This particular inscription, written in hieroglyphs, is an offering inscription from a tombstone dating to around 1800 BCE:
The central text records the dedication of an offering to the god Osiris on behalf of the man buried in the tomb, Imenenhat, and this is how it’s transcribed:
.1 nsw-t htp di ws-ir nb dd-PLACE-w GOD-‘3 nb-3b-b-dw .2 prt-brw OX BIRD ALABASTER CLOTHING ht-nb nfr w’b ‘nh-t GOD ‘m n-k3-n .3 im3h-h m-r ‘-hn-nw-BUILDING i-mn-n-m-h3t-t m3′-hrw Translation: ‘An offering which the king gives Osiris, lord of Djedu, great god, lord of Abydos, a voice-offering of oxen, birds, alabaster, clothing, all the good and pure things on which the god lives, for the spirit of the revered overseer of the chamber Imenenhat the righteous’
A few things to note about the writing system: first of all, it doesn’t generally write vowels, only consonants. Secondly, there are signs which stand for single consonants and so can be used in an ‘alphabetic’ type way to spell out words – e.g. the second word in line 3 is spelt out with the owl sign (m) and the mouth (r) – but there are also signs which can stand for sequences of two or three consonants (e.g. the first sign on line 1 stands for ‘nsw’, meaning ‘king’). It’s also common to use these two or three consonant signs in conjunction with the single consonant signs as an aid to the reader: so for example, the name of the person buried in the tomb, Imenenhat, is spelt i-mn-n-m-h3t-t (line 3): the two-consonant sign ‘mn’ is followed by an extra ‘n’, and the three-consonant sign ‘h3t’ by an extra ‘t’ (the transcription 3 is used for a glottal stop, conventionally pronounced ‘a’ in English, hence -hat; otherwise it’s usual to insert the vowel ‘e’ in between consonants where we don’t know exactly what vowel would have been present). Finally, there are signs that act as logograms – representing a whole word, e.g. the sign GOD, which is not spelt out (as ‘ntr’) but representing with the ‘flag’ symbol (since flags appeared on temples) – and as ‘determinatives’, telling the reader what type of word the phonetic signs preceding the determinative are referring to. In line 3, the description of Imenenhat as ‘overseer of the chamber’ is written as: m-r (overseer), ‘-hn-nw-BUILDING. ‘hnw is the word for ‘chamber’ (written with three signs; the last two-consonant sign, nw, also repeats the value of -n- from the second sign hn), followed by the determinative denoting that this is a word relating to buildings. In fact, it’s a picture of a house (seen in the middle of line 3, after the calf and below the pot); but in other circumstances this could act as a logogram meaning ‘house’, or as a phonetic sign standing for a sequence of two consonants, pr (which is the word for ‘house’, but could also be used in any other words that happened to contain the sequence p-r).
If that all sounds complicated – yes, it really is, and makes trying to learn how to read hieroglyphs something of a challenge. But it’s also fascinating to see how the Egyptians exploited the possibilities of this highly complex, but also highly flexible, writing system to the full – abbreviating formulaic words or phrases while spelling out other words, like names, with far more signs than seem strictly necessary, using different means of representing the same word via phonetic signs and/or logograms and determinatives, and also structuring the whole inscription to be aesthetically pleasing as well as to convey a message – you can see in the pictures above how signs are placed beside or underneath each other depending on their shape to create a neat sequence of sign-blocks. All of which makes Egyptian hieroglyphs a lot of fun to read, as well as a challenge!
Museum number: EA587
Description: Rectangular limestone stela of Amenemhat; painted low relief scene of deceased before offering-table.
Cultures/periods: 12th Dynasty
FindspotFound/Acquired: Egypt Africa: Egypt
DimensionsLength: Length: 66 centimetresWidth: Width: 56 centimetres
Inscription type: inscription
Inscription script: hieroglyphic
Curator's commentsFreed, R E, 1996, in Fs. Simpson, p.315 Published: HTBM 2: Plate 36
LocationOn display (G4/B19) (G4/B19)
Associated namesNamed in inscription & portrayed:Amenemhat
Acquisition namePurchased from: Giovanni Anastasi
Acquisition date: 1839
Department: Egypt and Sudan
BM/Big number: EA587
Registration number: 587
Additional IDs Miscellaneous number: Miscellaneous number: BS.587 (Birch Slip Number) (Birch Slip Number)