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Lesson I : Orientation of the signs

The comparison of different hieroglyphic texts shows that the signs were not always written in the same direction. Hieroglyphic texts could indeed be written both in rows and columns, from right to left or from left to right. Even within the same block of text, it was possible for one part to be written in columns and the other in rows.

With this kind of flexibility, however, it is necessary to first establish the orientation of the signs and where to start reading. As a general rule, signs representing people or animals all look towards the beginning of the text. Thus, if the signs in a text all "look" to the left, one should start reading from the left to the right, and vice versa. Also as a rule the signs are written from top to bottom.

The following example uses a piece of fictive text to show the different orientations of hieroglyphic signs.

The texts with C and D are written in columns, with a vertical line dividing the different columns. The signs in text C look to the left so again the text is to be read from left to right (and from top to bottom), whereas the signs in text D looks to the right.

This kind of flexibility allowed a symmetrical construction of texts on the walls of temples and tombs. The example below demonstrates how symmetry was obtained while writing on the lintel of a door.

The text in the second row starts in the middle of the lintel with theand runs to the sides. Thus the text to the left is read from the middle to the left and the text to the right is read from the middle to the right.

An additional benefit of the way signs could be oriented is that it is also possible to add text to an image of a person, a god, an animal or even an object and give it the same orientation. This way, the text, acting as a legend to a representation is linked more closely to the image. In scenes with two figures facing each other, the respective texts of the figures face each other as well. It thus becomes easier to distinguish between the legends and speeches of different actors in a scene and to find the starting point of each actor’s accompanying texts.


Click here for Exercise 1