The first glyphs are found in Mesopotamia. Pictures had been used to relate ideas for a long time. But this time pictographic images were used to represent something different, ideas associated with the image. It was a unique idea that spread quickly. Just a few hundred years later and a couple thousand miles away, glyphs representing sound appear in Ancient Egypt. Coincidence? Probably not.
Much of what makes Ancient Egypt iconic to us now was inspired or invented by other ancient cultures. The Ancient Egyptians took the best ideas of others and improved on them. Writing was one of these ideas.
The Narmer Palette
Around 3200 BC, an oversized, ceremonial cosmetic palette is carved with scenes that commemorate the triumph of a king over his enemies. Pictorial story-telling is a staple of Ancient Egyptian artwork, but this time a handful of hieroglyphs accompany the carved pictographs. This is new. The hieroglyphs are placed near figures and are used to represent their names phonetically. These are the earliest hieroglyphs discovered in Ancient Egypt.
The story, in carved relief, is the triumph of King Narmer of Upper Egypt over an unknown town or region of Lower Egypt. Most of the king's triumph is shown in pictographs, but two characters, a catfish and a chisel, tell us his name. In the ancient language they were pronounced 'nr-mr', we call him Narmer. This is how the palette gets it’s name; the Narmer Palette.
A few thousand years after it was created, the palette would be unearthed in 1898 during an excavation led by James E. Quibell and Frederick W. Green. It had been buried under the floor of the Temple of Horus, a pre-dynastic era temple in the town of Nekhen in Upper Egypt.
The Narmer Palette is a hugely significant artifact. Not only does it contain the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphs, it also marks a significant moment in Ancient Egyptian history. The victory shown on the palette was the action that unified Upper and Lower Egypt. This began the Reign of the Pharaohs; the ruling of the upland and lowland regions of the Nile as one.
There is some dispute about who was the first pharaoh, Narmer or his son. It seems likely that Narmer was the first to bring Egypt under one rule, although officially his son Horus-Ah may have been the first pharaoh.
Within a few hundred years of the unification of Egypt, hieroglyphic writing had fully developed into a written language with a canon of style that kept hieroglyphic writing consistent for 2500 years.