Unleash Your Inner Pharaoh With the New Google Hieroglyphs Tool

Is the global tech giant's method for deciphering ancient hieroglyphs a groundbreaking development for researchers or just a cute gimmick?

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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The ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamun
Egyptian King Tutankhamun. “The use of pictures is a window into understanding how the Egyptians saw the world," says Israel Museum curator Shirly Ben-Dor Evian.Credit: Courtesy of Google Art & Culture
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The pharaohs are smiling in their tombs. Things were pretty rough for them way back when, but today, several thousand years later, everything’s great. Egyptian hieroglyphs are making a comeback. The Google Arts & Culture app has just launched Fabricius, a new online tool that harnesses “the power of artificial intelligence to help decode ancient languages” – including hieroglyphics.

Maybe you didn’t know that this is exactly what’s been missing in your life, but Google knows you better than you know yourself. How does its new AI invention work? Users enter texts in English or Arabic and receive a translation in hieroglyphs, pictorial and other symbols that until today were fully understood by only a small number of people.

On July 15, 1799, a French soldier in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army discovered a large, black stone slab set into the wall of a fort near the town of Rashid (Rosetta), in the Egyptian Delta. To Pierre-François Bouchard's credit it must be said that he realized that this was the greatest prize in the lottery of Western culture – the key to deciphering the mysterious, ancient Egyptian system of writing. Today, exactly 221 years later, the Rosetta Stone is still the most popular exhibit in the British Museum in London. Indeed, it is considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries in history.

The world-famous stele, originally created in 196 B.C. in the city of Memphis, in Egypt, but later moved and used in construction in Rashid, is inscribed with the text of a decree in three languages: Ancient Greek, Ancient Egyptian (using hieroglyphs) and Ancient Egyptian using Demotic script (a simpler, cursive form of Egyptian writing).

Google Arts & Culture's Fabricius in action.

Thanks to this text, and because the Greek was already familiar and understood, in 1822, French scholar Jean-François Champollion was able to transliterate and decipher the hieroglyphics. And thus the science of Egyptology, the study of ancient Egypt, was born. The world took several steps forward.

According to Google, the aim of its new project is to introduce people all over the world to ancient Egyptian heritage and culture, and to emphasize the importance of preserving them. Chance Coughenour, a digital archaeologist and the program’s manager on Google Arts & Culture – a web-based collection of images and videos of selected artwork and cultural items from galleries around the world – gave a demonstration last week via Zoom for 22 journalists of how Fabricius can be used.

The basic question he posed was whether modern-day technology can aid in deciphering ancient writing that is not easily understood. The answer appears to be yes.

Users of the new tool will be able to learn and play with it, and even to work with it professionally. Fabricius offers six simple steps for understanding and translating hieroglyphs. In the process, you can learn how the experts do it, compose your own hieroglyphic fragment or try your hand at deciphering coded fragments. For Egyptologists, the tool should significantly shorten the process of interpreting texts. It will operate as open code and support other new developments that improve the understanding of ancient languages.

Coughenor explained that hieroglyphics are similar in certain ways to the way we use emojis today, although the comparison is not perfect. The idea, though, is that an illustration or image can convey an idea. Georg Fabricius, for whom the new tool – a collaboration between Google and Australia's Macquarie University Egyptology Institute – is named, was a 16th-century German scholar and expert on ancient languages.

The Rosetta Stone. Discovered exactly 221 years ago, it is the key to deciphering the mysterious, ancient Egyptian system of writing. Credit: Courtesy of Google Art & Culture

“We believe the new tool will be popular,” Coughenour told the journalists. “The big advantage is that this is a machine that is constantly learning and its margin of error is small. This activity can be entertaining for a large audience and useful for Egyptologists. For professionals, the tool will facilitate and accelerate the deciphering of texts, which currently takes a up a lot of their time.”

Unraveling a mystery

Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, curator of Egyptian archaeology at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, created the current exhibition “Emoglyphs – Picture-Writing from Hieroglyphs to the Emoji,” which was a big draw before the coronavirus shuttered the museum in March (it remains closed for the time being). Speaking with Haaretz last week, Dr. Ben-Dor Evian tried to unravel the mystery of why Google developed Fabricius.

“As a professional Egyptologist, this tool may help me and save me time. If I believe it is accurate I will use it, but Google didn’t develop it for me. There’s broad public interest in ancient Egyptian culture," she says. "Every exhibition on the subject at the big museums in New York, London and Paris is always a huge hit. The general public is curious about this and I think people will enjoy deciphering hieroglyphics, even if it’s still a gimmick.”

The main reason Google got into the whole subject, she observes, is the importance the company attributes to accessibility: “Google Arts & Culture has made the democratization of knowledge a key objective. Which is why, for example, they are digitizing works of art. Hieroglyphics is a more extreme case on this scale. It’s among the most specialized and inaccessible types of things and they’re making a statement by insisting on making this accessible to a wide audience."

Chance Coughenour, manager the Google's new Fabricius program. "This activity can be entertaining for a large audience and useful for Egyptologists," he says.Credit: Google

Another explanation suggested by Ben-Dor Evian is that “Google is coming to the aid of the humanities, which have become nearly mummified in terms of their budgets and popularity, and is opening up a new avenue: digital humanities’ studies.”

Then there’s also the Big Data aspect, the curator points out. “Ancient Egyptian culture includes hundreds of thousands of texts. It’s a culture that survived for thousands of years and never stopped documenting itself. The amount of material is tremendous and the latest technology makes it possible to deal with such quantities.”

Why bring out the new tool in English and Arabic?

“I presume that it’s a political statement. Egyptians have a complicated relationship with the Pharaonic culture. It’s of course an illustrious civilization of which they consider themselves descendants, but they shun its pagan aspects – although some graffiti recently appeared in Tahrir Square in Cairo that uses the hieroglyphic style. This is significant. Another aspect is that the use of Arabic will help to bring Egyptian scholars back into the academic discussion on Egyptology. Their voice hasn’t been heard much in recent years.”

What can a total layman learn from hieroglyphics?

“The use of pictures is a window into understanding how the Egyptians saw the world. How do you illustrate wisdom, for example? And there’s another thing that we don’t pay attention to. Everyone knows that Egyptian writing used pictures in place of words, but we should also remember that there are also pictures that have a meaning in terms of sound – i.e., pictures used just for their phonetic value.”

Hieroglyphs and other illustrations adorning the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. They remind us of emojis but the comparison is not perfect.Credit: Courtesy of Google Art & Culture

A Hebrew example given by Ben-Dor Evian is the word mitzpeh (lookout). In hieroglyphics it would be signified as two words, mitz (juice) and peh (mouth), followed by what's called a classifying sign: a mountain. She says that the emoji that we use in our messaging is a clear classifying sign. If it’s a smiley, things are okay; if it’s angry – there’s reason for concern.

“At Google they understand that we have a tendency to write in pictures,” she says. “It’s a natural human tendency. It's all quite complicated because we find it difficult to draw, but technology has restored us to our natural condition, which is something we like.”

In order to start my own career in Egyptology on the right foot I entered "good work" (in English) in the correct window in Fabricius. Immediately five attractive graphic symbols appeared on the screen. “Work” was presented as a semicircle, with an elongated rectangle to its right. “Good” appeared as three signs: a face in profile, a rectangle and something that looked like a string instrument. I was happy. Afterward I wrote: “Work is no fun.” The system did a good job dealing with the first two words, but there was no result for “fun.”

From here it’s a hop, skip and a jump to building the pyramids.

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