By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Egyptian hieroglyphs have fascinated observers for millennia. This language utilizes pictographs instead of letter characters to convey meaning. King Tut’s sarcophagus lid and a mirror case in his tomb tell their own stories.
Egyptologists have long translated Egyptian hieroglyphs from pyramid walls, objects, sarcophagi, and other places. These pictographs date back thousands of years, telling stories and giving historians invaluable insight into the world of ancient Egypt. The tombs of the pharaohs are no exception. When King Tutankhamen’s tomb was excavated, countless artifacts were found within, from cosmetic to toilet objects. Many were adorned with hieroglyphs.
Two in particular—a mirror and Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus lid—are among the most revered objects in the tomb. In his video series Decoding the Secrets of Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Dr. Bob Brier, Egyptologist and Senior Research Fellow at the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University, reveals their secrets.
Magic of the Mirror
Perhaps the most beautiful object found in Tutankhamen’s tomb was a mirror case in the shape of an ankh. The original mirror was missing, likely stolen by tomb robbers, but the case itself speaks volumes. “Ankh” is not only the Egyptian hieroglyph for “life” but also for “mirror.” A decoration in the center depicts a winged scarab holding a solar disk.
“Beneath the scarab [is] a neb sign, and just above it are three plural strokes,” Dr. Brier said. “This isn’t just artistic decoration; it’s spelling out one of the names of Tutankhamen—Neb Kheperu Re. We have Tutankhamen’s name in the center, flanked by two cobras, protecting the king. They also hold shen signs, hieroglyphs for ‘eternity.’
“So the center says, ‘Neb-Kheperu-Re, protected forever.”
According to Dr. Brier, the entire tableau is depicted as coming out of a lotus flower. Lotuses in ancient Egypt were the symbols of resurrection. In 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter excavated the tomb and found a wooden head of Tutankhamen emerging from a lotus flower.
As is shown in Decoding the Secrets of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, several rows of hieroglyphs appear on either side of the mirror case and can be deciphered when looked at individually. For example, the top row of hieroglyphs on the right side of the case begins with an ankh, a banner that resembles a pin flag in golf, and a nefer. These stand for “life,” “god,” and “good,” respectively.
Paired with the remaining glyphs in the row, they read “The good god, living, likeness of Re, divine seed of Atum,” which is all just a small part of a long, honorific title given to Tutankhamen.
The Lid of the Sarcophagus
Like the mirror case, the lid of the sarcophagus in which Tutankhamen was laid to rest is also adorned in hieroglyphs. Three bands of them run down the lid, but in the middle of one of them that describes Tutankhamen being with the gods comes a very interesting hieroglyph: an unusual ba glyph.
“Not our ba biliteral, which is a bird with a leash—this ba has the head of a human,” Dr. Brier said. “It also has a bowl of incense with smoke rising from it. The incense shows us it has to do with religion; the ba was crucial for immortality.”
According to Dr. Brier, the Egyptians believed that a human was made up of several aspects or parts. The ka was a kind of “astral double of the deceased.” It needed sustenance and offerings had to be made to it.
“The ba was more spiritual,” he said. “It didn’t need food, but it had personality. It was what made you ‘you.’ That’s why it’s shown with the head of a human. The point for us is that in the inscription on the lid of Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus, we have Anubis guaranteeing that Tutankhamen can come and go like a ba.”
Even the word that comes after the ba is an ankh, symbolizing that Tutankhamen will be like a living ba.
Decoding the Secrets of Egyptian Hieroglyphs is now available to stream on Wondrium.