lesson image

Fifty years before the birth of Christ, the Romans conquered the land along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and among this newly acquired territory was a country called Egypt.

The Romans, who are to play such a great role in our history, were a race of practical men.

They built bridges, they constructed roads, and with a small but highly trained army of soldiers and civil officers, they managed to rule the greater part of Europe, of eastern Africa, and western Asia.

As for art and the sciences, these did not interest them very much. They regarded with suspicion a man who could play the lute or who could write a poem about spring and only thought him little better than the clever fellow who could walk the tightrope or who had trained his poodle dog to stand on its hind legs. They left such things to the Greeks and to the Asians, both of whom they despised, while they themselves spent their days and nights keeping order among the thousand and one nations of their vast empire.

When they first set foot in Egypt, that country was already terribly old.

More than six thousand and five hundred years had gone by since the history of the Egyptian people had begun.

Long before anyone had dreamed of building a city amidst the swamps of the river Tiber, the kings of Egypt had ruled far and wide and had made their court the center of all civilization.

While the Romans were still savages who chased wolves and bears with clumsy stone axes, the Egyptians were writing books, performing intricate medical operations, and teaching their children the tables of multiplication.

This great progress they owed chiefly to one very wonderful invention, to the art of preserving their spoken words and their ideas for the benefit of their children and grandchildren.

We call this the art of writing.

We are so familiar with writing that we cannot understand how people ever managed to live without books and newspapers and magazines.

But they did, and it was the main reason why they made such slow progress during the first million years of their stay upon this planet.

They were like cats and dogs who can only teach their puppies and their kittens a few simple things (barking at a stranger and climbing trees and such things) and who, because they cannot write, possess no way in which they can use the experience of their countless ancestors.

This sounds almost funny, doesn't it?

And why make such a fuss about so simple a matter?

But did you ever stop to think what happens when you write a letter?

Suppose that you are taking a trip in the mountains and you have seen a deer.

You want to tell this to your father, who is in the city.

What do you do?

You put a lot of dots and dashes upon a piece of paper. You add a few more dots and dashes upon an envelope, and you carry your epistle to the mailbox together with a forever stamp.

What have you really been doing?

You have changed a number of spoken words into a number of pothooks and scrawls.

But how did you know how to make your curlicues in such a fashion that both the postman and your father could retranslate them into spoken words?

You knew, because someone had taught you how to draw the precise figures which represented the sound of your spoken words.

Just take a few letters and see the way this game is played.

We make a guttural noise and write down a "G."

We let the air pass through our closed teeth and we write down "S."

We open our mouth wide and make a noise like a steam engine, and the sound is written down "H."

It took humanity hundreds of thousands of years to discover this, and the credit for it goes to the Egyptians.

Of course, they did not use the letters which have been used to print this book.

They had a system of their own.

It was much prettier than ours but not quite so simple.

It consisted of little figures and images of things around the house and around the farm, of knives and plows and birds and pots and pans. These little figures their scribes scratched and painted upon the wall of the temples, upon the coffins of their dead kings, and upon the dried leaves of the papyrus plant which has given its name to our "paper."

But when the Romans entered this vast library, they showed neither enthusiasm nor interest.

They possessed a system of writing of their own which they thought vastly superior.

They did not know that the Greeks (from whom they had learned their alphabet) had in turn obtained theirs from the Phoenicians who had again borrowed with great success from the old Egyptians. They did not know, and they did not care. In their schools, the Roman alphabet was taught exclusively, and what was good enough for the Roman children was good enough for everybody else.

You will understand that the Egyptian language did not long survive the indifference and the opposition of the Roman governors. It was forgotten. It died just as the languages of most of our American Indian tribes have become a thing of the past.

The Arabs and the Turks who succeeded the Romans as the rulers of Egypt abhorred all writing that was not connected with their holy book, the Koran.

At last, in the middle of the sixteenth century, a few western visitors came to Egypt and showed a mild interest in these strange pictures.

But there was no one to explain their meaning, and these first Europeans were as wise as the Romans and the Turks had been before them.

