driver, chariot and horses of the tax collector Nebamun

The Horse in Hieroglyphs

The charcoal grey and chestnut horses and chariot which convey you to this article are my approximation of figures from a wall painting fragment from the tomb of an official in the reign of Amenophis III. His name is Nebamun and his plan to endure reincarnate through his tomb paintings is working. The British Museum preserves his tomb's wall painting and recently conserved all their companion fragments1. (Armchair travelers may also enjoy the scene's charm in a fancy little popular book, The Art of Ancient Egypt 2 or in Budge's rare print Wall Decorations of Egyptian Tombs3.)

Facsimile of Nebamun's horses and assess in the British Museum
Nebamun's wall painting in the British Museum 3

driver, chariot and asses of the tax collector Nebamun

Of the many portraits of pharaohs in chariots with leaping chargers, most glorify warrior or hunter scenes. The charioteer in Nebamun's tomb scene, on the other hand, is probably holding the horses of the scribe who is busy recording a grain harvest—he might be a tax assessor—while his driver restrains the poised-for-action pair of stallions. They stand on tip toes, legs tensed, while the more placid pair of hinnies in the scene below them relaxes with heads and necks down. So these peaceable equines suit the muse.

When you look at a wall carving or painting of horses and chariot in ancient Egyptian art, the pictures you see are frequently huge hieroglyphs accompanied by the smaller versions that we all recognize as the written language. (This observation is amply illustrated by Richard H. Wilkinson in Reading Egyptian Art 4.) The Egyptian language was written in a symbolic system which, in its hierogyphic form, hardly distinguished between painting, sculpture, carvings and writings. Even furniture and religious equipment could take hieroglyphic form. So, the hieroglyph for the horse looks like a horse and the hieroglyph for a chariot looks like a chariot. These glyphs are sometimes written alone, but more often they serve as determinatives for the more completely written word.

the hieroglph determintives for a horse and a chariot are a little image of each
horse and chariot determinatives

the hieroglphs which spell the word htr htr

The word for the horses pulling the chariot, htr, is usually spelled out according to its consonental sounds; and the image of a horse serves as its determinative to distinguish it from a homonym, for instance, the word taxes, which is also htr. We pronounce the word htr as heter, adding e between consonants, according to Egyptologists' convention to compensate for the lack of vowels in the written language. Gardiner 5 lists htr as a pair of horses or a team, like Nebamun's horses.

Pause to look at the leaping horses in Tutankhamen's chariot painted on the lid of his wooden chest (it opens in a new window so you can return here to compare the text). Look for the little horse hieroglyph at the top in the third column from the right in the group which says that the king mounted the chariot (literally: the horse team) to hunt antelope and wild animals. Then enjoy the young warrior king displaying his hunting prowess for eternity. If I were a bird I would have photographed the lid at the Egyptian Museum more clearly, but it was too high to get above.

the hieroglphs which spell the word htr on Tut's chest lid

Tutankhamen's hieroglyphs. This group reads from right to left, rather than left to right like the above gyphs. The three strokes below indicate plural.

The hieroglyphs spell out htr, which we say as heter: the twisted rope for h, the half circular loaf for t and the mouth shaped r, along with the horse determinative. Tutankhamen's horse glyphs omit the spelled out r. Since the horse glyph already indicates htr, the r could be ommitted to maintain the neat aesthics of the square grouping. Alternatively, the Egyptians commonly duplicated a consonantal sound. Sometimes the glyphs could also be grouped out of order of the spoken sounds, to suit the aesthetic composition.

You can see chariotry and horse riding in ancient Egypt through drawings of Abu Simbel wall carvings published by Amelia Edwards, not to mention glimpsing a three thousand year old appreciation for the prototype for the Arabian as we know it.the horse determinative hieroglph which is the image of a rearing horse

  1. Richard Parkinson, The Painted Tomb-chapel of Nebamun London, British Museum Press, 2008
  2. David Sandison, The Art of Ancient Egypt, Laurel Glen Publishing, San Diego, CA 1997. Has a full color photo of Nebamun's equine scenes and a two-page detail of Tutankhamun's hunting chest lid portraying the animal hunt and the horse hieroglyph.
  3. E.A.W. Budge, Wall Decorations of Egyptian Tombs Illustrated from Examples in the British Museum, London 1914. A facsimile of Nebamun's equine scenes.
  4. Richard H. Wilkinson, Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture, Thames & Hudson, 1994
  5. Sir Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1988.