Category Archives: Egyptological Resources

Book Review: How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Have you ever wanted to learn how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs?

There are lots of places online where you can look up the phonetic equivalents to hieroglyphic symbols–by memorizing them, you can learn to read some of the names of famous pharaohs, or try your hand at writing sentences in English, but “spelled out” in hieroglyphs.

But if you’d like to be able to understand Egyptian inscriptions and how sentences were actually formed in Ancient Egyptian, you need more than that. For that, you need a book like this.

How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself. By Mark Collier and Bill Manley. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. 179.

The purpose of this book, as described in its introduction, is to help the reader learn to “read and enjoy the hieroglyphs and the language of ancient Egypt” (vii) and learn to read hieroglyphic inscriptions on museum objects.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each of which covers a few key grammatical concepts; practice exercises in transliteration and translation are found at the end of each chapter. Many of the chapters also include a short excurses on an aspect of Egyptian culture or history that is related to the Egyptian artifacts shown in the practice exercises.

This book is a good choice for those who do not have the opportunity to take courses to learn Egyptian. It is affordable (list price of U.S $26) and is relative thin (psychologically and physically manageable). It is user-friendly, with simple explanations of grammatical concepts, relatively little use of grammatical jargon, easy to reference chapters and section numbers, and a concept organization appropriate to teaching the grammar and vocabulary necessary for reading hieroglyphic inscriptions on museum objects.

The greatest strength of the book is the exercises in transliteration and translation found at the end of each chapter. The student can test his or her understanding of the material by checking answers against the key. Furthermore, many of the study exercises have line drawings or photographs of actual objects. This provides the context that isolated sentences may not have, and allows the student to see scribal variation in writing as well as view how aesthetic considerations are dealt with in inscriptions. Each of the exercises also has accompanying object-appropriate grammatical notes and a vocabulary list, which allows the reader to translate the passage easily, building confidence in their ability to read hieroglyphs.

Because the book has the specific purpose of being a concise and simplified reader, it has limitations to its usefulness. There is no description of the Egyptian language or its history, so the reader does not have appropriate context for Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Also, in an attempt to simplify transliteration, the authors state that the dots and dashes they use in transliteration are important, but do not explain why. Furthermore, because complex concepts are glossed over quickly, those who continue their study of Egyptian after reading this book may be astonished to learn how complex the Egyptian language truly is, and will not be prepared for the barrage of grammatical jargon associated with the Egyptian language. Lastly, those who use this book to learn hieroglyphs and expect to then read written documents will be disappointed—the vocabulary list provided with each exercise limits the reader’s experience with other hieroglyphic dictionaries, and the book’s focus on stele inscriptions and coffins does not prepare the reader for longer treatises and bibliographies.

Because of its relative simplicity, How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs cannot act as a stand in for more detailed grammar books (such as those by James Allen, Alan Gardiner, and James Hoch) for serious students of Middle Egyptian. However, the book does an excellent job of fulfilling its stated goal of helping a beginner student teach herself how to read basic hieroglyphic inscriptions.

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So You Want To Be An Egyptologist

So you want to be an Egyptologist?

Really? Are you sure?

Just kidding.

In actuality, almost every time I tell someone I studied Egyptian art and history, or manage to casually point out that I can (with difficulty) read Egyptian hieroglyphs, they tell me something along the lines of, “I loved Egypt when I was a kid!” Many people seem to go through an Egypt-loving phase. With mummies, hundreds of anthropomorphic gods, and fantastic treasures, what’s not to love?

However, if you’re considering Egyptology as a career, be warned—its a difficult field. There are not a lot of excavation jobs available in Egypt, and if you do snag one of those, it will mean long, hot, dirty hours of work. Other options for Egyptologists who would like to stay in their native country include college professor or museum curator. If you aren’t willing to put up with the rigors of excavation work or the training and education it takes to become a professor or curator, consider the option of pursuing another career while keeping your passion as an armchair Egyptologist (like I’ve done).

If you’re 18 or younger and think you might like to study Egyptology in college, do what you can now. Read as many books as you can and consider studying French or German if you are able (since many important scholarly works on Egypt are written in those languages). The University of Memphis Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology discusses what you should start doing here.

