling, but the language could be a very valuable piece in this puzzle.
Bernard de Montfaucon also saw the light in the 17th century, although he lived between the "Iron Century" and the "Lights" -18th century. With an excellent linguistic and philological background like Kircher, he opted for the possibility that hieroglyphic signs were not completely symbolic and possessed a phonetic value. To this end, he proposed that in order to advance in research, it was necessary to find a bilingual text, eighty years ahead of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Following this trail other authors such as William Waburton suggested the phonetic value of the signs and Jean-Jacques Berthélemy discovered that the symbols enclosed in the cartridges consisted of name and titles. The Danish Georg Zoëga, on the basis of the obelisks, drew up a list of all the recognisable signs, which had already been grouped into sets of different value.
This brief exposition shows the beginning of a slow process which, thanks to the reopening of the Egyptian world at the turn of the century - symbolised by the Napoleonic expedition - took its steps towards a more serious, documented and scientific state. But of course, the best was yet to come.