Cleo is very busy throughout The Phoenix Code reading messages in hieroglyphs - the writing system used in Ancient Egypt. Of course, I don't make it that easy for Cleo: most of the messages are in code of some sort as well as being in an ancient writing system!

I love anything to do with language and writing systems so it was a delight to learn all about hieroglyphs. This was my favourite book.

It's often thought that hieroglyphs are an ideographic system - that each symbol stands for the the thing it depicts.

So, for example, that the symbol above would mean "duck." In fact, this is only occasionally the case. The duck hieroglyph usually means son or daughter of (which is why it crops up so often; people talked about family relations more than ducks!)

Often symbols stand for sounds rather than meanings - just as they do in our own alphabet.
For example, as Cleo explains to Ryan in The Phoenix Code, the horned viper glyph stands for f or v (possibly based on the hissing sound it makes).

But other glyphs could stand for several sounds together.

For example the scarab glyph stands for khpr.

Most glyphs could be used in several different ways. For example, the bee could mean "bee" or "honey" or it could mean "Lower Egypt". That's why it's seen so often. The Pharoah was often signified by the bee (Lower Egypt) and the sedge plant, which meant Upper Egypt. Together they meant ruler of all Egypt.

Cleo and Ryan find this out when they try to figure out what Rahotep was trying to tell them by writing on the wall in Tomb KV55.

Additional signs called determinatives were often used with other glyphs to clarify how they should be read.

I copied this version of a simplified hieroglyphic alphabet from this artsmart website, which also has lots of interesting art projects.
Five Facts about hieroglypyhs

1. The Ancient Egyptians didn't usually write in the vowel sounds. They only showed the consonants. That explains why you often see different spellings for names like Tutenkhamun/Tutankhamen. That's because it was really written as something more like "ttnkhmn": the 'a's and 'e's and 'u's have all just been added in to make the words look more pronounceable (and added to alphabets like the one above).

2. Hieroglyphs could be written either from left to right (like English) or right to left (like Arabic) or in columns (like Japanese). The general rule is to  read starting from the direction the characters are "looking" (Cleo and Ryan find this to be very important!)

3. The word for hieroglyphs in Ancient Egyptian was mdw·w-nṯr  which means god's words.

4. The breakthrough in understanding hieroglyphs was made by a French egyptologist called Jean Francois Champollion in 1822 (although other scholars were busy working on it too). It came from study of the Rosetta Stone. This was a stone tablet that had been engraved with a long royal decree in 196 BC. The decree was written in three languages side by side,  including Greek and Ancient Egyptian. Because Champollion could read the other langauges he gradually figured out what the hieroglpyhs stood for. You can see the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum.

5. Hieroglyphs were first developed in Egypt about four thousand years BC. But they may still not be the oldest writing sytem in the world.  The Sumerian cunieform script may be even older.

Here's a link to a fun site with an explanation of hieroglyphs from the Children's University of Manchester.

And here's a link to a "typewriter" you can use to write your name using the hieroglyphic alphabet (with some vowel symbols added to make it easier!)

If you want to find out more about how to read hieroglyphs, there are some good tutorials here on the Ancient Egypt online web site.

Make your own hieroglyph Memory Match game

A great way to learn the hieroglyphic alphabet is to make a memory game. Cut some pieces of card into about 52 identical squares. Write one letter of the alphabet on each of the first 26 squares. Write the correspoding hieroglyphs on the next 26. Jumble the cards up and place them face down on the table. Take turns with a friend to pick up two cards. If you pick up a matching letter-glyph pair (For example L and the lion symbol, or A and the vulture symbol) you can keep them and have a another go. If the pair don't match, you turn them back over and try to remember where they are for next time. The winner is the person who hasd the most pairs of cards when they have all been picked up.

Have you noticed that you will have 52 card in this game (26+26). This means that if you have an old pack of playing cards that is no longer needed, you could stick your letters and hieroglyphs onto the front of the playing cards and recycle them!
Your main challenge for this game (apart from straining your memory) is that you have to find someone to play it with who also wants to learn the hieroglyph alphabet!

Just for fun . . . 

. . .  in the brilliant illustrations by Leo Hartas at the start of each chapter of The Phoenix Code you will see many hieroglyphs. Sometimes they are just a selection of glyphs for decoration, but in many of the pictures, you will find the names of the Ancient Egyptian charaters who feature in the book . . .

See if you can spot these names in the chapter illustrations - note that some of them might be partly obscured by other elements of the picture:

Pharaoh Smenkhhare

Pharaoh Rameses II

 Iunu (Heliopolis) - the city where the Sun Temple that housed the Benben Stone was located


Valley of the Kings (The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh) - part only

Queen Nefertiti

Pharaoh Akhenaten
 Pharaoh Tutankhamun

I've copied several of these images of hieroglyphs from a website called neferchichi.com which is packed full of information about Ancient Egypt, including profiles on each pharaoh.

If you would like a clue, I've listed the Chapter Number for each name at the bottom of the Character page of this website.

Answers to trivia questions on Character Page. 

1. Strawberry Cornetto
2. His Dad, shortly before he disappeared
3. Snowball


1. Caliope
2. White chocolate Magnum
3. Her grandmother, Eveline May Bell