For undergraduate studies, if you are not going to attend a college that has an Egyptology program (ones that offer Egyptology programs for Undergrads in the U.S. are rare), consider a related field like archaeology or history. Find some more tips here.

If you are interesting in pursuing an advanced degree (MA or PHD) in Egyptian studies, here is a list of colleges that may currently be offering degrees in Egyptology (these programs change occasionally based on staff availability and funding).

There’s also some very useful information in the FAQ for Egyptology Resources hosted by the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Finally, if you would like an inspiring but down-to-earth viewpoint of Egyptology from a famous Egyptologist-turned-mystery-writer, check out this post by Elizabeth Peters.

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ARCE Annual Conference

Every year, ARCE (the American Research Center in Egypt) hosts its annual meeting in some U.S. city; the city varies from year to year, but there are repeats (and traditionally, every 10 years, the conference is held at the University of California, Berkley).

I’ve attended for the past four years, and my only regret is that I didn’t start attending sooner.

Going to the entire conference every year appeals almost exclusively to the most hardcore fans of scholarly work in Egyptology because of the time and money involved. Although reasonable for a scholarly conference, the non-student ARCE member registration cost of $150 makes some balk, as does the idea of 2.5 days of lectures. But the ARCE annual meeting offers an incredible opportunity for those who choose to attend, and has a draw for many of us; this year there were a record 450 attendees!

Using this year’s conference as an example, here’s what you can expect from the ARCE annual meeting: sessions begin at around 8:30am on Friday and Saturday and run till 4:30pm (with a lunch break and short morning and afternoon breaks), with Saturday’s sessions starting at 9:00am and running only till 12:30pm.  This can make the days feel extremely long, though of course attendees are welcome to skip sessions at their discretion. Most years, the conference also includes a Friday night activity such as a museum reception or special lecture, along with a Saturday night reception for ARCE members.

Papers presentations take 20 minutes, with a 10 minute break to move between rooms; each session has four papers, and there are generally four sessions running concurrently. Attendees are welcome to stay for an entire session, or move between rooms based on the topics of individual lectures. Sessions are divided into general groups. This year’s topics were

Archaeology

Religious topics

History

Greco-Roman Topics

Art history

Coptic studies

Language and literature

Islamic archaeology

Religion and ritual

Mamaluk studies

Egyptology topics

Funerary arts

Conservation

With such a ride array of topics, any Egyptologist can find lectures they’re interested in; in many cases, there were so many interesting lectures that I wished I could be in two places at once.

With very few exceptions, the lectures are informative and entertaining. The most famous lecturers or most interesting lectures sometimes end up being standing room only!

Some of my favorite lectures this year were Dr. Ben Harer’s “OB-GYN in Ancient Egypt,” Kate Liszka’s “Ethnogenesis of the Medjay,” Dr. Salima Ikram’s “New Sites in the Kharga Oasis,” and Dr. Gay Robins’ “The Meanings of Individual Items Depicted on Tables of Offerings in Funerary Contexts.”

If none of those lecture titles appeal to you, check out the full line-up from this year, and you’ll see how many different subjects there really are.

Hopefully I’ll see you at the 2012 meeting in Providence, R.I.

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Egyptological Resource: ARCE

When I began this blog, I intended to highlight a different Egyptological resource every month; because of the unrest in Egypt, my posts haven’t been according to schedule.

But this week, I’d like to provide some information on one the biggest Egyptological organization in America–The American Research Center in Egypt (abbreviated ARCE).

ARCE is a nonprofic organization founded in 1948 to promote research on various aspects of Egyptian history.

The organization provides funding for expeditions in Egypt and for conservation of ancient Egyptian artifacts, in addition to grants and fellowships to scholars participating in post graduate studies in Egypt. ARCE also publishes catalogues and an annual journal (Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt).

ARCE (generally) hosts weekly lectures in Cairo, Egypt, as well as hosting a large annual conference in the United States (the city varies year-to-year).

I consider membership in ARCE a must for serious scholars of Ancient Egypt. Membership is $55 a year for an individual (non-student) and this price includes a copy of the annual journal.

Donations are also gratefully accepted from those who are interested in supporting the organization without paying the full membership fees.

You can find even more information and some great photographs on their website.

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