Archaeologists from Yale University just made a revolutionary discovery that will give us clues into one of the most intriguing and mysterious ancient languages—Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The team, led by John Coleman Darnell, found a new rock inscription site near the village of El-Khawy, which is just north of the ancient city of Elkab and about 40 miles south of Luxor. The discovery was made during their excavation work on the Elkab Desert Survey Project in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities, who announced the news on its Facebook page on Thursday.
The site consists of several panels of inscriptions on high rock faces overlooking the modern railroad. The earliest one shows animal images, such as depictions of herds of elephants. Some of the ancient texts then develop into symbols relating to politics and political power.
One especially interesting panel contains four signs, written right to left (which was the dominant writing direction in later Egyptian texts). It features a bull’s head on a short pole, followed by two back-to-back saddle bill storks with a bald ibis above and between them. This panel is one of the largest yet discovered from Dynasty 0, which was from years 3,250 to 3,100 BCE.
“The inscriptions preserve the significance in the history of ancient Egyptian writing systems and some of the earliest—and largest—signs from the formative stages of the hieroglyphic script,” explained Mahmoud Afifi, Head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, according to the post.
These are some of the earliest hieroglyphics, and they are extremely well-preserved.
Hani Abu ElAzem, head of the Central Department of Upper Egypt Antiquities, said this discovery is important because it helps in understanding the development of a system of graphic communication that sets the stage for the appearance of true hieroglyphic writing in Upper Egypt, which started around 3,250 BCE.
These hieroglyphics also demonstrate that those who carved them often interacted with earlier images. It became common to cluster similar ones or ones with related meanings on the same rock. By the last phase of the Predynastic Period, the same images were found in the East and West and appeared to expressed concepts, making it clear that this was a language and not just pictures. The saddle bill stork with a serpent beneath its beak has bee found in multiple locations and means “victory,” for example.
“These symbols are not phonetic writing, but appear to provide the intellectual background for moving from depictions of the natural world to hieroglyphs that wrote the sounds of the ancient Egyptian language,” Darnell said. “The newly discovered inscriptions at El-Khawy provide another example of this important transitional phase.”