Tech the Tech: The Glyphs on the Abydos Stargate

I’ve been working on a new 3D model of the stargate. For the moment, I’ve been working in parallel on the variations seen in the original movie and the SG-1 television series, since they share nearly all of the same parts.1The Atlantis stargate, while superficially similar, actually has enough unique aspects that it makes more sense for me to build a separate model based on the parts I’ve made for the movie/SG-1 version. One of the elements I’d like to recreate is that in the original movie, the stargate on the alien planet Abydos had different symbols on its inner ring than the one on Earth. I’ve never seen any listing of these alternate symbols, so I investigated the film to see what I could figure out.

NO MATTER WHERE YOU GO, THERE YOU ARE

First, let’s talk about the point of origin symbol. For the TV series Stargate SG-1, the concept of the stargate was simplified, so that rather than each stargate having a unique set of symbols on it based on the stars as seen from its particular location in the universe, every stargate used the same symbols, based on the constellations as seen from Earth, aside from one unique symbol, which represented that particular stargate itself. Finding the symbol that represented the “point of origin” was a major plot-point in the film, though it was only occasionally touched on in the series; unique point of origin symbols were designed for other stargates just twice during the entire run of the show,2The stargate in Antarctica in “Solitudes,” and the stargate on the planet where the population was living a VR simulation in “The Gamekeeper” with other planets normally having one of the regular 38 “address” symbols substituted in their place (another reason I wanted to recreate the Abydos stargate was to have a supply of plausible stargate symbols to use as point of origin symbols for alien stargates on my SG-1 gate model).

Glowing buttons with the Antarctic stargate origin symbol, a large circle over a horizontal line, and the P7J-989 origin symbol, a series of curved lines tapering to a point, similar to an icon of a tornado or vortex
The Point of Origin symbols for the Antarctic stargate (left) and the stargate on P7J-989

In SG-1, the origin symbol for the stargate used by Earth during most of the show was carried over from the film, a triangle pointing upward at a circle, representing a pyramid with the sun directly above it.3The pyramid symbol, and all the other stargate symbols, were remade from scratch for the series stargate setpieces, and don’t precisely match the symbols used in the movie in size, orientation, or proportion. The symbol for Abydos in the series was three equilateral lines extending out from a center point, with two triangles flanking the vertical line.

The Giza stargate symbol, an upward-pointing triangle with a small circle above it, and the series version of the Abydos symbol, three lines radiating from a center point with
The Point of Origin symbols for the Giza (left) and Abydos stargates as seen on Stargate SG-1

That is similar to the way the symbol was described in the film (a pyramid with the three moons of Abydos above it), but it doesn’t quite look like the drawing of the symbol we saw in the film, which consisted of two wide, stacked triangles. And, in fact, there is a symbol of two wide, stacked triangles on the Abydos stargate in the movie. So where’d the symbol used in the TV show come from?

A chalk drawing of a pyramid, with three moons above it, each connected to the others with a line, and two insets of a symbol of a pair of stacked triangles from the Abydos stargate
The pictogram of the Abydos origin symbol seen in the movie, with inserts of the corresponding symbol on the stargate

There’s a piece of production art from the film that’s in fairly wide circulation on-line, depicting the coverstones used to encase the stargate after it was buried, and which contain the stargate address for Abydos. The outer ring also contains all 39 symbols from the stargate, except where the Earth symbol should be, there’s a symbol with three lines radiating off a central point (though, in this case, the vertical line points down, not up). This symbol actually does appear on the stargate in the movie, in the opening scene where it’s unearthed in 1920s Egypt.

A production diagram of the coverstones used in the original Stargate film, detailing the center disc containing the address to Abydos, as well as a series of wedges which form two outer rings; a message in heirogyphics, and the 39 symbols on the stargate.
Production plan diagram of the coverstones encasing the stargate in the original movie. Note the alternate Earth symbol near the bottom of the coverstones
The front face of the stargate as it is lifted out of the pit it was buried in. Several symbols are visible, including the original symbol for Earth
The Giza stargate being excavated in the prologue of the movie. The alternate Earth symbol is visible near the top, two symbols to the left of the main chevron

My suspicion is that at some point in the production of the film, the “Earth” symbol was altered to make it more obvious that it was the same symbol under the cartouche containing the Abydos address (with the side effect of making the people who weren’t Daniel Jackson look much, much stupider for not realizing it). I’ve heard anecdotally that there were other elements added to the “unlocking the stargate” sequence to make it more obvious it was connected through space to a different planet, and wasn’t taking people back in time to ancient Egypt, though it’s difficult to guess the extent of that without knowing more about the details of the filming.

