(1854–1937), eminent German


Born in Berlin of Swiss descent, Jean Pierre Adolphe (Johann Peter Adolf) Erman became one of the best-known and most influential Egyptologists in the world. He was trained in Leipzig and Berlin by Georg Ebers and Richard Lepsius. By 1884, he was the director of the Egyptian and Assyrian Department of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin and professor of Egyptology.

Erman was one of the “founding fathers” of modern Egyptology, for it was he who first organized ancient Egyptian into three separate phases: Old, Middle, and Late. He followed this groundbreaking theoretical division with the publication of grammars of the stages. Erman also wrote about the relationship between ancient Egyptian and Semitic languages. His talents, however, were not limited to philological theory, for he was a gifted translator and an avid scholar of all aspects of Egyptology. His many volumes of translated texts were invaluable to scholars and represented the means by which the public could understand and appreciate the wealth of Egyptian literature.

Erman wrote a monograph on the hieroglyphic inscriptions accompanying the figures decorating the walls of Old Kingdom tombs. He recognized that these texts represented the figures' actual conversations. They are, therefore, much like the speech balloons that appear near the characters in our modern cartoons. Erman's extensive knowledge of every aspect of ancient Egypt civilization was the source for his book Life in Ancient Egypt (1894), which is still in use today. His works on art, archaeology, history, and religion are equally valuable sources of information.

Erman's most ambitious project, for which he is best known, was his dictionary of the ancient Egyptian language. The Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache, produced jointly with Grapow, was in progress when Erman died in Berlin. It stands today as a fitting monument to this enormously talented individual whose innumerable contributions were instrumental in unraveling the many mysteries of ancient Egypt.


  • Erman, Adolf. Life in Ancient Egypt. London, 1894.
  • Erman, Adolf, and Hermann Grapow. Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache (1926). 7 vols. 4th ed. Berlin, 1982.

David P. Silverman