Now it happened, late in the eighteenth century, that a certain French general by the name of Bonaparte visited Egypt. He did not go there to study ancient history. He wanted to use the country as a starting point for a military expedition against the British colonies in India. This expedition failed completely, but it helped solve the mysterious problem of the ancient Egyptian writing.

Among the soldiers of Napoleon Bonaparte there was a young officer by the name of Broussard. He was stationed at the fortress of St. Julien on the western mouth of the Nile, which is called the Rosetta river.

Broussard liked to rummage among the ruins of the lower Nile, and one day he found a stone which greatly puzzled him.

Like everything else in that neighborhood, it was covered with picture writing.

But this slab of black basalt was different from anything that had ever been discovered.

It carried three inscriptions, and one of these (oh joy!) was in Greek.

The Greek language was known.

As it was almost certain that the Egyptian part contained a translation of the Greek (or vice versa), the key to ancient Egyptian seemed to have been discovered.

But it took more than thirty years of very hard work before the key had been made to fit the lock.

Then the mysterious door was opened, and the ancient treasure house of Egypt was forced to surrender its secrets.

The man who gave his life to the task of deciphering this language was Jean Francois Champollion--usually called Champollion Junior to distinguish him from his older brother who was also a very learned man.

Champollion Junior was a baby when the French revolution broke out, and therefore he escaped serving in the armies of the General Bonaparte.

While his countrymen were marching from one glorious victory to another (and back again as such Imperial armies are apt to do), Champollion studied the language of the Copts, the native Christians of Egypt. At the age of nineteen, he was appointed a professor of History at one of the smaller French universities, and there he began his great work of translating the pictures of the old Egyptian language.

For this purpose, he used the famous black stone of Rosetta which Broussard had discovered among the ruins near the mouth of the Nile.

The original stone was still in Egypt. Napoleon had been forced to vacate the country in a hurry, and he had left this curiosity behind. When the English retook Alexandria in the year 1801, they found the stone and carried it to London, where you may see it this very day in the British Museum. The Inscriptions however had been copied and taken to France, where they were used by Champollion.

The Greek text was quite clear. It contained the story of Ptolemy V and his wife Cleopatra, the grandmother of that other Cleopatra about whom Shakespeare wrote. The other two inscriptions, however, refused to surrender their secrets.

One of them was in hieroglyphics, the name we give to the oldest known Egyptian writing. The word Hieroglyphic is Greek and means "sacred carving." It is a very good name, for it fully describes the purpose and nature of this script. The priests who had invented this art did not want the common people to become too familiar with the deep mysteries of preserving speech. They made writing a sacred business.

They surrounded it with much mystery, decreed that the carving of hieroglyphics be regarded as a sacred art, and forbade the people to practice it for such a common purpose as business or commerce.

They could enforce this rule with success so long as the country was inhabited by simple farmers who lived at home and grew everything they needed upon their own fields. But gradually Egypt became a land of traders, and these traders needed a means of communication beyond the spoken word. So they boldly took the little figures of the priests and simplified them for their own purposes. Thereafter, they wrote their business letters in the new script which became known as the "popular language" and which we call by its Greek name, the "Demotic language."

The Rosetta stone carried both the sacred and the popular translations of the Greek text, and upon these two Champollion centered his attack. He collected every piece of Egyptian script which he could get. Together with the Rosetta stone, he compared and studied them. After twenty years of patient drudgery, he understood the meaning of fourteen little figures.

That means that he spent more than a whole year to decipher each single picture.

Finally, he went to Egypt, and in the year 1823 he printed the first scientific book upon the subject of the ancient hieroglyphics.

Nine years later, he died from overwork, as a true martyr to the great task which he had set himself as a boy.

His work, however, lived after him.

Others continued his studies, and today Egyptologists can read hieroglyphics as easily as we can read the printed pages of our newspapers.

Fourteen pictures in twenty years seems very slow work. But let me tell you something of Champollion's difficulties. Then you will understand, and understanding, you will admire his courage.

The old Egyptians did not use a simple sign language. They had passed beyond that stage.

Of course, you know what sign language is.

Some books about American Indians have chapters about strange messages, written in the form of little pictures. Many children at some stage of life have invented picture languages of their own. But Egyptian was something quite different, and I must try and make this clear to you with a few pictures. Suppose that you were Champollion and that you were reading an old papyrus which told the story of a farmer who lived somewhere along the banks of the river Nile.

