(hī´´rӘglĭf'ĭk, hī´´ӘrӘ–) [Gr.,=priestly carving], type of writing used in ancient Egypt. Similar pictographic styles of Crete, Asia Minor, and Central America and Mexico are also called hieroglyphics (see Minoan civilization; Anatolian languages; Maya; Aztec). Interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, begun by Jean-François Champollion, is virtually complete; the other hieroglyphics are not nearly as well understood. The distinguishing feature of hieroglyphics is that they are conventionalized pictures used chiefly to represent meanings that seem arbitrary and are seldom obvious. Egyptian hieroglyphics appear in several stages: the first dynasty (3110–2884 B.C.), when they were already perfected; the Old Kingdom; the Middle Kingdom, when they were beginning to go out of use; the New Empire, when they were no longer well understood by the scribes; and the late hieroglyphics (from 500 B.C.), when the use of them was a tour de force. With a basic number of 604 symbols, hieroglyphics were written in several directions, including top to bottom, but usually from right to left with the pictographs facing the beginning of the line.
There were in general three uses to which a given hieroglyphic might be put (though very few were used for all three purposes): as an ideogram, as when a sign resembling a man meant “man” or a closely connected idea (thus a man carrying something meant “carrying”); as a phonogram, as when an owl represented the sound m, because the word for owl had m for its principal consonant; or as a determinative, an unpronounced symbol placed after an ambiguous sign to indicate its classification (e.g., an eye to indicate that the preceding word has to do with looking or seeing). As hieroglyphic developed, most words came to require determinatives. The phonograms were, of course, the controlling factor in the progress of hieroglyphic writing, because of the fundamental convenience of an alphabet.
In the Middle Kingdom a developed cursive, the hieratic, was extensively used for private documents where writing speed was essential. In the last centuries B.C. a more developed style, the demotic, supplanted the hieratic. Where the origin of most hieratic characters could be plainly seen in the hieroglyphics, the demotics were too conventionalized to bear any resemblance to the hieroglyphics from which they had sprung.