The series version of the Abydos symbol appears in three places in the SG-1 series; on a laptop in the premiere episode, where it is shown on the Abydos stargate (oddly, when we see the Abydos stargate directly earlier in the episode, it has the Earth symbol on it, as does every stargate throughout the run of the show4According to this post from the Children of MacGyver fan group, which has built a replica of the SG-1 version of the gate based on pieces of the originals sold at auction, an alternate glyph panel with the Abydos symbol was made, but as far as I can tell, it was never used on-screen. Even in the image of the Abydos glyph seen on the laptop screen in the pilot, it’s not using this panel, since this one has the center line pointing up, not down. It’s possible it was used in a later episode visiting Abydos, or the production considered modifying the stargate setpiece when visiting other planets but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.), and upside-down, in the same orientation it had during the opening scene of the movie on the Earth stargate. Second, it’s a standard part of the stargate symbol font used on the SGC’s computers, so it appears sometimes in lists of addresses or cycling displays of stargate symbols on screens. And it appears on the Dial Home Devices which control stargates, though without the two flanking triangles; during the series, that button is used both for Abydos and, on the rare occasion the Earth stargate is using a DHD, Earth. It’s also a permanent part of the DHD setpiece, so it’s always there, even on planets that aren’t Earth (even on the two occasions I mentioned above, the custom origin symbols were added to the DHD in addition to the Earth/Abydos button that was already on it).

A button on the Dial Home Device used in Stargate SG-1, with three lines radiating off a center point, the vertical line topped with a square
The key on the DHD setpiece used for both the Giza stargate and Abydos in the series

I don’t know how this mix-up occurred, with a discarded version of the Earth symbol being mistaken for the Abydos symbol during the production of the SG-1 premiere, but I have a guess. 

This is entirely speculative, but I believe there were at least two stargates built for the film; one that was used for the excavation scene at the beginning of the movie, and one that was immobile and rigged to have the inner ring rotate and the chevrons open and close that was used for the interior scenes on Earth and Abydos. It’s possible a third stargate was made for Abydos, but I strongly suspect the Earth sets were instead dismantled when filming completed, and the Abydos gateroom was rebuilt around the ’gate (something that was done from time to time on SG-1, as well). While it was never seen spinning or with the chevrons locking, the Abydos gate was seen with the inner ring in two different orientations, and with the chevrons open and closed at different points in the movie, suggesting it was built to move, so it makes sense that it was the same setpiece, since it’s never actually shown moving in the film and building it from scratch with that capability would be a waste of effort (unless a dialing sequence on Abydos was planned at some point, but ultimately omitted).

The story goes that when production began on Stargate SG-1, they tried to find the original stargate, but it was too badly damaged from being stored outside for three or four years to be usable, though the production team was able to take molds of the original setpiece and use it to make two new ones (a permanent one with a rotating ring in the Stargate Command set, and a portable one which could be easily disassembled and set up on location or in other sets). I’m guessing the damaged stargate they found was the portable one from the beginning of the movie, and not the one from the interior sets which was built to animate. That stargate had the original version of the Earth symbol on it, and someone saw it, didn’t recognize it from the scenes of the Earth gate being dialed, and concluded it must’ve been the Abydos symbol, since it was the only one that didn’t match the production diagrams they had of the constellation symbols on the Earth stargate. This was before DVDs or Blu-Rays, so even if they were looking for the Abydos symbol in the movie itself, they probably wouldn’t have been able to find it on a videotaped copy of the film, and there’s no reason to think they’d be looking that hard, since “each stargate has 39 unique symbols” was an idea that wasn’t being carried forward.

THE ABYDOS STARGATE GLYPHS

There’s one other reason I think the Earth and Abydos stargates were the same setpiece in the movie; aside from the double-pyramid origin symbol, each symbol on the Abydos gate is a symbol from the Earth gate with part of it removed (the symbols in the movie were recessed, so it would’ve been easy to fill them in partially and then repaint them to cover the seams), or completely unmodified. The double-pyramid replaces the Earth origin symbol, so everything fits together very cleanly using the familiar ordering of symbols as a guide. I’ve made a chart detailing my findings, but the high-level summary is that of 39 symbols on the stargate, the Abydos gate has 1 new symbol, seven that are unchanged, thirteen that are modified in some way, and eighteen that aren’t visible in the film.

The chart also contains the symbols as I’ve recreated for my model, in Earth and Abydos versions. For the seventeen symbols that aren’t visible, I’ve modified them in similar ways to how the ones that are visible were changed, even for the smallest and simplest symbols, which were usually left unmodified in the examples I can see.

If any further sources of information, such as additional pre-production planning diagrams or behind-the-scenes photos emerge, I’ll revise the model and this list, but for now, I think this is as good as it gets.

From left to right, the way the stargate symbols appear on the coverstone plans, on the Earth stargate in the film, my model of the Earth stargate, the Abydos stargate in the film, and my model of the Abydos stargate

Finally, here are a couple work-in-progress shots of my new stargate model using the above symbols.

1 The Atlantis stargate, while superficially similar, actually has enough unique aspects that it makes more sense for me to build a separate model based on the parts I’ve made for the movie/SG-1 version.
2 The stargate in Antarctica in “Solitudes,” and the stargate on the planet where the population was living a VR simulation in “The Gamekeeper”
3 The pyramid symbol, and all the other stargate symbols, were remade from scratch for the series stargate setpieces, and don’t precisely match the symbols used in the movie in size, orientation, or proportion.
4 According to this post from the Children of MacGyver fan group, which has built a replica of the SG-1 version of the gate based on pieces of the originals sold at auction, an alternate glyph panel with the Abydos symbol was made, but as far as I can tell, it was never used on-screen. Even in the image of the Abydos glyph seen on the laptop screen in the pilot, it’s not using this panel, since this one has the center line pointing up, not down. It’s possible it was used in a later episode visiting Abydos, or the production considered modifying the stargate setpiece when visiting other planets but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.