Susanllewellyn's Blog

July 24, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (3)

Let’s take a look at the first group of signs in the offering formula I showed you in the first post: 

An offering which the King gives

Once you recognise these, you’ll be able to find the beginning of the offering formula on Egyptian inscriptions.  (Try not to get too excited the first few times you spot them.  If you hurl yourself towards an offering formula across a crowded Egyptian Sculpture Gallery as Heathcliff to his Cathy, you will have your feet knocked from under you by a visiting schoolchild, plunge into the raging cataract of converging educational outings and disappear forever beneath its pounding plimsolls – you will in the British Museum, anyway.) 

So, let us prepare for that scenario in the safety of a virtual environment.  Have a look at this. There are seven offering formulae in this inscription.  Can you spot where they begin?

Funerary inscription on false door

Ok, can you spot them now?

Inscription with beginnings of offering formulae marked

 It’s easy when you know how (and when someone’s drawn big red outlines around them).  Of course, I didn’t tell you everything about the mission before you chose to accept it – come on, not even James Bond gets told everything in that initial meeting with M.  They’d be much shorter films if he did.  Things about the mission you had to find out the hard way: 

  • the Egyptians didn’t necessarily write from left to right.  In fact, they usually wrote from right to left;
  • they didn’t always write in horizontal lines; sometimes they wrote vertically, from top to bottom;
  • when they wrote top to bottom, they could write left to right or right to left within the column;
  • (a good tip on how to figure out which direction they’re writing in:  hieroglyphs face the beginning of the sentence.  Find a hieroglyph which has a face you can recognise – a person, bird or animal, something you can look in the eye.  Look it in the eye.  Read your way right out through the back of its head and away down the rest of the sentence);
  • there are more symbols in some of the groups of signs in the inscription than there are in the group of signs at the beginning of the formula in my first post.  That is because the words are sometimes spelled out more fully in the inscription.  This is an age waaaaaay before the printing press.  It’s printing that standardises spelling.  On the one hand, that’s a tricky one for us office scribes, at least when we’re trying to read.  On the other, no-one can say for definite that we’re wrong when we’re trying to write, even if they can read what we’ve written in Eric in Accounts’ leaving card (at least, they can’t say it about the spelling.  They may say it about what you’ve wished for him.  Be careful what you wish for Eric if you think the Finance Director may be reading this blog too);
  • the signs don’t necessarily occur in the same order within the group.  The Egyptians liked to keep balance and proportion.  They were quite happy to abbreviate words and swap around the letters for the sake of symmetry.  (They loved palindromes.  They would have loved those moments when you can read the date and time in both directions, too  – you know, Madam, I’m Adam, 20.02, 20.02 2002, etc).

This may sound complicated, but you will appreciate the advantages of the artistic licence the Egyptians brought to their scripts when you’re the last person to sign the birthday card and you’re trying to fit your hand crafted hieroglyphs into the last remaining millimetres along the centre crease.

 I think that’s enough to be going on with, isn’t it?  We’ll go back to that first group of hieroglyphs and take a closer look at them next time.  In the meantime, let lesson three sink in to your subconscious.  Even James Bond needs his down time.


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