Suddenly, you came across a picture of a man with a saw.
"Very well," you said, "that means, of course, that the farmer went out and cut a tree down." Most likely you had guessed correctly.

Next you took another page of hieroglyphics.

They told the story of a queen who had lived to be eighty-two years old. Right in the middle of the text the same picture occurred. That was very puzzling, to say the least. Queens do not go about cutting down trees. They let other people do it for them. A young queen may saw wood for the sake of exercise, but a queen of eighty-two stays at home with her cat and her spinning wheel. Yet, the picture was there. The ancient priest who drew it must have placed it there for a definite purpose.

What could he have meant?

That was the riddle which Champollion finally solved.

He discovered that the Egyptians were the first people to use what we call "phonetic writing."

Like most other words which express a scientific idea, the word "phonetic" is of Greek origin. It means the "science of the sound which is made by our speech." You have seen the Greek word "phone," which means the voice, before. It occurs in our word "telephone," the machine which carries the voice to a distant point.

Ancient Egyptian was "phonetic," and it set man free from the narrow limits of that sign language which in some primitive form had been used ever since the cave-dweller began to scratch pictures of wild animals upon the walls of his home.

Now let us return for a moment to the little fellow with his saw who suddenly appeared in the story of the old queen. Evidently, he had something to do with a saw.

A "saw" is either a tool which you find in a carpenter shop or it means the past tense of the verb "to see."

This is what had happened to the word during the course of many centuries.

First of all, it had meant a man with a saw.

Then it came to mean the sound which we reproduce by the three modern letters, s, a and w. In the end, the original meaning of carpentering was lost entirely and the picture indicated the past tense of "to see."

A modern English sentence done into the images of ancient Egypt will show you what I mean.
The Eye means either these two round objects in your head which allow you to see, or it means "I," the person who is talking or writing.
A Bee is either an animal which gathers honey and pricks you in the finger when you try to catch it, or it represents to verb "to be," which is pronounced the same way and which means to "exist." Again, it may be the first part of a verb like "be-come" or "be-have."
In this case, the bee is followed by a Leaf which represents the sound which we find in the word "leave" or "leaf." Put your "bee" and your "leaf" together and you have the two sounds which make the verb "bee-leave" or "believe" as we write it nowadays.
The "eye" you know all about.

Finally, you get a picture which looks like a giraffe. It is a giraffe, and it is part of the old sign language, which has been continued wherever it seemed most convenient.
Therefore, you get the following sentence, "I believe I saw a giraffe."

This system, once invented, was developed during thousands of years.

Gradually, the most important figures came to mean single letters or short sounds like "fu" or "em" or "dee" or "zee," or as we write them, f and m and d and z. And with the help of these, the Egyptians could write anything they wanted upon every conceivable subject, and could preserve the experience of one generation for the benefit of the next without the slightest difficulty.

That, in a very general way, is what Champollion taught us after the exhausting search which killed him when he was a young man.

That too, is the reason why today we know Egyptian history better than that of any other ancient country.


Study the lesson for two weeks.

Over the two weeks:

  • Read the story multiple times.
  • Read the synopsis.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.
  • Study the review questions.


The fifth chapter explains why we know more about the ancient Egyptian civilization than other people who lived during the same time. The Egyptians were the first to invent a system of writing called 'hieroglyphics.' Hieroglyphics use figures of common items, including birds, people, tools, and pots. Egyptians wrote these figures on buildings, tombs, and their version of paper, the dried leaves of the papyrus plant. Egyptian writing was the basis for many other writing systems, including that of the Romans. In 50 BCE, the Romans conquered Egypt, and the Egyptian system of hieroglyphics was lost until the eighteenth century. A young French officer in Napoleon Bonaparte's army found the Rosetta Stone, a slab of black basalt which translated between Greek and two forms (popular and sacred) of Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Using the Rosetta Stone, it took Jean Francois Champollion twenty years to understand the meaning of fourteen hieroglyphics. Champollion ultimately gave his life to the cause, dying of overwork.


