Decoding Ancient Egypt

SOMETIMES it pays to be in the wrong place. In 1925, an Egyptian man was setting up his camera to take pictures of the famous Giza pyramids outside Cairo. Suddenly, his camera stand began to sink into a hole. He thought this area was solid rock. In fact, it was soft plaster.

He called his co-workers, and they began to dig. In time, they discovered a tomb deep underground. Ancient writings on the walls, called hieroglyphs (HY-roh-gliffs), told the explorers that this tomb belonged to an important Egyptian queen who lived nearly 4,000 years ago.

Discoveries like this happen a lot in Egypt. This year, up to 50 groups of men and women are scouring the Egyptian desert for buried tombs, statues, mummies, and even golden treasure. But the most valuable things they will find are the hieroglyphic writings that tell about the ancient people who lived thousands of years ago in a land they called Kemet.

"People find artifacts all the time," says Peter Der Manuelian, who visits Egypt often for his job at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. At the Giza pyramids, for instance, workers recently uncovered a pit that was filled with beautiful statues of Egyptian royalty. Mr. Manuelian had walked over that spot almost every day that he was there and never had a clue.

Lost: One small pyramid

"They also found a new pyramid," he says, pointing to a map of the Giza site where a broken-down wall of stone is now exposed in the sand. "You wouldn't think they could lose a pyramid." The pyramid wall, which had been buried for centuries, was uncovered in 1991. Experts say the small pyramid was probably used for religious ceremonies.

When he was a kid, Manuelian used to think Egypt was too far away to visit. But then, at age 16, he took a summer volunteer job in the Egyptian section of the Museum of Fine Arts. The next summer, the Museum took him to Egypt to help trace the walls of an old dusty tomb. Manuelian was hooked.

Ancient Egypt was an amazing place. Between 2500 BC and 1075 BC, workers built huge pyramids of stone without the trucks, cranes, or machinery that we have today. They lived in the middle of a desert, but they learned to grow enough food to feed an empire. They wrapped up their dead with strips of cloth to preserve them and believed they would come back to life someday.

For centuries, the modern world knew very little about the ancient Egyptians, except what we read about them in books like the Bible. People saw all those strange pictures on the walls of the tombs, but had no idea what the pictures meant. Then, in 1799, some French soldiers helped crack the code. They discovered a large stone (since called the Rosetta Stone) that had Egyptian hieroglyphs at the top and more-common Greek writings down below. Using this stone, scholars eventually translated the entire hieroglyphic language for modern readers.

Now, experts can walk into an Egyptian temple and read the life history of a pharaoh, or king. They can read the love letters and court records that ancient scribes left behind in their villages. And because the ancient Egyptian language is similar to the modern Coptic language spoken in parts of Egypt, we can even guess at how the ancient language sounded.

Some hieroglyphic pictures stand for ideas. Others are like the letters of our alphabet, and they stand for sounds. You can use hieroglyphs to spell your name and write sentences.

"Kids love hieroglyphs because it's a code," says Manuelian, who has written a book for young people called "Hieroglyphs from A to Z," (Scholastic Press, 1991). "It's not like Chinese; it's much easier to grasp because there are pictures you can see."

Egyptian scribes - people who could read and write - lived a good life. They kept records of how much grain was grown, but they didn't have to harvest the grain themselves. They wrote the history of wars, but they didn't have to fight in battles. Sometimes they would boast to each other about their lives.

It pays to read and write

"We've found writings that say, 'Be a scribe! People will come to you and ask for favors. You won't have to be sold off as a slave or sent off to be a soldier in some distant war,' " Manuelian says. Reading and writing obviously had benefits even then.

Now Manuelian is spending less time visiting Egypt and more time looking into new ways to preserve hieroglyphs for future generations. Some of the rock walls and tablets with hieroglyphs are crumbling, and once they are gone, the stories they tell will be lost forever. The museum is now looking into taking pictures of all the tablets they have and storing them on computers.

Manuelian also enjoys meeting school groups and talking about Egypt. Some kids ask him what it is like to be in Egypt (it's a spectacular country, he says). Some ask if he wants to be mummified (not really), or if he gets to keep what he finds on a excavation or "dig" (the short answer is no).

All this talk of questions made me think of one I've always wanted to ask: Did Egyptians really walk like, well, like Egyptians?

Manuelian laughs: "It's a perspective thing," he says. "They're trying to show the best possible view of everything." He points to a carved picture of men walking in a line. Their faces, arms, and legs are all pointing to the left, but their chests are pointing out toward us. It looks as if they are walking sideways.

"If the artist had shown people from the side, then the first man would have hidden all the people beside him," he says. "After a while it looks totally normal," at least to Egyptologists like him.

You can e-mail questions or comments to: thomaso@csps.com

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