Introduction to Notebooks of Copied Egyptian Characters, circa Early July 1835

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Notebooks of Copied Egyptian Characters, circa Early July 1835
Likely in July 1835, , , and perhaps another clerk prepared two notebooks, into which they copied Egyptian characters from the papyri that had been brought to , Ohio, by . The notebooks also include drawings of figures or illustrations from the papyri and what appears to be a partial English translation of some of the characters. Chandler, who apparently hoped to sell the papyri and mummies to members, sought out JS and said he hoped to obtain “a translation of his Egyptian Relic.” After viewing Chandler’s papyri, JS showed Chandler “a number of characters . . . which were previously copied from the plates, containing the history of the Nephites, or book of Mormon.” After viewing these characters, Chandler allowed Cowdery to copy “some four or five different sentences or separate pieces” from the papyri. Cowdery apparently copied the characters to aid JS’s effort to translate the characters for Chandler. JS deciphered some lines—written in “ancient Egyptian hierogliphic characters”—to Chandler’s satisfaction. The two notebooks featured here include Cowdery’s handwriting and apparently match his description of the “four or five different sentences” (or lines) he copied. These notebooks may be the first documents produced by Mormon scribes in the attempt to decipher the characters on the papyri.
Given the similarity of the notebooks, both were likely created in early July 1835—after arrived in but before the papyri were purchased—presumably to help JS and others study the content of the papyri. It is also possible the notebooks were made after the papyri were purchased and were intended to preserve, study, or share the content of the papyri. If the two notebooks were created simultaneously, the latest they could have been created is March or April 1838, when and then were excommunicated from the church. It is improbable, however, that Cowdery and Phelps worked on Egyptian materials after winter 1835–1836, when work stopped on the Egyptian-language project.
The only contemporary identifying information in either notebook is in the title of the first of the artifacts featured here. , who acted as scribe for the Book of Abraham manuscripts in 1835 and had direct knowledge of the Egyptian-language project, captured his understanding of these notebooks when he titled one of them “Valuable Discovery of hiden reccords that have been obtained from the ancient bur[y]ing place of the Egiyptians.”
On page 1 of the first notebook, apparently copied a passage from the Book of the Dead for Amenhotep; then apparently picked up where Cowdery left off, copying the next part of the same passage on page 2 of the second notebook. The two columns of Egyptian characters on page 1 of the first notebook continue in several lines of characters on page 2 of the second notebook. The two notebooks contain the same English deciphering (or “Translation,” as indicated in the second notebook) of copied Egyptian characters. The English deciphering gives the names of two ancient Egyptian royals, a princess Katumin and her father, On-i-tas. While the content in the notebooks does not attempt to connect the mummies purchased in 1835 to the individuals named in the deciphering of the hieratic characters, JS’s mother, , later stated that the mummies were “King Onitus and his royal household.” Both names are also found in later documents from the Egyptian-language project.
Though the notebooks have many similarities, they exhibit different approaches to capturing the ancient Egyptian characters and illustrative figures. The notebook titled “Valuable Discovery” was made with ruled paper, perhaps indicating the book was meant for copying lines of text. This notebook contains only hieratic and English text. In contrast, the other notebook was made from unruled paper, suggesting a plan to use this book for copying illustrations or other nontextual content. The second notebook contains two pages of figures and drawings. Further, the second paginated page in this notebook includes characters and illustrations from three different papyri, suggesting a less linear approach to copying and presenting textual features of the papyri as compared to the approach in “Valuable Discovery.”
These notebooks provide clues about the condition and quantity of the papyri to which JS and his clerks had access in 1835. While some illustrations and characters copied into the notebooks correspond to extant papyrus fragments, most of the copied hieratic characters found in the notebooks do not correspond to characters on any extant papyri. Instead, many of the copied hieratic characters appear to have come from a papyrus roll that bears a version of the Book of the Dead for Amenhotep. It is likely that JS possessed only a fragment from this roll; no fragments from the roll survive.
inscribed the English text in the first notebook and in the second. The copied hieratic characters in each notebook appear to be in the same ink flow as the English text, indicating that Cowdery and Phelps probably inscribed the characters in their respective notebooks. However, some of the hieratic characters on the third page of the second notebook are formed somewhat differently than the other hieratic characters in both books, raising the possibility that an additional scribe was involved.


  1. 1

    Oliver Cowdery, Kirtland, OH, to William Frye, Lebanon, IL, 22 Dec. 1835, in Cowdery, Letterbook, 71; see also Historical Introduction to Certificate from Michael Chandler, 6 July 1835.  

    Cowdery, Oliver. Letterbook, 1833–1838. Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

  2. 2

    O. Cowdery to W. Frye, 22 Dec. 1835, 72. For more information on the characters copied from the Book of Mormon plates, see Appendix 2: Copies of Book of Mormon Characters.  

    Cowdery, Oliver. Letterbook, 1833–1838. Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

  3. 3

    O. Cowdery to W. Frye, 22 Dec. 1835, 71.  

    Cowdery, Oliver. Letterbook, 1833–1838. Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

  4. 4

    Certificate from Michael Chandler, 6 July 1835.  

  5. 5

    See “Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts.”  

  6. 6

    “Valuable Discovery,” ca. Early July 1835; Notebook of Copied Egyptian Characters, ca. Early July 1835.  

  7. 7

    Charlotte Haven, Nauvoo, IL, to “My dear Mother,” 19 Feb. 1843, in Haven, “Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo,” 623. Emma Smith, JS’s wife, later sold the mummies and identified them as “the family of Pharo King of Egypt.” (Lewis C. Bidamon, Emma Smith Bidamon, and Joseph Smith III to Abel Combs, Certificate of Sale, Nauvoo, IL, 26 May 1856, CHL; for other evidence that identifies a pharaoh or king and his daughter among the mummies, see Peterson, Story of the Book of Abraham, 192–193, 196–199.)  

    Haven, Charlotte. “A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo.” Overland Monthly 16, no. 96 (Dec. 1890): 616–638.

    Bidamon, Lewis C., Emma Smith Bidamon, and Joseph Smith III. Certificate of Sale to Abel Combs, Nauvoo, IL, 26 May 1856. CHL.

    Peterson, H. Donl. The Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies, Manuscripts, and Mormonism. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995.

  8. 8

    Egyptian Alphabet, ca. Early July–ca. Nov. 1835–A, –B, and –C; Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, ca. July–ca. Nov. 1835; see also Brown, “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt,” 60–61.  

    Brown, Samuel. “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden.” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 78, no. 1 (Mar. 2009): 26–65.

  9. 9

    See Ritner, Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri, 209–213; see also Rhodes, Books of the Dead, 5.  

    Ritner, Robert K. The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition, P. JS 1–4 and the Hypocephalus of Sheshonq. Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2011.

    Rhodes, Michael D. Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub: A Translation and Commentary. Studies in the Book of Abraham 4. Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2010.

  10. 10

    Oliver Cowdery described the papyri as “two rolls of papyrus” and “two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c.” (O. Cowdery to W. Frye, 22 Dec. 1835, 70.)  

    Cowdery, Oliver. Letterbook, 1833–1838. Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.