Hieroglyphics: Writing consisting of objects representing words, syllables, or sounds, as found in ancient Egyptian and other writing systems.
Before Common Era (BCE): A global standard referring to the time before Common Era (CE). BCE is equivalent to BC (before Christ). 100 BCE is the same as 100 BC.
Common Era (CE): A global standard referring to the Common Era (CE). CE is equivalent to AD (anno Domini - after the birth of the Christian figure of Jesus). 2017 CE is the same as 2017 AD.
Egyptians: A native of ancient or modern Egypt, or a person of Egyptian descent.
Papyrus: A material prepared in ancient Egypt from the pithy stem of a water plant, used in sheets throughout the ancient Mediterranean world for writing or painting on and also for making rope, sandals, and boats.
Romans: A citizen or soldier of the ancient Roman Republic or Empire.
Greek: Relating to Greece, its people, or their language.
Cleopatra: A queen of ancient Egypt.
Ptolemy V: A king of ancient Egypt.
Egyptologist: A scientist or historian who studies ancient Egypt.
Phonetic: Relating to speech sounds.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • After you listen to the chapter, narrate the chapter aloud using your own words.

Activity 2: Translate Hieroglyphics   

  • Click the crayon above. Complete page 14 of 'Second Grade World History Coloring Pages, Copywork, and Writing.'

Use the table to translate the following secret hieroglyphic messages into English:

  • Message Part 1:
  • Message Part 2:
  • Message Part 3:
  • Translation Table - Hieroglyphics to English:

Activity 3: Write Hieroglyphics   

  • Click the crayon above. Complete page 15 of 'Second Grade World History Coloring Pages, Copywork, and Writing.'
  • Use the table above to write your own secret message in Hieroglyphics.
  • Exchange your secret message with your instructor or someone else and see if they can decipher it correctly.

Activity 4: Create a Translation Table for the Hieroglyphics from the Story   

  • Click the crayon above. Complete page 16 of 'Second Grade World History Coloring Pages, Copywork, and Writing.'

Use a pencil, pen, or charcoal to create your own translation table for the Hieroglyphics from the chapter.

  • I (Eye)
  • Be- (Bee)
  • -Lieve (Leaf)
  • Saw
  • Giraffe

Activity 5: Complete Coloring Pages, Copywork, and Writing   

  • Click the crayon above. Complete pages 17-18 of 'Second Grade World History Coloring Pages, Copywork, and Writing.'


Question 1

Who invented the first writing system?
1 / 6

Answer 1

Egyptians invented the first writing system.
1 / 6

Question 2

What was the first writing system called?
2 / 6

Answer 2

The first writing system was called hieroglyphics.
2 / 6

Question 3

Who used the sacred version of hieroglyphics?
3 / 6

Answer 3

Egyptian priests used the sacred version of hieroglyphics.
3 / 6

Question 4

Who used the popular version of hieroglyphics?
4 / 6

Answer 4

Egyptian merchants used the popular version of hieroglyphics.
4 / 6

Question 5

What is the Rosetta Stone?
5 / 6

Answer 5

The Rosetta Stone is slab of black basalt found in Egypt. It contains inscriptions translating between Greek and two forms of Egyptian Hieroglyphics (popular and sacred).
5 / 6

Question 6

How did Jean Francois Champollion die?
6 / 6

Answer 6

Jean Francois Champollion died of overwork related to studying the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
6 / 6

  1. Who invented the first writing system? Egyptians invented the first writing system.
  2. What was the first writing system called? The first writing system was called hieroglyphics.
  3. Who used the sacred version of hieroglyphics? Egyptian priests used the sacred version of hieroglyphics.
  4. Who used the popular version of hieroglyphics? Egyptian merchants used the popular version of hieroglyphics.
  5. What is the Rosetta Stone? The Rosetta Stone is slab of black basalt found in Egypt. It contains inscriptions translating between Greek and two forms of Egyptian Hieroglyphics (popular and sacred).
  6. How did Jean Francois Champollion die? Jean Francois Champollion died of overwork related to studying the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics.


  1. 'Rosetta Stone.' Wikipedia. Wikipedia.org. n.p.